My friend is delighted by the new Marriage Act, as a symbol for equality and for the change it will make in her life: she will marry her life-partner. She wants to marry in the Quaker meeting, and of course we are delighted: she attends our meeting. She has the idea that other couples will want a religious wedding, and as most denominations do not offer them, at present, she would like us to offer religious marriage to people who are not members or even attenders. There are problems with that.
Other denominations may not celebrate marriages: the Anglicans are banned by statute, the Methodists prohibited the blessing of same sex unions in 2006; the Baptists say that gay people should not suffer discrimination but may not extend this to marriage. That leaves Unitarians and Quakers.
The Marriage Act 1949 governs marriage in the Meeting: s47(1) No person who is not a member of the Society of Friends shall be married according to the usages of that Society unless he or she is authorised to be so married under or in pursuance of a general rule of the said Society in England. Each of the couple must declare that each of them is either a member of the Society of Friends or is in profession with or of the persuasion of that Society, or the Registrar must declare that there is such a rule.
So we need to amend our own rules, before we can offer gay marriages to people who are not attenders.
Would such a rule be discriminatory? Discrimination is prohibited on the ground of sexual orientation, including “orientation towards persons of the opposite sex”: Equality Act 2010 s12. By s13, it would be direct discrimination: treating a straight couple less favourably- refusing to marry them- because of their orientation.
Does that rule apply to providing marriages? A person concerned with the provision of a service to the public must not discriminate (s29). So if we had a rule saying that gay couples with no real link to the Society could get married, but not straight couples, this would be unlawful. A straight couple refused a wedding in a Quaker meeting could claim damages in the county court. It is possible that those damages might be minimal: I do not have the research facilities to assess that.
Quakers have a distinguished history of disobeying the law when we consider we are following the leadings of the Holy Spirit. We would be offering a service to gay people which only the Unitarians would, apart from us. The Unitarians seem keen to marry non-members, and without our legal difficulties.
Of course we could open our marriage procedure completely, to straights as well. Perhaps we would have no take-up. But- the couple marrying stand to speak the vow in the way that we stand to give ministry: we feel moved by the Spirit. In other churches, the couple speak their own will. Having non-members marry in the Quaker meeting would change the nature of that marriage.