Radical Christianity #1: Liberal Quakerism and Sexual Liberation
Words by Wilson Huang
What comes to mind when you think of Christianity?
There is a mainstream image of Christianity based on Catholic, Pentecostal and conservative Protestant practices – consequently, many consider those practices as the ‘real Christian way’ – which, in all honesty, is bullshit.
Christian belief is diverse, and over the last weeks of this semester, I will be looking at some radical understandings of Christianity which reject aspects of conservative evangelical Christianity, thus challenging the idea of what ‘real’ Christianity means. To start off this series, let us have a closer look at the Religious Society of Friends – or, as they’re probably better known as, the Quakers.
Formed in the 1650s in England by George Fox, Quakerism was a response to the institutional church, specifically the Church of England. Unlike the hierarchical structure and creedal nature of many churches, Quakers (or Friends) utilise shared leadership and individual freedom and conscience; they lack a creed and emphasise everyone’s unique personal experience. This stems from their idea that everyone has something of God within them – their ‘inner light’ – and focusing on that was important rather than following rituals and priests. Practising a form of silent worship, Quakers engage in a shared search of truth where everyone can speak if they are moved. With their principles, Quakers have historically been active in social justice movements. They were among the first advocates of abolition, and more recently both British and Australian Quakers have advocated for marriage equality.
Another key feature of Quakerism is its openness to change. While many Christians view the Bible as having ‘divine authority’, Quakers with their emphasis on direct experience do not see the Bible as having any absolute authority and look to other sources for inspiration. As such there are also Quakers who are non-theistic, meaning they hold Quaker principles without necessarily believing in a divine being. Even to Quakers that consider themselves Christian, there is an understanding that faith is changing, and that the Bible was written by humans influenced by their own time and culture. With these principles in mind, Towards a Quaker View of Sex (TQVOS), published in 1963 by a group of British Friends, was strikingly progressive for its time (and remains so even today) and affirmed gay equality while also taking open attitudes to sex outside of marriage. The group of British Friends was spearheaded by Dr Anna Bidder, a Cambridge Zoology professor, and was formed in 1957 with mostly education professionals, psychiatrists and psychologists.
It’s no surprise that TQVOS was received controversially, as it was remarkably frank with its conclusions, “Surely it is the nature and quality of a relationship that matters: one must not judge it by its outward appearance but by its inner worth. Homosexual affection can be as selfless as heterosexual affection, and therefore we cannot see that it is in some way morally worse.” It furthermore criticised traditional Christian morality of the institutional Church, rejecting its approach almost entirely. It noted the damaging and repressive attitudes of the Church and called for a new morality towards sexuality, ultimately providing a voice for the marginalised true to the Quaker faith.
If you would like to find out more about Towards a Quaker View of Sex, have a look at an online exhibition by the LGBT Religious Archives Network here.