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
“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
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.
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.