Towards a Quaker View of Sex

About This Exhibit

The years following World War II were times of social upheaval in Western societies.  The nature of social values, relationships and behaviors were sharply questioned. New models of human interaction, belief systems and social structures were advocated.  In these changing times, a small group of liberal Quakers in Britain began grappling with how to respond compassionately to young adults struggling with sexual “problems,” particularly homosexuality. After six years of collaboration—drawing upon their Quaker gifts of listening and discerning—they published the most far-reaching report on human sexuality of their day. 

Quaker journalist David Blamires encapsulated this momentous study a decade after it was published as: “Towards a Quaker View of Sex expressed the kind of approach to sexual relationships toward which many people, particularly the younger generation, had been striving for a long time. It refused to pass simple traditional judgements on such matters as extramarital intercourse or homosexual relationships. Instead it asked searching questions about the depth and tenderness of relationships, about caring for other people, about wholeness and integrity and about the exploitation of other people for one’s own satisfaction.”  (Homosexuality on the Inside, page 3)

Towards a Quaker View of Sex (TQVOS) made a huge splash in its day—read, reviewed, praised and vilified in homes, meetings and secular and religious media in Britain, the U.S. and elsewhere.  Blamires notes: “The printed booklet was probably the most influential document published by British Quakers in the twentieth century, if one judges by the number of copies printed. It contributed massively to keeping the Friends Bookshop financially afloat.”  (Pushing at the Frontiers of Change, page 6)

Looking back from fifty years later we can admire the courage and foresight of these persons who broke new ground in attitudes toward sexual behavior and morality. Yet we also ask: how was it that these eleven educators and social scientists—all faithful Friends—were able to leap so far ahead of their time?

Your visit to this exhibit may help you understand that TQVOS was not just an historical accident, and not merely a matter of degree in improvement over other contemporary liberal struggles to address a particularly perplexing social concern. Rather, TQVOS can be seen as the inevitable and unique result of the Quaker way--which is to uphold, over all other moral imperatives (notably Biblical teachings and ecclesiastical pronouncements), the value of direct inspiration of the soul by a holy spirit. This emphasis on the primacy of human conscience goes back to the founding of Quakerism and motivates their entire history.

In this online exhibition you can follow the development of TQVOS as it unfolded from 1957 through 1964 through the lens of its time. Review correspondence, memos, minutes and articles and hear recollections of the principal actors in this saga. Many of the artifacts in this exhibition have never before been viewed in public.  You can also explore the lives of these eleven remarkable persons. Unfortunately, few photographs of them turned up in our research, perhaps due to the modesty of the Quaker spirit. (NOTE: The most detailed narrative account of the TQVOS process can be found in Pushing at the Frontiers of Change by David Blamires, pages 1-19.)

This exhibition provides a unique opportunity to view these persons' interactions over several years--how attitudes and perspectives changed and the collective conclusions that emerged. As group member Keith Wedmore remarked in a June 17, 2012 interview:  “…that was the biggest bonding experience I’ve ever had…. I felt that I had ten very strong friends whom I could trust for life and would know that we would always support each other. We knew each other so well from having spent all that time discussing this… we could speak for the whole group every time on every matter, knowing that they would agree with us completely, and knowing, in fact, what we thought.”

Since TQVOS has been largely forgotten today, this exhibition will draw attention to its role and impact in the subsequent struggles for greater acceptance of LGBT persons in churches and in society.  Some of the statements in the report are classic and are echoed in studies from other religious leaders and bodies years thereafter:

  • One should no more deplore homosexuality than left-handedness.
  • Homosexual affection can be as selfless as heterosexual affection and therefore we cannot see that in some way it is morally worse.
  • sexuality, looked at dispassionately, is neither good nor evil, it is a fact of nature. But looking at it as Christians we have felt impelled to state without reservation that it is a glorious gift of God.

As historians, scholars and other interested persons study and analyze the significance and import of TQVOS, keep in mind that online exhibitions like this are organic and continue to expand.  So pass along additional artifacts, data and insights that will enhance this presentation and help ensure that TQVOS is seen and understood in its appropriate historical context.

Mark Bowman, curator
LGBT Religious Archives Network

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