The decision yesterday by the Quakers to perform marriage ceremonies for gay couples was welcomed by campaigners such as Peter Tatchell as a trailblazing. But it is not the first time that the Religious Society of Friends has gone out in front. The Quakers not only began the British campaign against the slave trade but they could also lay claim to have invented modern campaigning, with the publication of a diagram showing the cross section of a ship in which slaves lay shoulder to shoulder. So too did they pick up the cudgels of prison reform and the treatment of the mentally ill. Banned by law from politics and the universities, many Quakers went into commerce and industry, where philanthropists such as Joseph Rowntree provided his workers with modern benefits such as free education, medical care and a pension fund. If Quakers make woolly believers (a majority believe in God but all refuse a creed to which they must subscribe), they are crystal clear on behaviour. They value the experience of inspiration and share it in largely silent worship. The Quaker church will now ask the government to change the law to allow its officers to register same-sex partnerships as marriages. But legal recognition is secondary. The exploration of radical concepts is more important, as is the belief that there is good in everyone. As George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement wrote, from prison of course: "Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone."
It's not only the Quaker decision to recognise same-sex marriages that deserves praise, but also the way it was arrived at
Following the decision by the Religious Society of Friends on Friday to become the first historic church to say "yes" to same-sex marriages, Saturday's Guardian ran an editorial entitled In Praise of .. the Quakers. It highlighted the long history of Quaker trail-blazing in the reform of prisons and the treatment of the mentally ill, in campaigns against the slave trade, in pioneering businesses that cared for their worker, etc.
What the piece had no space to mention was Quaker decision-making. While the Anglican communion is tearing itself apart over the role and place of gay people, over 1200 Quakers managed to come to a peaceable common mind about same-sex marriage without a single vote. How did they do it?
When I worked as the BBC's religious correspondent in the 1980s, I covered numerous international and national church assemblies and news events but never Quaker ones. Why?
For a start, Quakers never sought publicity. They preferred to build peace quietly behind the scenes. Second, it was unclear anyway what they were doing at that time that was sufficiently new, interesting or significant to the general public. Thirdly, non-Quaker journalists were (and still are) banned from observing Quaker business meetings (known as meetings for worship for business). Consequently, to most journalists, their processes were, and are, a mystery.
It was only when I joined the Society of Friends some years later that I experienced the Quaker business method.
The purpose is, quite simply, to reside in the light. To allow ourselves to be led to a transcendent place of unmistakable harmony, peace and tender love. And then to live out what that has revealed about what life is like when a loving God rules over all. The role of the clerk is to ensure that necessary facts are shared at an appropriate moment, to call speakers, and towards the end to summarise the sense of the meeting in a minute which can be approved by all present.
So there is no fixing the minute later, and no divisive voting, where one set of views defeats another. If there is no agreement, the minute reflects that, acknowledges and records (if appropriate) that Friends will return the subject at a later date.
To a newcomer, the process can feel quite remarkably slow. It starts with a mostly silent meeting for worship, where people calm down, lay down what has been annoying or absorbing them in the hours beforehand, and gradually become fully present.
Lobbying is eschewed. People are encouraged to speak from personal experience, and avoid long, fancy rhetoric or debating points.
Most importantly, after each contribution, a silence is held, to allow people to reflect on and hear - what has been said. Could the work of some other assemblies both secular and religious be transformed if some of these ideas were adopted?
This week's decision to say "yes" to same-sex marriages was taken at the Society's annual meeting, which any member is free to attend. It was not taken hurriedly.
The subject was first raised at national governing level 22 years ago. In the last two years, a consultation was conducted with local meetings. And this week, the process over several days included: a major overall introduction, the sharing of the personal experience of four couples in committed relationships; and a series of smaller groups in which Friends (still in a worshipping framework) explored legal, linguistic, psychological, historical and other aspects.
For me and others present, it was a moving and powerful spirit-led process, leading to the remarkable sense of clarity and spiritual unity reflected by the final minute.
Many homosexual Friends play a full part in the life of the society. Many are in committed relationships which in every day of their lives illustrate the gifts of the spirit like love, joy, peace, tenderness, fidelity, patience and self-control.
A central insight of Friends' is "that marriage is the Lord's work, and we are but witnesses". It's no surprise that legal recognition by the state is secondary.
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