July 31, 2009 / 3:58 PM / 10 years ago

British Quakers agree to same-sex marriages

LONDON (Reuters) - British Quakers agreed Friday to celebrate gay marriages and called on the government to recognise same-sex unions as legally valid.

At the religious group’s yearly meeting in York, the Quakers in Britain said they would ask the government to change the law to allow them to register same-sex marriages in the same way as heterosexual ones.

Gay rights campaigners said it was a “trail-blazing decision” after the issue of homosexual unions had opened deep divisions in other faiths.

Since 2005 same sex couples have been able to enter into civil partnerships in Britain which, while giving gay relationships legal status, are not considered a marriage.

The Quakers agreed “to treat same sex committed relationships in the same way as opposite sex marriages, reaffirming our central insight that marriage is the Lord’s work and we are but witnesses,” they said in a statement.

However, they decided not to require Quaker registering officers to act contrary to the current law, saying the “question of legal recognition by the state is secondary.”

Quakers, who formed in the 17th century and are formally known as the Religious Society of Friends, have acknowledged gay partnerships since the 1960s.

Quakers have had the right to conduct marriages in England and Wales since 1753 and, since 2005, the group’s gay members have been able to opt for a blessing after a civil ceremony.

“Many of our meetings have told us that there are homosexual couples who consider themselves to be married and believe this as much a testimony of divine grace as a heterosexual marriage,” said Michael Hutchinson, for the Quakers in Britain.

There are 25,000 Quakers in Britain and about 300,000 across the world. Friday’s decision affects only Britain and Quakers elsewhere will have to come to their own decisions.

The 80-million member Anglican Communion is nearing breaking point over the issue of homosexuality and the blessing of gay unions.

Earlier this month the Episcopal Church, the main U.S. branch of Anglicanism, gave its go-ahead for its clergy to bless some same-sex unions. However, conservative clerics insist the Bible forbids such blessings and the ordination of gay bishops.

It has prompted some U.S. congregations to leave the Episcopal fold while some Anglican churches in regions such as Africa have broken ties with their more liberal U.S. brethren.

Peter Tatchell, founder of gay rights group Outrage!, said the Quakers’ decision “exposed the homophobia of other faiths.”

“The vote by the Quakers to open up marriage to same-sex couples, on exactly the same basis as heterosexual couples, is an honourable, courageous, trail-blazing decision,” he said.

Editing by Robert Woodward

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