Quakers and sexuality

These extracts are from a variety of Quaker sources.

III and IV are extracts from Towards a Quaker View of Sex – an essay by a group of Friends, published in 1963 and is available from The Quaker Book Shop, Friends House, 177 Euston Road, London NW1 2BJ. (Tel: +44.171.663.1030).

I – II, IV – XI and XIII are extracts from the Book of Christian Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain (1995) and is available from The Quaker Book Shop as above.

XII – extract from This We Can Say – Talking Honestly about Sex (1995) from Nine Friends Press and is available from the Quaker Bookshop as above.

I. Human sexuality is a divine gift, forming part of the complex union of body, mind and spirit which is our humanity. The sexual expression of a loving relationship can bring delight, joy and fulfilment. For many, a life-long faithful relationship gives the opportunity for the greatest personal development and for the experience of sexual love which is spiritual in its quality and is deeply mysterious. Others may find fulfilment in different ways. Whatever the moral climate, a sexual relationship is never purely a private matter without consequences for wider human relationships. Its effect on the community, and especially on children, must always be considered. Sexual morality is an area of challenge and opportunity for living our testimonies to truth, non-violence, integrity and love. In our Advices we are reminded: No relationship can be a right one which makes use of another person through selfish desire.

II. In the journey through life, as we grow and mature, live singly or in a relationship with others our sexuality will grow, develop, and change. Our sexual needs, drives, and fantasies will be different at different stages in our lives – as a teenager, a partner, a parent, an older person. Our sexuality is, throughout, an expression of ourselves. It is an integral part of our humanity, and as such, is subject to the leading of the spirit. We should, therefore, give thanks for our sexuality and seek to nurture it both within ourselves and in our loving relationships.

III. The word “homosexuality” does not denote a course of conduct, but a state of affairs, the state of loving one’s own, not the opposite, sex; it is a state of affairs in nature. One should no more deplore “homosexuality” than left-handedness. One can condemn or prohibit acts of course; that is another matter. But one cannot condemn or prohibit homosexuality as such.

IV. It is the nature and quality of a relationship that matters: one must not judge it by its outward appearance but by its inner worth. Homosexual affection can be as selfless as heterosexual affection, and therefore we cannot see that it is in some way morally worse. Homosexual affection may of course be an emotion which some find aesthetically disgusting, but one cannot base Christian morality on a capacity for such disgust. Neither are we happy with the thought that all homosexual behaviour is sinful: motive and circumstances degrade or ennoble any act. We see no reason why the physical nature of a sexual act should be the criterion by which the question whether or not it is moral should be decided. An act which (for example) 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 same criteria seem to us to apply whether a relationship is heterosexual or homosexual.

V. We affirm the love of God for all people, whatever their sexual orientation, and our conviction that sexuality is an important part of human beings as created by God, so that to reject people on the grounds of their sexual orientation is a denial of God’s creation. We realise that our sexual nature can be a cause of great pain as well as great joy. It is up to each one of us to recognise this pain, to reach out to others as best we can, and to reflect on our own shortcomings in loving others. We need to overcome our fear of what is strange or different, because we are all vulnerable; we all need love.

VI. We recognise that many homosexual people play a full part in the life of the Religious Society of Friends. There are homosexual couples who consider themselves to be married and believe that this is as much a testimony of divine grace as a heterosexual marriage. They miss the public recognition of this in a religious ceremony even though this could have no legal significance. We have found the word “marriage” difficult but we are clear that we have a responsibility to support all members of our meetings and to uphold them in their relationships. We can expect that some committed homosexual couples will ask their meetings for a celebration of their commitment to each other. Meetings already have the means whereby meetings for worship can be held for this purpose but we recognise that many find this a difficult matter. The acceptance of homosexuality distresses some Friends. Meetings may well find it easier to consider this matter in connection with specific relationships rather than in the abstract, but we believe that meetings may be helped if something of the exercise of this meeting (Meeting for Sufferings) is shared with them.

VII. Jessie and her companion Mary were among a handful coming to Bewdley Meeting in the late 1950s when it was an allowed once-a-month-in-summer meeting for worship. When this small group of Friends was determined on a renewed preparative meeting, Jessie and Mary would be there early on Sunday pushing a murderously heavy hand-mower amongst the graves recently uncovered from three or four feet of grass and nettles. Over the years her contribution to the home she shared with Mary was constant and faithful. It was a partnership and Jessie’s support for Mary’s dedicated work in school and in Guides seemed as unquestioning as Mary’s was as the second pair of hands in Jessie’s flower and vegetable garden. This was Jessie’s real world…..But she always left the greenhouse or the bushes graciously for a caller at any time. “Here’s ……” Mary would call from her part of the garden, and no-one felt unwelcome. Their cakes and Jessie’s home made bread (not to mention gifts of vegetables, flowers and fruit!) made it hard for us to stay away.

