Writing for PinkNews on the day that same-sex marriage becomes legal in England and Wales, Derek McAuley reflects on decades of acceptance and support for same-sex marriage by the Unitarian Church.
In 1993 the Ministerial Fellowship within the Unitarian and Free Christian Churches published a book of special services and included a section on blessing of a same sex partnership. For this, and other innovative content, it was recognised with an Institute of Social Inventions Award. Increasingly since the 1970s Unitarian ministers had been prepared to conduct blessings of same sex couples. Same sex marriage was of course not even on the agenda.
This publication stated the obvious “The intentions of a same sex couple seeking a blessing on their relationship are, for the most part, similar to those of a heterosexual couple seeking marriage. So most of the material in the Marriage section is appropriate and can easily be adapted”. Indeed some of the material in the Marriage section was originally written for same sex ceremonies. This, of course, underpins the wide support of Unitarians for same sex marriage.
Same sex marriage is so important as it represents a public statement of equality and inclusion for LGBT people. Unitarianism has always been open to new insights and rejects appeals to outdated dogma. We stand for the inherent worth of every individual and support for human rights which has led us to advocate for progressive social change. Truly faith without works is dead.
Although in 2010 we supported the extension of civil partnerships to religious premises this was always merely a stepping stone to full recognition of same sex relationships and whilst brought many benefits could never be sufficient. I and my partner look forward later this year to converting our civil partnership to a marriage.
Unitarians argued strongly during the Government consultation for the right of religious bodies to conduct same sex marriage to be included in the legislation. Marriage for Unitarians and many people of faith is not simply an exchange of contract. It is a deeply spiritual commitment and binding of one to another in public. I do, however, think there has been too much emphasis in the debate on highlighting the rights of faith groups to say “no” as if same sex marriage was somehow tainted.
Let us stress the joy and hope of religious bodies that say “yes” for love should truly be the hallmark of faith.
I recently had lunch with a former Unitarian minister who was active in the 1960’s in the early campaigns for LGBT rights. He recalled the struggles within the Unitarian movement amidst much confusion and misunderstanding. Yet by 1977 the Unitarian General Assembly declared its ministry open to all. Change can happen quickly and I hope that other faith groups will soon join us in supporting the full inclusion of LGBT people within their communities.
Finally, you do not have to be a Unitarian to be married in a Unitarian Church or Chapel. One of our popular hymns is “All Are Welcome Here” and as an outward looking faith we will welcome couples who come to us seeking a spiritual or religious element for their marriage. This can be a more traditional ceremony or can incorporate rituals, words and music that are more meaningful to the couple. So let us celebrate but not rest on our laurels; LGBT people in other parts of the world face oppression and denial of human rights and need our support.
Derek McAuley is the Chief Officer for the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.