There is great debate within the Quaker community on whether or not meetings should recognize and affirm marriage equality for LGBT members. Although a majority of members within the Religious Society of Friends are Evangelical Quakers, there is a growing population of Liberal Quakers around the world and in the United States that believe it is time to accept and cherish the lives of LGBT individuals at local meetings.
DC Quaker Joan Spinner married her wife in January after Maryland’s marriage equality law took effect. Spinner looks forward to celebrating the actual wedding ceremony with her local meeting later this Spring.
“Being Quaker is a combination of faith, community, and process. The faith is knowing that the Light is in each of us. It is a community that shares that belief, it is a community that tries to support its members in the quiet of meeting to hear the Light speak,” Spinner explained to 429Magazine. “It is a way to live, to make personal decisions as well as corporate decisions in the family or community.”
There are three main branches within the Quaker tradition. The majority, Evangelical Quakers, split into Friends United Meeting (FUM) and Evangelical Friends International (EFI), which makes up 89% of Quakers. Most of the remaining 11% are Liberal Quakers who identify themselves within the Friends General Conference (FGC).
“FGC has loved us, protected us, accepted us, and been willing to marry us and take our marriages under the care of their monthly meetings. They worked to understand and help carry the dangers and pains we faced. They nurtured us, helped us grow, healed when we hurt and celebrated us,” Spinner continued.
Quakers in general are known for their refusal to participate in war, their non-violent protests, plain dress, service in social justice projects, and in historical times for their opposition to slavery. On a whole, they believe in adhering to values of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship (SPICES) and the truth that there is a divine light within every living being.
Although Evangelical Quaker meetings for worship look and feel very similar to Christian programmed worship, the waiting worship of Liberal Quakers is a very different, unique experience.
Individuals gather together to share the divine within silence. There is never a plan for how meeting will go. When an individual feels the need to speak he or she rises to share their message. The community lets a few minutes pass before someone else has their turn to speak.
More differences arise as Evangelical Quakers believe in a conservative, Quaker understanding of Christianity while Liberal Quakers reject religious symbolism all together and remain non-creedal. This means Liberal Quakers are completely receptive to a wide range of religious faiths.
While Evangelical Quakers live by ethical code and find the Bible to be primary in understanding divinity, Liberal Quakers interpret sacred texts of many religions with a hermeneutical lens considering the Bible to be secondary to one’s own personal, direct experience with the divine.
Philadelphia Quaker Jeff Keith, like Spinner, identified with the liberal branch of FGC as they are open and accepting of LGBT community members, but Keith mentioned some difficulties local meetings have faced.
“I absolutely believe in freedom of conscience on these issues. However, I am thankful that our own Philadelphia Yearly Meeting decided a few years ago that the vast majority supported same-sex marriage,” Keith told 429Magazine. “It was kind of sad to me that when our own local meeting decided to do same-sex marriages, a few people felt that they just hated the idea, and had to leave the meeting.”
“I have a lot of friends in FUM,” said Keith regarding his Evangelical Quaker friends.
“I understand that most of their pastoral yearly meetings do not tolerate acceptance of sexual minorities. One large yearly meeting in Indiana recently decided to expel several local congregations that were too friendly to LGBTQ folks.”
As gay couples across the country hope for marriage equality and protection on a federal level, it seems that final legislation might be left to be dealt with on a state-by-state basis. Within the Quaker tradition, Liberal Quakers wish to retain their non-creedal system.
“The appeal of Quakers to me is that fundamental belief that one seeks, tests, and follows their own leading. That is why meetings generally have to be small to get anything done. For a system like that to work there has to be a level of intimacy between and among members,” Spinner said.
Any form of enforced dogmatism directly opposes Quaker values, which leaves even Liberal Quakers to believe LGBT acceptance should be found on a meeting-by-meeting basis, through conversations and discussion by and through the whole community at local levels.
“One of the great attractions of Quakerism is the process we treasure of consensus. What we mean by that word is not unanimity but a ‘sense of the meeting’ that has come as a body to accept the decisions made by the whole group,” concluded Spinner.