VIII. Parents will normally expect their children to be heterosexual, to provide them with “2.1 grandchildren” and share proudly in the conventional marriage pattern. Hence the shock of knowledge of homosexuality can be very real, and acceptance and love are not often an immediate reaction. Yet the gay person desparately needs this reassurance and understanding, and longs for the parents to embrace them, and to extend this feeling to their partners as well; to be accepted and treated in some happy way that would be accorded to a heterosexual relationship. For the gay person, coming to terms with the knowledge that they are gay in a world that is mainly heterosexual is difficult. The way is fraught with bigoted people, barriers of discrimination, hostility, sneers and even violence. Above all they need support, love and complete acceptance in a joyful, secure understanding from those close to them outside the gay community, from friends and relations, families including sisters and brothers, and, in the case of Quakers, from Friends and meetings.

IX. God’s love is ministered to most people through the love of their fellow human beings. Sometimes that love is expressed physically or sexually. For me and my lover, John, that love is expressed through our homosexual relationship. In common with other people who do not have children to raise, we are free from those demands to nurture other vital things. This includes our meeting and the wider Society of Friends. We both draw on our love a great deal to give us the strength and courage to do the things God calls us to. Our spiritual journey is a shared one. Sometimes the pitcher needs to be taken back to the fountain. In order to grow, I need my church to bless and uphold not just me as an individual, but also our relationship.

X. Andrew’s dying was messy. We had to live with increasing weakness and incontinence, with pain, and with the irritations and discomforts of so many infections. We had to fight through it all, still holding hands, still loving. Such things are hard, but few dyings are easy. Struggling with pain, fighting fear, mourning losses are indeed part of living. These do not make living with AIDS unique. Let me say that we have met only love from Friends – yet there are some to whom I have still not told the whole truth about Andrew’s death. There are times in Meeting for Worship when I have sat shaking with the call to minister from our experience of living with HIV and AIDS, yet I have held back. I have held back because I have been afraid. Afraid that Friends will not hear my ministry for that word AIDS; afraid I might break the unity of meeting or might break friendships I cherish. I still do not know if these fears are justified, but they are real. Facing AIDS can be a chance to grow in the things of God, but it has also torn lives apart. I loved Andrew. He died after living with AIDS. These are facts of my life. They are facts of the life of the Religious Society of Friends. In our living and loving and dying I have found much to cherish as well as much that hurts, found growth as well as loss. My hope is that together we can share these things, together hold them in worship, prayer and love.

XI. I was once asked by a young man with end-stage AIDS whether he would be acceptable to God, since he was a homosexual. I shall never forget the look on his face. I could not answer that depth of despair with pious phrases about the inward light or that of God in everyone. It is impossible to address AIDS without addressing sexuality. Being taught that one’s innate bodily responses and sexuality are sinful does not give one a good basis for building loving, creative, intimate relationships. This is a problem for some heterosexuals too. Very many people with illnesses such as HIV and AIDS feel alienated, outcasts, cut off from normal human society. In the face of losses, actual or potential, which pile up in the course of illness – loss of health, of strength, of work, of sex, of income, of friends, of home, of independence, of choice, of life itself – one can quickly feel stripped of everything that gives one any sense of self worth. It is but a short step from this to feeling that AIDS is God’s punishment. Yet the gospel (good news) is that enlightened Christian teaching is about a God who suffers alongside us, and helps us to transcend loss and suffering.

XII. The way I met him is a most unexpected and wonderful example of God’s loving care in my life. We fell in love and discovered Quakers at about the same time. Shortly afterwards there was a wedding in my Meeting House. We did not know the couple, but we were welcomed to attend by a wise elder and by the groom. We sat and gave thanks for the gift of each other, cried a few tears and wondered at the beauty of a Quaker wedding. We held hands at the back of someone else’s wedding, and there to our surprise we too “very sensibly felt the Lord with us and joining us”.The sense of it has remained with us to this day. I’m not sure whether we want a wedding at this stage in our life together. The inward spiritual reality of marriage we have already. I do not know what an outward and visible sign would add; but many couples, including Quakers, have found that they are upheld by the overt recognition and support of their community, which is shown in a Meeting for Worship or a civil or religious marriage ceremony. “The simple Quaker wedding is the most natural expression of the way of life in which we believe”. I hope that some day those gay couples who may find it “of good service” will be able to have a Quaker wedding of their own. (Note: Meetings for Worship for the Celebration of Commitment of Same Gender couples now take place).

XIII. Respect the wide diversity among us in our lives and relationships. Refrain from making prejudiced judgments about the life journeys of others. Do you foster the spirit of mutual understanding and forgiveness which our discipleship asks of us? Remember that each one of us is unique, precious, a child of God.