Two minutes of fame – talking about religion and sex

Well, about Quakers and marriage, anyway. (Feel free to fill in the jokes, starting with “Quakers occasionally do religion…”).

I had the altogether strange experience this morning of being interviewed, or rather being part of a very short “debate”, on the Today programme. I may just have reached the pinnacle of my public visibility (OK, audibility). For the moment at least, the clip is available here via Britain Yearly Meeting’s website.

There are inherently odd features to the experience of doing radio broadcasts (trying to be relaxed and friendly while sitting in a padded cell facing a microphone). This particular experience has made me think about a few things. For example, the fact that, with my agreement, they put my job title and university affiliation in the introduction (which means that it’s also now been picked up by at least one other media outlet) brings my church and academic life closer together than I’ve normally wanted. Not knowing what I’d be asked, I had thought I might possibly get the chance to say something about theology. Ah well.


28 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Phil W-E on 20 March, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    I listened to the debate live and again on the Podcast. Combined with the tone of this Blog, it would appear that you had not given sufficient thought to the fact you were putting forward a contentious view on same sex marriage (the impression given as representing all Quakers in Britain) to a great many people — many of whom oppose same sex marriage and do not know who Quakers are.

    You singularly failed to address and follow up Lord Singh’s definition of marriage, its religious and legal significance, and to answer his question as to why do people want same sex marriage. He stated that Gay and Lesbian people already have equality under civil law and you did not reply. Lord Singh gave the impression of a balanced, clear, uncontentious, honest and reasoned approach of the subject. Why did you not contest his view? I am a Quaker and I was left wondering what on earth is going on in Quakers in Britain.

    It may have helped if you had quickly explained that a Quaker marriage is a serious and solemn union between the couple and God and is part of a Quaker Meeting – not a prayer meeting or a wedding ceremony. Also, that any couple must meet strict Quaker criteria to be able to have a Quaker marriage.The impression given was that all and sundry will be able to have a same sex weddings at Meeting Houses.There emerged a confusing picture.

    Did you speak officially on behalf of Quakers in Britain? Was you response discussed with Quakers in Britain beforehand?


    • Hi Phil, thanks for listening and reading. Clearly you were unhappy about the clip. Believe me, I am aware of at least some of its shortcomings. I had a full page of notes in front of me and several more pages in my head, I’d been up most of the night considering it – and in the event the whole item took less than 4 minutes and I got very few words in edgeways. That hurt a bit.

      Actually so does your response – interestingly, a lot more than the right-wing US blog that called me “pure single-malt Satan”; I learn that on balance I would rather be hated than patronised. Friend, believe it or not, I’ve noticed that this is a slightly controversial issue; know what a Quaker marriage is; discussed what I was going to say at length with the Friends House press officer who asked me to do the interview; and, even after that full briefing, carefully instructed the BBC not to introduce me as a spokesperson for Quakers in Britain (you may have noticed that they didn’t).

      Clearly I could have had the argument about the definition of marriage – which is a circular argument; marriage is defined in law as what it currently is in law (or wherever), and if you change the law you change the definition accordingly. There are a lot of working definitions of marriage operating in Britain at the moment, religious and secular. Quakers in Britain, clearly and explicitly by a decision of Britain Yearly Meeting in 2009, changed, or rather clarified, our own working definition to take out the “one man, one woman” bit.

      Clearly, also, I could have had the argument about the (deeply offensive) claim that gay and lesbian people have everything they could possibly want because they have something that’s more-or-less like marriage. Again, the easiest way to do this would have been to refer back to the 2009 minute and make it clear that what we, British Quakers, want is for the law to catch up with what we already recognise – that both opposite-sex and same-sex couples can receive from God the gift, blessing and responsibility of marriage, and that for some same-sex and some opposite-sex couples marriage is primarily a religious commitment and should be celebrated as such.

