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A Quaker View of Marriage

Simon Beard explores why Quakers are fighting for equal marriage and against the Government

The Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers as we are commonly known, is campaigning for marriage equality and against the Government's current suggestion that only civil marriages should be permitted between two people of the same gender. This has been our position since 2009. However, it reflects a long history of tension between the Quaker view of Marriage and that of the state.

Ask any Quaker to explain our position on marriage and it is highly likely that they will mention some version of a famous quote from the early and influential Quaker George Fox:

“For the right joining in marriage is the work of the Lord only, and not the priests or magistrates; for it is God’s ordinance and not man’s and therefore Friends cannot consent that they should join them together: for we marry none; it is the Lord’s work, and we are but witnesses.”

This sentiment is still reflected in many aspects of the Quaker marriage procedure. For one thing, we are unique amongst Christian denominations in holding that each person present at a marriage ceremony plays an equal role. There are people appointed to ensure that all technical procedures are carried out correctly, but the marriage is performed by the community together. As a result, Quaker marriage certificates contain the signatures of all those present and are often hung on the walls of people's homes. My own marriage certificate has over 120 names, including thumb prints from children too young to write.

Another way in which this sentiment is reflected is in the fact that all marriages are 'tested' by a specially appointed 'meeting for clearness'. Once approved, however, Quakers continue to refuse to allow for their marriages to be registered by magistrates and have, since the 18th century, retained the right to register their own marriages. This is a privilege otherwise only enjoyed by the Church of England and Jews, and it has been retained in part through the scrupulous attention to correct procedure and record keeping for which Quakers are justly proud.

As these examples should show, marriage is something that Quakers take very seriously, so why are we seeking to change the legal definition of it? Simply put, we do not see marriage as defined by the law, but rather as a purely religious act. When Quakers marry people they are witnessing the work of God in the world, and are guided only by their understanding of what God wants of us. When Quakers, collectively and unanimously, decided to start marrying same sex couples, and to seek legal permission to perform and register these marriages in the same way as we do already, it was as a response not merely to our long standing testimony of equality, but our belief that God is bringing together people of the same sex in the same way as couples of opposite sexes, which we understand as marriage.

This will sound radical to many I am sure, especially to many Christians who would deny that possibility of God ever joining together people of the same sex in marriage. However, it is not the first time that Quakers' religious convictions have lead them to reject conventional Christian views of marriage. Right from our earliest times, Quaker's have opposed the view that marriage is an asymmetrical relation between men and women. Quaker marriage vows are the same for men and women and Quakers are as opposed to the idea of husbands owning wives as we are to that of masters owning slaves. Indeed when there has been segregation of the sexes amongst Quakers in the past it has been on the grounds that wives should be protected from any lingering feeling of obedience they may feel to their husbands when considering issues in public. In this, far earlier sense, Quakers promoted a vision of equal marriage that is now widely accepted amongst Christians and Non-Christians alike, yet it was a view that faced much opposition in the past.

If the Government refuses to allow for the legal registration of same sex marriages, then this will be a setback for Quakers and many others. However, if the government decides that same sex marriages are possible, but prevents religious groups from performing them, I believe it would be profoundly unjust, and a disaster for us. Whilst many see the issue of same sex marriage as one of equality and fairness, for Quakers it is a matter of religious freedom and our collective yearning to publicly witness the acts of God as we see them in the world around us.

The British Quaker’s official paper on same sex marriage can be found here.

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Detailed Summary

Date Published
18 July 2012

Issue(s)
British Civic Life

About The Authors

Simon Beard

Simon is a research student in the Department of Philosophy of the London School of Economics. He has previously worke...