Saturday, August 1, 2009

Quakers Endorse Same-Sex Marriage: A Challenge to Rowan Williams re: How Churches Change Their Moral Minds

Yesterday, I wrote that churches change their moral minds when cutting-edge groups of prophetic believers take the risk of speaking out, needling, prodding, challenging, and opening doors to the marginalized that the churches themselves wish to keep closed, when powerful interest groups that benefit from marginalizing some groups in society exert strong pressure on a church to preserve the status quo.

I wrote this to challenge the insistence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, that churches can validly change moral positions based on how “the Church has consistently read the Bible for the last two thousand years” only after a “strong . . . consensus” has been achieved, based on “painstaking biblical exegesis” and “solid theological grounding” regarding which there is “wide acceptance” within a church.

As I noted, this understanding of how churches change their moral minds is historically incorrect. The churches changed their moral minds about slavery and the place of place of women in church and world despite what had been the consistent, longstanding theological and exegetical consensus regarding slavery and the role of women. The churches changed their moral minds about slavery and women’s place in the world not because a majority of church members agreed to these theological and moral shifts, but despite the opposition of large numbers of Christians to this theological and moral shift. There was not widespread consensus on these issues when the churches finally decided to do what was right, only after prophetic groups succeeded in needling and shaming the churches into doing what was right.

As I noted, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s formula for change in the church’s moral mind regarding gay human beings is a formula for stasis. It is not a formula for the informed, conscientious change in the church’s attitudes for which Rowan Williams professes to hope. It is, instead, a formula designed to keep change at bay, through endless study, discussion, and negotiation—even when many people within the churches, including the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, already know that there is no compelling theological, scriptural, or moral reason for continued discrimination against gay persons.

It is, then, an unjust formula, one that deliberately wishes to continue discrimination against gay persons within the Anglican communion by putting off indefinitely the moment of decision at which the church must either choose to discontinue discrimination in a thoroughgoing and decisive way, or continue to discriminate, while trying unsuccessfully to convince us that everyone is welcome at its table.

As I was writing the preceding analysis of the moral conundrum facing the Anglican communion (and liberal Christians in general, insofar as they wish to be viewed as tolerant, inclusive, and loving while they refuse to make solidarity with their gay brothers and sisters), I did not know that British Friends were holding their yearly meeting this week at York. And that yesterday at this meeting, British Quakers decided to perform same-sex marriages within Quaker communities.

The decision of Friends to perform same-sex marriages is deeply rooted in traditional Quaker theology, which is informed by founder George Fox’s teaching that there is something of God in everyone in the world, an inner light that links each human being to God. From their beginnings as a religious movement, Quakers have emphasized the obligation of all believers to respect and look for that spark of God within others—Friend and non-Friend alike, Christian and non-Christian alike, believer and non-believer alike.

The decision of the British Friends to perform same-sex marriages rests on the discernment of this religious body that God chooses to marry people of the same sex, and those attuned to God’s will ought not to stand in the way of that divine choice, but to celebrate it. This decision is, in other words, an outgrowth of the Quaker belief that God lives within each human being, and one of our most fundamental religious obligations is to find and witness to that divine presence in others.

This decision to honor what God is accomplishing through the love and marital union of people of the same sex now puts the Quakers in a ticklish position vis-à-vis the British government, which recognizes civil unions for same-sex couples but not same-sex marriages. The Quaker decision to marry same-sex couples means that Quakers will begin reporting same-sex marriages to the government on the same footing that they now report opposite-sex marriages.

British Friends are choosing, in other words, to make no distinction at all between the religious status of an opposite-sex and a same-sex marriage performed at a Quaker meeting. Quakers believe that they can no longer support such a decision. To do so would be to deny that God is accomplishing in same-sex relationships precisely what God is accomplishing in opposite-sex ones: loving unions that build families and society, particularly when these unions are publicly recognized and supported by a society. The Quaker insistence on paying attention to what God is doing even, or especially, within a despised marginalized group, is in line with the longstanding Quaker tradition of looking for the inner light, the presence of God, wherever it dwells, even (or particularly) among those overlooked by the social mainstream.

To my mind, what British Friends have just decided to do, and the theological rationale they advance to justify their decision, strongly supports the argument I offered yesterday against the Archbishop of Canterbury’s understanding of how churches change their moral minds. When social attitudes begin to show churches that certain practices they have long taken for granted are no longer morally defensible, churches usually change their moral minds not because they have reached wide agreement about a new moral consensus, or as a result of ongoing study and discussion about the new consensus.

They change their moral minds because prophetic, cutting-edge groups within the churches and outside the churches needle the churches into rethinking their complicity in practices that can no longer be justified on theological, biblical, or moral grounds. Quakers have a very important history of needling and challenging the social mainstream, when the mainstream insists on taking for granted (and justifying) longstanding practices of unjust social marginalization. This Quaker tendency has caused Friends again and again to come up against strong norms within mainstream Christian churches, which support the social status quo and refuse to reconsider and reject discriminatory practices long taken for granted by mainstream churches and by society itself.

The Quakers led the battle against slavery, for instance, when all mainstream churches, including the Church of England, were heavily invested in that practice and did not want to critique it, for fear of alienating powerful interest groups within their society and their church. With their belief that there is something of God in everyone, the Quakers recognized the right of women to preach and engage in ministry centuries before the mainstream churches, including the Anglican church, changed their minds about these matters.

At a time in which the mainstream churches, including the Churches of England and Ireland, were largely oblivious to the suffering of the poor in Ireland in the 19th century, the Quakers were actively working to create jobs for and to feed the Irish poor. During the terrible years of the Famine, the Quakers set up soup kitchens to keep starvation at bay for many poor people in Ireland, while the mainstream churches remained silent about the suffering of the Irish poor, and even justified it as the will of God manifested in the lives of those who did not work and thus did not deserve to eat.

Quakers and their history, and the decision they have just made to perform same-sex marriages, illustrate, then, precisely the point I hoped to make in my critique of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s understanding of how the churches change their moral mind when longstanding tradition supports discriminatory practices that a shifting social consensus has begun to call into question. When a growing consensus begins to reveal traditional Christian practices as morally questionable, changes in the moral minds of churches, do not begin at the top, with archbishops, who have everything vested in maintaining the status quo and not rocking the boat.

Nor do they begin with the majority of believers within a church communion, who will inevitably resist having to rethink taken-for-granted assumptions about the bible and religious authority, and having to revise their practices as they reassess those assumptions. Changes in the moral minds of churches do not begin, either, with powerful interest groups that hope to keep the church on their side as they continue the oppression of a targeted minority for their own benefit.

Changes in the moral mind of churches begin with cutting-edge groups such as the Quakers, who retrieve powerful prophetic strands of the scriptures that are fundamental to Christianity, but are always being lost sight of as the church settles down comfortably within history and strikes deals with the rich and powerful at any given moment in time. Changes in the moral mind of churches begin with prophetic groups like the Quakers that are willing to risk something in order to do what is right.

As Symon Hill, associate director of the theological think-tank Ekklesia (and a Friend himself) notes re: yesterday's decision,

As with other churches, this has not been an easy process for Quakers. I hope that others will have the courage to follow this lead and speak up for the radical inclusivity of Christ. As Christians, we are called to stand with those on the margins who are denied equality.

I hope the Archbishop of Canterbury is listening.