      Incidentally, Quaker weddings are, of course, very serious, but in my experience not always solemn. My theology and my Quakerism is very serious too, but I don’t always type it or talk about it with a solemn expression, and I’m sorry if that upset you.

      OK – and if anyone else is still reading, you now know some of the things I would have said. Incidentally, I’m available for other press engagements 😉


      • Oh, just to clear up any remaining confusion. That’s a British “slightly”, in “slightly controversial”. It’s also a British “a bit” if I say I’ve read a bit about it.

  2. Posted by Phil W-E on 21 March, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    Hi Rachel, many thanks for your prompt response. It appears that you had no previous experience of being involved in a radio studio broadcast and also that the Quaker press office had not fully prepared you for a radio debate. Taking this into account, it is unfortunate that the outcome indicated that you were out of your depth mainly through a lack of carefully considered preparation and presentation. Lord Singh on the other hand emerged as an accomplished broadcaster and performer and is well known and liked by listeners. On a lighter note it could have been worse: a first radio debate with a David Starkey type as the opposing person!

    A hard lesson learned. It is often forgotten (especially by press officers) that radio is a greater medium than television or print for getting a point across and is very unforgiving. It makes people listen more and they will focus on every word that is spoken. It doesn’t matter how good one’s argument or point of view is, if you can’t get it across in the time allocated, then one has failed.

    I am unclear as to why you say you find the claim that gay and lesbian people have everything they could possibly want “deeply offensive.” Strong words, especially as civil partnership is only available to same sex couples. As Quakers, should we not be supporting and pursuing action to rectify this obvious anomaly? Is this not “deeply offensive” as well – a bit of the elephant in the room perhaps? Equality for all people is at the core of Quaker belief and therefore needs to be addressed and pursued with the same vigour for all persuasions, gender or otherwise.

    In friendship,

    Phil W-E


  3. Absolutely. Equality. One rule for same-sex couples and another for opposite-sex couples is unacceptable.

    And I maintain that it’s offensive to tell gay and lesbian people that they have no reason to demand marriage because they already can have [something that isn’t marriage]. It’s one thing to tell gay or lesbian people that there are good reasons why they can’t or shouldn’t have (the possibility of) marriage; it’s quite another thing to tell them that they have no possible reason to want it (and, by implication, should just shut up and go away).

    I agree that if civil partnerships are retained they need to be open to opposite-sex couples too. That was not the point of the debate. Sometimes there is, in fact, no elephant.

    I look forward to hearing you next time you’re doing a radio debate. Clearly I could learn a lot from your experience.


    • For the record, I do have a fair amount of radio broadcast experience myself. Generally quite enjoy it.


    • Posted by Phil W-E on 21 March, 2012 at 3:14 pm

      Hi Rachel, I am heartened that we are in agreement that equality is for all. However, I am somewhat saddened by your response (final paragraph), which I feel, was ungracious and has maybe lowered the tone of the debate.

      My first experience of media debate (to this day I still feel a shiver at the thought of it) was in Cardiff on radio. The subject was proposed changes to abortion timescales. As a consequence I received from Leo Abse lifelong and valuable lessons in communication and presentation skills. Kindly, Leo felt obliged to meet me afterwards and mentor me.

      Listening to the broadcast I empathised with your efforts to conduct a convincing stand from a Quaker point of view. Regretfully, I am now retired from a career that involved radio, television and film. Combined with the problem of media ageism against older women alas there is little opportunity you will be able hear me.

      Lessons learned and I look forward to hearing future debates you are involved in.

      In friendship,

      Phil W-E


  4. Dear Phil,

    It’s sad when that happens isn’t it? You pushed all my buttons, and then I, it seems, pushed yours. Sorry. I wouldn’t have made that last comment, if I’d known all about you. But I rather hope you wouldn’t have said what you said, if you’d known all about me. (To spell it out – think about being a youngish woman in academia or in Quakerism who’s always looked too young to be doing the jobs she does, and then think about being told you’re out of your depth and clearly don’t have enough experience or knowledge to debate an older and cleverer man).

