British Quakers and same-sex marriage: part one

Very soon after this decision was taken I had the thought: this is likely to mean that Quakers throughout the country are called on to explain themselves to other Christian groups (yeah yeah I know) and that BYM representatives are called on to explain themselves to other Quakers. Most of our challenging conversations are likely to be with Christian groups (although there is another set of challenging conversations about the law, to which I wouldn’t attempt to contribute). So we need to make sure we’ve thought about how to explain this in terms that make sense within a wider Christian community. So we could do with some Quaker theological resources on same-sex marriage. So someone ought to produce some. So – oh, hang about, I’m in danger of talking myself into a job.

I was developing these ideas on the basis that this would be, in some people’s eyes, a controversial and “radical” decision. But then coming home I started to think: I should not lose sight of the conversations I had with Friends at the beginning of YMG, about how this was not a particularly big deal, and should not be a big deal. As I sit down to try to put some thoughts together on the subject, I am still caught between these two responses – “this is a major cause worth defending” and “explain to me once again why it’s really worth any of my time to go over this old ground?”

I’ll throw together a few thoughts here towards possible articles or discussion papers. (Please note that I’m asserting my right to be recognised as the author; in the unlikely event that you want to use any of it, please treat it as you would any copyright material). They are the thoughts of one Christian Quaker about what’s going on here.

The Bible
It’s too easy to set up this whole argument as “for liberals [including Quakers] experience trumps the Bible, for conservatives the Bible trumps experience”. Quakers at YM were reading and reflecting on the Bible; there were Bible studies related to same-sex relationships, and there was plenty of ministry that took the form of biblical interpretation. I say that, in the knowledge that at least some Quakers would be unhappy if they were told that they MUST read and reflect on the Bible. But when I look at Quaker faith and practice (and Quaker Faith and Practice) I see what Mike Higton helpfully terms a “biblical settlement” – a set of standard patterns of reading and interpreting the Bible that become established within a particular community and shape the way its members see everything (including the Bible). To give the obvious central examples – when we talk about “the Light” or call ourselves “Friends” we aren’t directly referring to the Fourth Gospel – but we are drawing on a long-established reading of John’s Gospel that forms the way we live, worship, believe, and read texts.
To understand and explain what British Quakers are doing in relation to same-sex marriage (when talking to people who want to talk about the Bible) it might be worth uncovering some of our reading assumptions and reading methods – some key features of our biblical settlement. A few points that come to mind:

Our readings prioritise truth. Truth encompasses not only factual accuracy, but also (more importantly) the coherence of our words with our actions and with our experiential knowledge. We seek truth, in this sense, as a community and for individuals. (Like most key Quaker concepts, it’s Fourth Gospel – you ‘do the truth’). So we reject interpretations that would result in living ‘untruth’ – making claims we don’t intend to live up to, denying possibilities that we have seen realised in practice, and so forth. For example, we aren’t going to accept readings of the Bible that say “same-sex relationships are necessarily abusive and destructive”. We know that’s not true. And we aren’t going to accept readings that say “heterosexuality is the human norm and homosexuality is an aberration we can ignore”, because that would deny the reality of gay and lesbian people (and hence both force these individuals to “live a lie” and make the whole community “live a lie”).

Our readings are particularly attentive to the victims of bad readings – partly because many of us are victims of past and present bad readings. When we read, we often read with an awareness of wounds and a desire to heal them. You could say that we assume that the word of God is really meant to be good news to all people, and particularly to the poor – to victims of violence or injustice, to people with no power and no voice, to people on the receiving end of the world’s wrongs. If we are not hearing and speaking that kind of good news, we are not hearing and speaking God’s word properly.

Our readings assume that social and political transformation form part of God’s work in the world. Our readings also tend to prioritise the future-that-begins-now, to look for how the texts shape and energise an ongoing transformation of our lives and communities – rather than, for example, what they tell us about how things are and how they always have been. That might explain why we have said so little, in all our discussions, about the ‘naturalness’ or otherwise of homosexuality and heterosexuality.

Hmm, I thought I had more than three. Edits to follow…