There are two organisations in particular whose philosophy and outlook on life mean a lot to me. One is the Religious Society of Friends, often called Quakers. The other is the Liberal Democrats.
One characteristic which they have in common is solid foundations of belief, but a willingness to review their attitudes in the light of changing circumstances and understanding.
Quakers still return to the teachings of their founder, George Fox, and other early Friends, as well as more recent Quakers. We ask what we can learn from their writings, in the same way as we may turn to the Bible, in a searching not dogmatic way. Quakers generally believe that there is “that of God” within everyone, and we can all relate to that ‘light’ within us without needing priests or others to intercede. As a result Quakers are very aware of fairness and equality issues.
The constitution of the Liberal Democrats starts with a preamble which describes the philosophy of the party: “The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.” Party policies build on this to create a range of practical actions seeking to achieve this vision.
At present there is something else which which makes these two groups stand out. For neither is it central to their beliefs, but it is a clear symbol of their application of their commitment to fairness: equal marriage.
Quakers have been increasingly open to people’s understanding of different relationships since the early 1960s. From tolerance of homosexuality, British Quakers moved through acceptance to celebration – with the first ‘Meetings for Commitment’ in the 1990s. In 2009, Britain Yearly Meeting formally called for legislation to be amended to allow same sex marriages to take place in Quaker Meetings for Worship. There is more about this on the Quaker website.
Meanwhile Lib Dem peer Lord Lester and Lib Dem MP Steve Webb had pressed for the introduction of civil partnerships for same sex couples before Labour took up this work in what became the 2004 Bill. And in 2010 the Lib Dem Party Conference voted to support equal marriage.
The introduction of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill this year has caused both excitement and consternation.
- For Quakers, it feels like the steady evolution of understanding, and is being quietly welcomed – it provides equality for a small minority of our members who had previously been excluded. Liberal Jews and Unitarians probably feel similarly.
- For Liberal Democrats, it is another piece of party policy which is moving forward at a faster pace than we could have hoped had we not been in government.
- For some members of mainstream churches it is, however, a source of great concern, some saying it conflicts with the scriptures, goes against God’s wishes and that it undermines marriage between a man and a woman.
I respect these and similar concerns, but think that the Bill steers an acceptable course through them and the issues of fairness and freedom.
- Most importantly, all the authoritative legal advice I’ve heard or read says that neither individuals nor organisations can be forced to conduct same sex marriages against their wishes through the present wording of the Bill.
- Secondly, if people believe in an all-seeing, all-knowing God, then He will ‘know’ who is being married, and will not give his blessing if he doesn’t ‘approve’. George Fox wrote about this in 1669 “The right joining in marriage is the work of the Lord only… for we marry none; it is the Lord’s work, and we are but witnesses.”
- Finally, if marriage is good, then why not share it more widely? Society can be strengthened by gay and lesbian couples forming stable and commited relationships as much as mixed-sex couples.
From what I can tell, the emotion of same-sex love is no different to love between a man and a woman. The desire for shared commitment, with public recognition and endorsement is the same. And for those who have a religious belief, it is understandable that they feel excluded if they cannot feel their relationship has God’s blessing too.
I am reminded of the passage towards the end of the last of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia chronicles – “The Last Battle”. In this Emeth, a Calormene, reports on his meeting with Aslan, the lion, whom he describes as ‘the Glorious One’ and realises that all his life he has been worshipping the wrong god. Aslan explains: “I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none that is not vile can be done to him.” So if
There is a more about my views on this subject in an article on The Independent’s website.