    Enough said. Let’s call it quits.

    All best,


  5. Posted by Phil W-E on 21 March, 2012 at 6:54 pm

    Hi Rachel, your reply makes it impossible for me not to respond. I am sorry that you have formed the wrong impression regarding what I have said. This is nothing to do with “pushing buttons” or who we are, other than we both have shared Quaker values. I did say as a listener that the outcome indicated that you were out of your depth. This is correct but was not a criticism, merely a statement of fact. Your blog would indicate that the problem revolved around your lack of prior experience of a Radio Four studio debate. My reason for continuing the debate was as a Friend and in order to give a positive critique on your performance and also to encourage and support you and I am saddened that you have misunderstood and misrepresented what I have said.

    Yours in friendship,

    Phil W-E


  6. Dear Phil, thank you for your intention to encourage and support me, which I do believe to have been sincere. I think there’s little point in continuing the conversation, which is no longer on the subject of the original post.
    Thank you again for taking an interest, and if (as would appear) you’re a British citizen I hope you’ll be responding to the same-sex marriage consultation!
    Best wishes, Rachel


  7. Posted by Matthew Creber on 21 March, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    Hi Rachel,
    I would like to let you know that I was listening to the piece on the radio, and although you weren’t given enough time to articulate your views adequately (who is?), you made enough of an impression that I was compelled to hunt down your blog.
    I think the Quaker response to the question of gay marriage moves the discussion in an interesting direction, as it makes it a matter of ‘religious freedom’ to be in favour of gay marriage.
    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts!

    Matthew C


  8. Posted by Will Ellis on 22 March, 2012 at 8:48 am

    Hi Rachel,

    After listening to your contribution to the Today programme I was left wondering whether you were representing and promoting the Quaker Gay and Lesbian faction views on marriage or your own views as a Quaker. As it transpired, your nemesis became the word marriage as you completely failed to argue and articulate your views on this subject and failed to explain why it is so important for the faction to want marriage apart from repeating yourself about equality. Marriage is unavailable to those who do not form the union between man and womanthe as biblically, and in the dictionary, it is clearly defined as a union between man and woman. That being the case and since you failed to be more explicit on the subject, I can’t see where you are coming from. Lord Singh articulated his views with great clarity on the subject so why couldn’t you?

    William E


    • Thanks Will. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a “Quaker Gay and Lesbian faction”; there is a clearly-articulated position held by all Quakers in Britain, to which I also have a strong personal commitment.

      If you read my first response to Phil, above, you’ll perhaps find a response to the issue about the definition of the word marriage – which I do think is a red herring. You might also, if you’re interested in this, want to look at the Quaker booklet “We are but witnesses”, to which I contributed and which is available from the Britain Yearly Meeting website (it contains inter alia some thoughts relevant to the supposed “biblical definition”).

      I’m glad you thought Lord Singh was clear; actually I didn’t, I thought he shifted ground several times. But no doubt each of us sounded clearer to those who were already inclined to agree with us!


      • Posted by Will Ellis on 22 March, 2012 at 10:37 am

        Hi Rachel,

        I would have thought that you would have recognised that my reference was to what is actually called the Quaker Lesbian and Gay Fellowship. I note your reluctance to accept the recognised definition of marriage and wonder why you think that the definition is a red herring. It would seem to me that you might wish to redefine marriage to conform with what suits you best? In talking about definitions and words, why isn’t the word homosexual used in the context of QLGF? Has it lost modern appeal and why use two words when one would suffice? By the way, although I am not a Quaker I have read many Quaker publications and on the whole I am impressed by their contents. Also, I am familiar with issues surrounding Quaker marriages but wonder what George Fox would have made of all this and especially the fact it was Lord Singh (a Sikh) who defended the institution of marriage.

