An Open and Affirming Community

Sixty-two of us gathered in prayerful silence. This was the culmination of our searching, of seven long years of workshops and worship sharing, seven years of threshing sessions and small group meetings, seven years of wondering if we would ever come to clearness. At last, we had called a special meeting for worship for business to test our leadings about same-gender marriage in our Quaker meeting.

From the clerk’s table, I looked at the people seated before me: longtime Friends, active attenders, Young Friends, local college students. Some of these I knew as activists who marched with their children on Gay Pride Day, and others had been vocal in their concern about same-gender unions.

Several Friends were noticeably absent. A member of our Ministry and Counsel Committee had resigned her membership a few weeks earlier, unable to reconcile her biblically based Christianity with the leading of our meeting. Other members of our community chose not to attend; while they intellectually felt that we should not condemn homosexuals, they were emotionally uncomfortable with the topic.

We had heard the horror stories of meetings torn apart by this issue: Cleveland Meeting was read out of its yearly meeting; gay and lesbian individuals as well as vocal opponents have been hurt by actions of their faith communities. One clerk described her meeting’s consideration as “the business meeting from hell” and spoke of ill feelings that have lasted for years.

Our meeting needed those seven years. We sought ways to use that time of seeking to strengthen our community, and we feared that we would be destroyed if we failed. After three years of discussions, we had approved a minute recognizing that same-gender marriages and commitment ceremonies are being performed in the wider Quaker community. Our meeting resolved that should such a couple move into our community, we would support them in the same way we would support any other couple. From this basis, we discussed what marriage under the care of the meeting meant. We looked at how we care for couples (not very well it turns out), and we resolved to seek more active ways of nurturing the married couples in our community. We talked about marriage as a civil and religious union and compared this to same-gender ceremonies of commitment. We discussed whether the term “marriage” could, or should, imply only a union between one man and one woman.

In workshops, we examined the varying degrees of our homophobia as individuals, as a faith community, and as a society. We confronted the roots of our beliefs and feelings. We talked about what it would mean to our community to invite openly gay couples to join with us. In answer to our concern about the effect on our children of a gay presence in the meeting, our Young Friends reminded us that they would like to know that they will be accepted, no matter what their sexual orientation.

Together we read the Bible passages that have been used to condemn homosexuality. We sought ways to reconcile these with Jesus’ exhortation to love one another and with our own continuing revelation. We talked about our testimonies of tolerance and acceptance and about our need to be faithful to the leadings of the Spirit. We spoke of diversity and of community. We read statements from Christian groups who oppose gay marriage and also attended meetings of the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry, a group of clergy and church leaders speaking out to change the laws of Massachusetts. Through it all, we recognized that many of the people in our meeting were uncomfortable with the subject; so we worked to ensure that everyone’s voice would be heard and that the vocal majority would not overwhelm those too timid or uncertain to speak their opinions.

In January, we convened a clearness committee for the meeting. Every member and attender was invited to participate, including our Young Friends. At this meeting, no one was to speak for or against same-gender marriage. We wanted only to determine whether we were clear that the time had come to formally bring this concern to monthly meeting for business. At this meeting we reminded ourselves of the work we had done together and sought for what more we should do.

The gathered group was clear. The meeting was ready and needed to go forward. We set a date for a called meeting for business. Ministry and Counsel labored and prayed over a draft statement to be used to focus the meeting. Several members of our committee met with our yearly meeting’s Ministry and Counsel Committee for guidance in clerking this meeting. We asked anyone who would listen to hold us in prayer that afternoon.

Finally, the appointed time arrived. The recording clerk and I sat in front of the largest business meeting we had ever seen. I reminded Friends to offer messages in a spirit of love and community, while leaving time between speakers for worship and reflection. More than anything, we needed to keep in mind that we were not looking for unanimity with each other; we were not even looking for consensus; we were seeking unity in the Spirit. We were striving for the almost unimaginable goal of discerning God’s will for our community about a concern that could become divisive.

Opening worship was longer than usual, and we centered very quickly. The clerk of Ministry and Counsel reviewed the process we had begun more than seven years before and read aloud our earlier minute as well as the new draft statement. The clerk of Young Friends read a carefully crafted statement urging us to support same gender marriage while condemning our years of delay as unworthy intolerance. We were impressed by the strength and clarity of their understanding.

People spoke of family members—sisters and brothers, sons and daughters—who were gay or lesbian and in committed partnerships. A woman spoke of the gay adults who had grown up in our meeting and reminded us of the joy we had found in them as children. A beloved older Friend spoke of her granddaughter who had married another woman a few months earlier; she had thought that a ceremony of commitment would be enough until she saw that this young couple was just as married as any heterosexual couple. People spoke from their hearts about feeling we should be open and welcoming to all people, while personally being uncomfortable and wishing for less controversial ways to accept them fully into community. We cried with each other and held each other in the Light.

After 90 minutes, a man rose who had been quite opposed to the issue. He told of his discomfort with seeing gay couples and of his belief that such partnerships are unnatural. He stated that he had come to this meeting prepared to prevent the meeting from accepting same gender unions. After hearing the heartfelt messages offered during this meeting, he would not just step aside but would join with the meeting in approving this minute. His personal transformation was a gift that brought closure to the meeting.

The draft statement was reworded to reflect more accurately the sense of the meeting:

Acknowledging that we are all individually at different points in accepting the extension of the term marriage to same-gender couples, but recognizing the need for spiritual commitment in our community, we affirm the following:

Wellesley Monthly Meeting is an open and affirming faith community. We welcome all seekers. We believe that marriage in our meeting is a spiritual and communal commitment. Any couple affiliated with our meeting, regardless of gender, may request a clearness committee for marriage. If found clear, they may be married under the care of our meeting.

We were stunned, but we were clear. Our meeting had found its way past tolerant acceptance to embrace the diversity of human relationships. We offered a home to all seekers and in the process defined who we are as a faith community. We are still an imperfect group of people. On this day, though, we opened our hearts to God, and we were faithful.