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QUAKERS IN ACTION

Quakers and Sexuality

Quaker recognition that there is that of that of God in everyone has led them at times to challenge conventional thinking about personal relationships and sexual ethics.

Quakers traditionally have no clergy to conduct their weddings. As George Fox said: "we marry none; it is the Lord's work, and we are but witnesses.” For a time, this led to the legitimacy of their marriages – and children – being called into question. In one court case in 1661, counsel asserted that ‘Quakers went together like brute beasts.’ The judge disagreed and declared the marriage lawful. When the Marriage Act of 1753 made the Anglican service the only recognised form of marriage in England, the two exceptions allowed were for Jews and Quakers.

Quakers on the whole remained conservative on matters of sexual ethics until the early part of the 20th Century. The first open discussion of sexuality by Quakers came in 1924, when a group of British Friends published, "Marriage and Parenthood: The Problem of Birth Control." This pamphlet advocated a qualified use of family planning and opposed the idea that the use of contraceptive devices promoted promiscuity.

David Mace, one of the founders of the National Marriage Council in Britain (1939), Emily Mudd, who founded the American Association of Marriage Counsellors (1942) and Mary Calderone, who founded the Sex Information and Education Council of the US (1964) were all Quakers. Quaker educators of this period advocated sex education as a way of strengthening marriage. Divorce was seen as a tragedy, but the meetings were encouraged to emphasis forgiveness and could sanction remarriage within the meeting.

In 1963, a group of British Friends published, Towards a Quaker View of Sex’. This radical look at the sexual mores defined sin as “actions that involve the exploitation of the other person” and chastity as “the total absence of exploitation.” They recognised that exploitation could occur within marriage as well as without, and called for “a morality that will enable people to find a constructive way through even the most difficult and unproductive situations.”

Much of the publicity that surrounded its publication of Towards a Quaker View of Sex focused on what it had to say about homosexuality. “An act which expresses true affection between two individuals and gives pleasure to them both does not seem to us to be sinful by reason alone of the fact that it is homosexual,” the authors wrote. Rather it should be judged by the same criterion as any heterosexual relationship.

Quakers such as Laurence Housman (1868 – 1959) had earlier campaigned actively for more toleration for homosexuals. The Quaker civil rights activist Bayard Rustin was openly gay, something that caused divisions with the civil rights leadership and with Quakers. In 1986, Rustin wrote:

“Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change… The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.”

In the UK, Harvey Gilman spoke in his 1988 Swarthmore Lecture about the difficulties of being ‘A Minority of One’ – a gay Jewish Quaker.

Liberal Quaker meetings in Australia (since 1994), Britain (since 1988), Canada (since 2003), and some parts of the US have celebrated same-sex commitments in meetings for worship and are now seeking where possible to give these the same status as a marriage between a man and a woman.

However, as for many faith groups, questions of sexuality and sexual morality continue to divide Quakers. Evangelical Friends, in the US and Africa in particular, reject liberal Quakers’ attitude to homosexuality. Indiana and Western Yearly Meetings (members of Friends United Meeting) issued a statement of "core values" which include abstinence outside of marriage, where marriage is “a monogamous relationship between one man and one woman”. Evangelical Friends Church Southwest, a yearly meeting (members of Evangelical Friends International), states in its Faith and Practice that homosexuality (like any other sexual activity outside of marriage) is “sinful in that it rejects God’s plan.”

Abortion is another issue on which Quakers struggle with difficult moral choices. For some, the Peace Testimony bars the taking of any human life. Others feel that requiring a woman to carry an unwanted child is itself an act of violence.

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