      • Perhaps I wilfully misunderstood you, or perhaps I was holding out for accuracy! I am not a spokesperson for QLGF (I lack a basic qualification for that), and would suggest that you ask QLGF directly if you are interested in issues about naming.

        I have no personal need to redefine marriage, because my marriage suits me very well as it is; but I, along with many others, would like to see it more widely recognised (as I stated above) that the gift and responsibility of marriage can be given to same-sex couples. Whether you think that’s a redefinition, rather than (as I would argue) a clarification, depends on what you think is essential, and what peripheral, to the various working definitions currently operating.

        Incidentally, even allowing that this would constitute a redefinition (in law), the question of whether it’s a good thing would still be open. Redefinitions, extensions, shifts of meaning etc are effected by legal changes all the time, and at least some of them are either uncontroversial or fairly obviously good.

        I’d quite like the chance to discuss this issue with our Friend GF (and even more with Margaret Fell, who had more extensive experience of marriage and arguably more interesting ideas about theology and gender), but that’s going to have to wait… My impression is, though, that if GF did find himself agreeing with a Sikh he wouldn’t be very surprised. (I agreed with at least some of what Lord Singh said, of course; and I was very unimpressed by the fact that the BBC decided in its website blurb that this was “pitting Quakers against Sikhs” rather than putting one Quaker in conversation with one Sikh).

  9. Thanks Matthew. I’m glad that the point about religious freedom came across. One of the things I find most disturbing about both the consultation and the pattern of responses to it is that the whole issue is being set up as “religious versus secular”. The proposal in the consultation attempts, in effect, to create categories of “civil marriage” and “religious marriage” – which it admits do not currently exist as categories in law – apparently in order to protect the whole “religious” space from same-sex marriage. But several religious groups, including Quakers but also Unitarians and Liberal and Reform Jews (as well as many individuals and congregations within larger groups) are committed to marriage equality for religious reasons, and will maintain that commitment whatever the outcome of the current debates.

    I have heard it argued that if the current consultation proposals were brought in, a Quaker or Unitarian (etc) same-sex couple who wanted to get married, and were only allowed a “civil” wedding, might have a reasonable case that their right to practise religion had been infringed. Not being a lawyer, I am not sure whether that argument holds up, and I’m also not sure that it would be the strongest argument to make; but it’s interesting.

    Quakers have an old tradition of recognising and celebrating marriage in ways that aren’t recognised by the state authorities – sometimes at considerable social & personal cost to the people involved. The continuing trace of this is the Quaker marriage certificate, signed by everyone who’s present at the wedding – which was originally, in effect, the public declaration by the community that THEY recognised the marriage, even if nobody else did.


  10. Posted by Will Ellis on 22 March, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    Hi Rachel,

    I’m getting concerned about the fact that misunderstanding appears to become a familiar issue with you, q.v. your remark in the first sentence, and it would appear that you are still firmly entrenched in your quest to challenge and redefine the word marriage. If I were to agree to or follow your line of argument then you would no doubt attempt to call a spade a shovel! If you seriously want to redefine the word marriage then perhaps you could put a cogent argument in favour of your case. Marriage simply cannot be hijacked by secular minorities in order to suit their particular desires or agenda. The word marriage has a religious and legal (secular) purpose and significance and must not be allowed to be undermined, diminished or diluted (Lord Singh) by those who seek to undermine its worth. Same sex advocates have I believe been adequately catered for already i.e. unions, blessings etc. even in churches and other places of worship. This I believe is acceptable and I do not oppose it and consider that it would be wrong of me to deny them those unions that they seek but not in respect of marriage for reasons as aforestated. I do agree with you that it is wrong for the BBC to regard the debate as pitting Sikhs against Quakers and it would seem to me to be an attempt to treat the debate as some form of contest or even a battle. If that were to be the case – sad to say – then the Quakers would have lost.



