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June 30, 2013

THOMAS HAMM: Agreeing to disagree on same-sex relationships

Quakers, or, as many prefer, members of the Religious Society of Friends, are, by reputation, a peaceable people. But that has not kept Friends from disagreements that have ranged from vigorous to ferocious. Of the issues that have divided Friends in the past two centuries, none has been quite so intractable as same-sex relationships, especially same-sex marriage.
There have probably always been gay and lesbian Friends, but it was not until the middle of the 20th century that even a few Friends began to question openly the traditional belief that any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage was sinful. By the 1970s, some Friends were openly aligning themselves with the emerging gay liberation movement. In the 1980s, some Quaker congregations (some Friends call their congregations churches, others meetings) determined that it was proper to celebrate same-sex marriages, even while recognizing that they would be of no legal force.
While some Friends saw this as simply carrying on long-standing Quaker concerns for marginalized groups, others were horrified by what they saw as an official embrace of sin. The decentralized Quaker system of governance complicated the issue. Friends have no one central authority, and even though a small group, are extremely diverse. Most Friends in Indiana are part of the largest international Quaker organization, Friends United Meeting, and are divided into the Indiana Yearly Meeting and Western Yearly Meeting of Friends. For Quakers, the yearly meeting is the ultimate authority on earth. (The geographic dividing line between the two yearly meetings runs through Howard County — Sycamore Friends are part of Indiana Yearly Meeting, while others belong to Western.) Moreover, Friends do not make decisions by voting. They instead seek the will of God through finding unity, a kind of spiritual consensus in which the majority does not force its will on the minority.

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