Pushing at the Frontiers of Change - Review

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Pushing at the Frontiers of Change: a Memoir of Quaker Involvements with Homosexuality by David Blamires

Reviewed by Mitchell Santine Gould

According to David Blamires' new book, Pushing at the Frontiers of Change, the most influential document published by British Quakers in the Twentieth Century was probably a pamphlet entitled Towards a Quaker View of Sex (“VOS”). Pushing at the Frontiers of Change opens with an account of the creation of VOS at Cambridge University, where Blamires was a student at the time, and concludes with the 2009 decision by London Yearly Meeting to fully recognize gay marriage. In between, it covers a long chain of events set in motion within Friends Meetings and civil society.

As a student at Cambridge University from 1954 to 1960, Blamires had some vague realization that history was being made in the production of VOS, but he was not involved with it. “I had been in love with another man on three occasions before I realized that what I felt for them was what heterosexuals called love . . .”

“Many, many Friends,” said Blamires, found the publication of VOS in 1963 to be “a liberating experience.” This was the first time any Quakers had formally stated, “Homosexual affection can be as selfless as heterosexual affection, and therefore we cannot see that in some way it is morally worse.” This development was so astounding that it was mentioned by Time in 1964.

In 1970, Blamires joined the secular Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE). In reporting on this period, Blamires complains that historians “have ignored the ferment in the churches and concentrated on the more flamboyant and aggressive tactics of gay rights activists.” After all, CHE's secretary was a Quaker. A year later, The Friend published a book review that elicited homophobic letters, inspiring Blamires to submit an anonymous essay, “Homosexuality from the Inside.” At that point, The Friend became a conduit for a torrent of letters to Blamires from Quakers anxious for gay people to be treated with justice and compassion.

At some risk to himself, Blamires turned his essay into a book by the same name. This time, the response from Quakers and others was even stronger, and impressed upon him and his colleagues the need to provide support groups. Thus, Friends Homosexual Fellowship was formed. In addition to providing a safe place to explore the issues of coming out, this group introduced Quakers to the marginalized lesbian and gay members of their own faith by publishing a collection of autobiographical essays entitled Meeting Gay Friends. After it evolved into the Quaker Lesbian and Gay Fellowship, this organization also published a question-and-answer pamphlet called Speaking Our Truth, which was later expanded and retitled Part of the Rainbow. By 1987, VOS “had become completely outdated,” writes Blamires, and his colleagues became interested in publishing revealing, realistic, experiential reports of the personal implications of sexuality. The result is a book called, This We Can Say.

The final chapters of Pushing the Frontiers consider efforts by gay-rights advocates to foster full recognition of same-sex marriages in Quaker meetings during the 1990s. A final push by these advocates resulted eventually in the 2009 decision by London Yearly Meeting to not only perform same-sex marriages, but to petition the government to legally recognize them. Quakers “trained as theologians” then published an epistle entitled “We Are But Witnesses” to explain this step.

Before reading this book, it may help the reader to know that it's somewhat dry and abstract. I was also irritated by Blamires’ incessant usage of the demeaning psychiatric term, “homosexual,” even though his own account shows he has long been aware of the reasons gay people have rejected it. American Friends may find this book to be an interesting look through the transatlantic looking glass at a parallel universe of faith and practices that differs slightly but significantly from ours. All in all, it's a worthy history that reveals how Quaker testimonies play out in the real world. ~~~

Pushing the Frontiers of Change is published by Quaker Books, London.

Mitch Gould is a member of Multnomah Meeting in Portland, OR.  He is the curator of LeavesOfGrass.org, which publishes critical analyses of the works of Walt Whitman.