‘Fruits of the Spirit’: A Meditation on Britain Yearly Meeting Gathering 2009

In the light of Rhodri Roberts’ great little article ‘My Faith and Being Gay’ I’ve decided to re-post some thoughts I had about the momentous Yearly Meeting at York in 2009. I hope Friends find some food for thought in it. The text first appeared in the Carlton Hill (Leeds Central) Newsletter a week after the gathering.

  1. The Voice of a Friend

I am writing this with the shaking voice and heart-felt tears of an elderly Friend still ringing in my ears.  Among the many voices I heard at BYM in York this year, hers will remain with me always. Her words seemed to encompass the lives of so many people I met; all of them seeking to live out their diverse relationships, straight, gay and bi, with integrity, truth and love.  She spoke movingly of the fact that many years ago she and her husband (the clerk of their local meeting) were unable to get married in the manner of Friends. Instead they had to be married in a registry office. The denial of this wish had evidently scared her deeply, a fact made more painful by the death of her husband years later. She remarked with intense regret that now she would never know a Friends’ wedding with the man she loved. Her voice cracked as she exclaimed how she couldn’t in all conscience deny the validity of the same-sex couples who held the same heartfelt wish. Like all good Quakers, she put her pain into the service of the community, seeking the healing of others, even if not, sadly, healing for herself. In this sense, what she shared was not simply a personal story, it was undoubtedly ministry. It called us to acknowledge that sometimes our discerning community can suffer from a ‘hardening of heart’, a slowness to practice what love requires of us.

For me her story illustrates the real crux of the matter. Ultimately as Quakers, we are not called to fill ‘God’s shoes’ and declare who is and who is not marriageable. This, George Fox would warn us, was the error of the ‘priests and magistrates’. It is God who marries, not us. We are called to bare whiteness and uphold what God has done in the lives of loving partners. And how do we come to recognise Spirit-led partnerships? Jesus’ answer is simple; ‘by their fruit you will know them’, [Matthew 7:16]. According to scripture these fruits are ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and temperance’ [Galatians 5:22-23]. If the relationship of two Friends exemplifies a measure of these spiritual qualities, then who are we to say that this is not marriage? Surely we cannot bar committed couples from Quaker marriage on the grounds of gender? For as William Pen noted in his Fruits of Solitude, ‘Sexes make no Difference; since in Souls there is none[1]’. To extend Penn’s essential insight therefore, Marriage is not just about two bodies, but a meeting of companions, spirit to spirit, mind to mind. To treat the partnerships of same-sex couples joined in such a bond as less than marriage is surely to resist the Spirit, which must be the closest we Friends have to blasphemy.

  1. A Learning Community- “Come now, let us reason together,”
    says the LORD, [Isaiah 1:18]

In York I sensed an expectant community, willing to experience the challenges and joys of new light on the question of committed same-sex relationships.  This is not to say that some at BYM did not express doubt and confusion regarding the right way forward. Some Friends still thought of marriage as a heterosexual institution, while others were concerned about the well-being of children in same-sex partnerships. Yet on the whole I saw a Society of Friends which was learning to cherish the relationships of its gay, lesbian and bisexual members, something I found personally reassuring. The decision later that week to revise the relevant sections of Quaker Faith and Practice as well as a commitment to complete marriage equality for same-sex couples doubtless grew from this same openness. It will I am sure take time for some Friends to come to terms with the step forward we made at York, yet I believe iced hearts will soon melt as more personal stories are exchanged and our common humanity is realised. This is true, not just for Friends who have had some reservations, but also for those Friends who have been passionate advocates of same-sex marriage from the beginning.

People from of all sides of this issue must continue to meet together in love and fellowship, seeking to learn from ‘that of God’ within one another. In such sharing can we, to quote Jonathan Sacks, ‘learn to live together? Can we make space for one another…Can we find in the human “thou” a fragment of the Divine “Thou”? Can we recognize God’s image in one who is not in my image?’[2] The quality of our response to these spiritual questions will determine the real value of what happened at York for individual meetings and the diverse members and attenders within them. We must be thankful that although we have had our passionate debates in the Friend and elsewhere, we have not faced the same internal splits evident in other Christian confessions, but let us never be complacent. As a ‘priesthood of all believers’ we have a responsibility to all Friends regardless of their feelings on this matter. From here on let us continue in a spirit of continued listening and empathy.

  1. A final snapshot from YorkMy lover is already on his way to his garden,
    to browse among the flowers, touching the colours and forms.
    I am my lover’s and my lover is mine.
    He caresses the sweet-smelling flowers [Song of Songs 6:2-3]

Picture the scene. The rain has just stopped and the grass of York’s university campus is glimmering with a million tiny droplets. Ducks attempt to paddle in rapidly evaporating water, quaking noisily. Across a freshly cut lawn walk my friend and his partner of more than two years. They stroll close, inhabiting that almost imperceptible bubble made from the warmth and closeness of mutual intimacy. Their eyes meet; my friend’s gentle hand correcting his boyfriend’s skewed collar, a little act of care met with a smile. In that wordless exchange a love invisible is interwoven. Maybe both of them are destined to stay with one another for the rest of their days; maybe there will be a time when the tides of life will lead them to new pastures or new loves. Whatever awaits them, as Friends we should have the courage to recognise such a bond for what is it, the carnal instrument through which God’s flourishing grace finds supreme expression. The dark rich soil of human relationship is a nourishing resource for our Quaker community. The richness of gay, lesbian and bisexual relationships, perhaps some of the most nourishing soil of all; tinted as they so often are with the potent personal alchemy of struggle transmuted into loving affirmation. Recognising such relationships enriches everyone. If we as Quakers till that wonderful earth; water it and relish it, any seeds of community we sow, no matter how small, will grow and strengthen one and all. What did Jesus say the Kingdom of Heaven was like? “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” [Matthew 13:31-2]. So it will be with us, if we truly cherish the lives and loves of others, but if we ignore the field, what can grow except thorns?

[1] William Penn, Some Fruits of Solitude and Maxims 1682, Modern History Sourcebook, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1682penn-solitude.html

[2] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, (Continuum 2002), p 17


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