    • Sorry Will, I think I’m not the person you want to argue with. I’m not a secular minority and nor are Quakers; I do not seek to undermine the worth of marriage; I do not know what a “same sex advocate” is; and, once again, I do not want to redefine marriage (see my previous responses. I am not refusing to answer your question, I am repeatedly rejecting its premise, and I don’t think you are hearing me). So I’m not sure what the point of all this is.


      • Oh, and I said I WILFULLY misunderstood you over QLGF. That is, I had a fairly good idea what you meant, but I deliberately gave you the benefit of the doubt, because I didn’t want to assume that you were gratuitously insulting my F/friends.

  11. Posted by Will Ellis on 24 March, 2012 at 10:37 am

    Hi Rachel,

    Oh dear, it would appear that every time you respond you seem to dig deeper holes for yourself. As you have not been able to develop the debate, mainly due to repetition and circumvention, I will for brevity’s sake, make a brief response to your most recent response.
    Secular minority. How can you possibly suggest that I regard the Quakers as a secular minority. Clearly they are not. The obvious reference of course is the gay and lesbian agenda itself and not the Quakers as an organisation.
    Same sex advocate. Would you prefer advocate for same sex?
    Marriage. I will repeat myself for the last time: marriage is unique and is clearly defined in the biblical and secular (dictionary) manner as between man and woman. Period.
    Wilful misunderstanding over QLGF. Really; how silly of you.
    Gratuitously insulting your F/friends? Really Rachel, what an offensive suggestion. For your information, I consider the Quakers to be a highly worthy religious organisation and I have many Quaker friends.
    Finally, I am sure that you are in essence a charitable and caring person who means well but can be occasionally misguided and who needs to develop and hone media communication skills in order to get your true and Christian views across.


    • Thanks Will. If there is such a thing as a “gay and lesbian agenda”, it’s not (only) secular. I think that, at least, should be clear by now.
      I am glad you have Quaker friends, and I hope that when you are talking to them (or any of your other friends) you do them the courtesy of calling their organisations by the correct names.
      I do not consider myself qualified on the basis of our brief exchange to make any judgements or suggestions about your character, competence or skill set; I thank you for your charitable judgements and constructive suggestions about mine.


      • Posted by Will Ellis on 25 March, 2012 at 4:08 pm

        Hi Rachel,

        Gay and Lesbian agenda. Come on Rachel, you know it exists, that’s why you support it.
        Quaker Friends. I call my Quaker friends by their first names. What should I call them? I do not call them Friend(s) as I am not a Quaker. As far as courtesy is concerned, you ought to be humble enough to reflect on this comment and it further saddens me that you are unable to make more meaningful contributions to the debate – you seem to have forgotten what it is all about. Also, I am very concerned that you are representing yourself as a practising Christian and giving support to the assault upon the worth of the word marriage. GF I am sure would not agree with your quest to attempt to dilute, undermine and redefine marriage. In fact, as a practising Christian, you ought to be in support of its biblical definition and not against it. Shame on you.

  12. Posted by Phil W-E on 25 March, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    I had decided not to progress any further with this debate — “pushing buttons” is not something I have ever been involved in. To be accused of doing so I found not justified nor constructive and bad mannered. However, I keep getting updated comments as they are posted.

    I must say I have always been surprised by QLGF and unable to see why it was needed. I have found to be called a Friend and to be part of the diverse Quaker community sufficient? The being of QLGF can be seen as discriminatory, fancy and perhaps against simplicity — our badge of plainness. As to the meaning of marriage — it cannot be disputed. No matter what religious ceremony or changes to a law, the joining of same sex couples can never be a marriage and will lead to the ridicule of many loving couples. After the decision of Yearly Meeting in 2009 it was the one point picked up by the mainstream media and the reason you were “pitted” against Lord Singh by the BBC. The constant pushing and exposure of “we want to change the law” generates bad feeling towards same sex couples. Civil ceremonies are now respected and accepted and many are blessed in a church. In the couples I know, non feel they are not married in the true sense, or that they have been discriminated against and that trying to force further changes will take things back to the days of hatred. Sometimes seeking what you feel is a good and worth cause actually causes harm to those you hoped to help. As I Quaker, I accepted the YM 2009 decision and pray that it does not backfire.

