In 1663 Charles and Mary Appleby, a Quaker couple from Liskeard, Cornwall, were summoned and questioned by the mayor and eventually imprisoned in Launceston gaol. Their misdemeanour, according to the fellow Quaker who recorded the incident, was that “they would not be married according to the laws of this Kingdom”; their simple marriage ceremony had taken place (as is recorded of another couple) in “the assembly of many Friends [that is, Quakers] met together to wait upon the Lord”. Like other Quaker couples arrested and imprisoned on similar grounds, the Applebys were eventually released without charge – not before Charles had spent several weeks in “a nasty prison called the dark house”.
In 2013, with the passing of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act, Quakers received attention as one of the few religious communities who would quickly take advantage of this new development of “the laws of this Kingdom” through the recognition of same-sex marriage. Clearly, much had changed – both in the law and among Quakers. But to understand why and on what terms Quakers were able to welcome the Act, and the opportunities it offered to recognise religious marriages of same-sex couples, it is still useful to go back to the Applebys’ story.
For couples like the Applebys and for the Quaker community to which they belonged, it was indisputable on at least two counts that their marriage was valid. First, they had exchanged vows before a group of witnesses – arguably recalling a long pre-modern tradition of betrothal, and certainly, in the eyes of early Quakers, purifying marriage ceremonies by dispensing with the unnecessary accumulation of “empty forms”. Second, both the couple and the community who witnessed and celebrated their marriage believed that they acted “in the fear of the Lord” and under divine guidance. In the wider context of Quaker theology, the marriage could be seen as a sign of the inbreaking and transformative reign of God, the restoration of right relationships between God and humanity and among human beings – including, crucially, the relationship between the sexes. Marriage contributed to a renewed pattern of community in which men and women were “helps-meet in the image of God”.
The only issue for Quakers, then, was whether the governing authorities and society at large would acknowledge their marriages as genuine marriages. This was clearly a momentous issue socially and economically, but a rather trivial one theologically. Quakers took for granted that the present “order” of things, as enforced by the governing authorities, was in fact to a greater or lesser extent disordered, systematically blind or antagonistic to divine truth. The persecution of those who ”could not submit to the world’s way” in the matter of marriage ceremonies was simply one among many instances of this. So Quakers’ enacted resistance to existing norms of marriage was not a generalised rebellion against the institution of marriage, however much it looked that way to the mayor of Launceston. Still less was it a rebellion against all ordering in sexual relationships. It was a specific attempt at the right ordering of marriage – seeking to follow the guidance of God in setting marriage into order, within the wider context of God’s transforming and reconciling work.
Now, Quakers’ commitment to discerning and following the movements of the Holy Spirit in history –particularly in the history on the underside of power, the history of Charles Appleby’s “dark house” rather than Charles Stuart’s restored kingdom – also meant acknowledging that “right ordering” was an future-oriented and dynamic process that did not follow an existing blueprint. The directions of God’s ordering activity – towards peace and mutual love, towards free and joyful worship, towards self-giving life together as “helps-meet in the image of God” – could and should be learned from scripture and from past experience, but none of that could substitute for the present task of attention to the guidance of the Spirit.
So when Quakers in Britain agreed in 2009 to recognise and celebrate the marriages of same-sex couples, it was the result of a very long collective process of discernment, in direct continuity with early Quaker practices of marriage. With this decision Quakers recognised the loving commitments of same-sex couples as signs of God’s transformative and reconciling presence in the lives of the individuals involved and in the life of the community – in a way so similar to the marriages of opposite-sex couples that the only truthful response was to celebrate them as marriages. The fact that, at the time, such relationships could not be recognised legally as marriages – and that the couples concerned would be legally “kept asunder” unless they also registered civil partnerships in a strictly non-religious context – was, given Quaker history, of little or no relevance.
Like early Quaker marriage practices, the 2009 decision immediately opened Quakers up to charges of sexual libertinism, of abandoning all sexual and familial order (as well as abandoning Christianity), and of seeking to destroy basic social institutions. Often these charges – whether they are made against Quakers or against other religious and secular proponents of same-sex marriage – seem to be based on the false assumption that any break with a given order is a fall into disorder. Attention to dissenting marriage practices might encourage readers to look instead at the manifold disorders in the historical institution and practice of marriage – including the various “dark houses” to which transgressors of sexual and gender codes have been confined – and ask how the celebration of same-sex marriages can be a matter of hope.
Rachel Muers is Senior Lecturer in Christian Studies and head of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. She has previously held posts at Girton College, Cambridge, and at the University of Exeter. Her academic interests and major publications centre around the relationships between modern Christian doctrine, feminist thought and ethics. She is currently working on a book on theological ethics drawing on Quaker sources and traditions