    I find it remarkable that the Religious Society of Friends appears in 2012 to be known only to non Quakers for its stand on same sex marriages and for this subject to occupy so much time and resources. No longer are Quakers know to the world for their truthfulness, good works, peace testimony and kindness. I feel that too many socially active Friends are dogged in so called new Quaker ideas and taking up causes which although important to anyone with a vested interest are not urgent. Too much talking and writing which cannot be considered worthy — after all we are united in the depth of silence (the discipline I was raised with). Maybe we need to remember “In the Religious Society of Friends we commit ourselves not to words but to a way”


    • Dear Phil, I apologise for the one real misunderstanding between us, which is a result of my use of a colloquialism; when I talk about “pushing buttons” I don’t necessarily mean deliberate provocation. It’s a fact that some things you said made me cross because, unbeknownst to you, they happened to touch raw nerves (does that expression make more sense? it’s a rough equivalent); I also thought, from your response, that it was a fact that I’d, in turn, accidentally touched raw nerves and made you cross. Perhaps the latter wasn’t a correct reading of the situation. But that’s all I meant.

      Best wishes, Rachel


  13. Posted by David Anderson on 28 March, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    re: whether marriage is being redefined, is there anybody who really doesn’t understand what kind of relationship between two people is being described as ‘marriage’?
    I think at most you could argue that the meaning of ‘marriage’ is being extended. ‘Redefined’ would mean that the propsed use of the word is just not comprehensible without saying what the new definition is, and that is just not the case here.


    • Posted by Will Ellis on 29 March, 2012 at 12:20 pm

      Very simply, marriage needs no definition other than its accepted form. It is a Christian sacrament for the union of man and woman. Why complicate matters when there is no need to?


  14. Posted by recovering on 4 April, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    Um… I’m not an academic, or a Quaker.
    But, I have listened to the debate (several times, after reading what some people have written here), and I think that some of you are overly critical, and some of you are too personal in your criticisms. We are all adults. We are not children throwing stones in a playground. Comments such as “Oh dear, it would appear that every time you respond you seem to dig deeper holes for yourself.” are not really necessary (& this is just one comment of many, and from more than one person too!).
    I do not have the ‘credentials’ of many of you writing here, and I’m not as ‘well versed’ in arguments for / against gay marriage either. However, after listening to the debate, I don’t really see what there is not to understand about what Rachel said. I also don’t see why Rachel not ‘responding’ to Lord Singh’s ‘definition’ of marriage is a problem.
    I don’t think that Lord Singh even really defined marriage… He said that he didn’t think it should ‘redefined’ or ‘distorted’; however, this didn’t really seem to be for any ‘religious’ reason, but because, in the English language, marriage is generally understood to be between a heterosexual couple.
    Surely, that’s a fairly weak argument any way? Language is forever growing and changing! New words are added to the dictionary, and teenagers (especially) take already existing words, and give them a new meaning – yet they are still understood!
    I think it came across perfectly clearly that Rachel was saying that Quakers would welcome gay marriage because the ‘full religious meaning of marriage’ for them includes same-sex marriage…
    I really don’t see what all of the criticism was for… But, it’s not really the criticism I object to: it’s the ferocity of that criticism, and the bits that read like a personal attack on Rachel. That’s what I think is out of order.


  15. Posted by Jess H on 9 August, 2012 at 8:05 am

    How easy it is to argue with written words, digging holes in what was a short but well-presented and clearly formed radio debate by Rachel.

    You just have to wonder how these two condescending men would have done had this argument have been on Radio 4.


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