The Pastoral Promise of “Vowed” Friendships

Sam Allberry, a Christian minister and someone who has been open about his own same-sex attraction, has written a review of my Spiritual Friendship book, and this week I’ve been posting some responses to it (see the first one here and the second one here). I’m grateful to Sam for his engagement of what I’ve written. And because his reaction to my book is one that I’ve encountered before, I thought it would be worth talking about. So here, again, is Sam’s basic worry about my book:

… it seems to me that resurrecting “vowed” friendships will only add to the current confusion about friendship. It’s hard to imagine such friendships not being confused with sexual partnerships. We also need to be mindful of the potential danger, particularly for two friends with same-sex attraction, of fostering unhealthy intimacy and of emotional over-dependency…

This line of criticism is something we at SF tend to hear a lot, and I hope a lot of us here decide to write more about it in the near future. Francesca Aran Murphy voiced a similar worry about Eve Tushnet’s book Gay and Catholic: “It just seems to me that there’s something inherently erotic about ‘vows,’ so that ‘vowed friendship’ [as Tushnet calls it] is friendship perpetually on the verge of turning into erotic friendship.”

In a previous post I already gave some indication of how I’d respond to this: Basically, the fact that close, promise-bound friendships can be problematically “eroticized” doesn’t mean must be. The fact that something can become distorted doesn’t automatically mean the thing itself is bad. (For the positive case—that vowed friendships are, or can be, good, I’d say go read Eve’s book!)

Now for today here’s one other thought. Sam’s criticism seems to assume we’re talking about two gay Christian people who are contemplating entering a vowed friendship. But what about those who are already in such relationships?

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Waiting for a New—Doubtless Very Different—St. Aelred

An icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, an example of a pair of same-sex friends venerated in the church. My friend Becca Chapman wrote this for me, and it hangs on my wall as encouragement.

An icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, an example of a pair of same-sex friends venerated in the church. My friend Becca Chapman wrote this for me, and it hangs on my wall as encouragement.

In my last post I tried to respond to some of Sam Allberry’s criticisms of my Spiritual Friendship book. Today I’d like to keep going with that response. Here’s Sam again:

… it seems to me that resurrecting “vowed” friendships will only add to the current confusion about friendship. It’s hard to imagine such friendships not being confused with sexual partnerships. We also need to be mindful of the potential danger, particularly for two friends with same-sex attraction, of fostering unhealthy intimacy and of emotional over-dependency…

I think there is also a significant category confusion. Making a close friendship covenantal takes it from a familial setting to something more approximate to a marital one. But whereas marriage is necessarily (at least in Christian thinking) limited exclusively only to one, close friendship is not. We have the capacity for—and it may be healthier to cultivate—close friendship with a small number. This is not the case with marriage. A covenant may not be the best vehicle for the commitment we need, and yet are so often lacking, in friendships today.

I’ll have one more post about all this tomorrow, in which I’ll try to say something about why I think “vowed” friendships between two people of the same sex may become more pastorally important in the coming years. But for now let me just make one point.

Where Sam (I think!) reads me as an advocate for reviving “vowed” friendships—for getting the practice of two same-sex friends making a public commitment to each other back on the table in the contemporary church—I see myself more as an advocate for reimagining such friendships.

In other words, I tend to think (and who knows if I’m right) that a minority of us gay Christians who are seeking to live chastely in accord with Scriptural teaching will find ourselves in a two-person “vowed” friendship. And yet, at the same time, I want all of us to take courage and hope from the rich, varied, surprising, and exciting history of such friendships in past eras of Christian history.

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Can Vows Change Friendships? And Should They?

Sam Allberry (whose own story of being a Christian and coming to terms with his same-sex attraction you can watch here) has written a sharp, charitable take on my new book Spiritual Friendship, and I’m grateful to him for it. While I don’t want to turn this blog into a platform for promoting my books, I do think, in this particular case, reflecting on what Sam says may help all of us grapple more deeply with what we’re trying to accomplish on this blog.

Sam says a lot of kind things about the book, but here is his primary substantive criticism:

[Hill] exhorts us to reconsider the place of covenanted friendships in the life of the church. No one can deny what earlier Christian generations can teach us about friendship. Nor can we deny that a lack of commitment drives so much of our contemporary loneliness. But it seems to me that resurrecting “vowed” friendships will only add to the current confusion about friendship. It’s hard to imagine such friendships not being confused with sexual partnerships. We also need to be mindful of the potential danger, particularly for two friends with same-sex attraction, of fostering unhealthy intimacy and of emotional over-dependency. One of the heartbreaking episodes recounted in chapter five suggests at least something of this. Hill anticipates these concerns but does not allay them for me.

I think there is also a significant category confusion. Making a close friendship covenantal takes it from a familial setting to something more approximate to a marital one. But whereas marriage is necessarily (at least in Christian thinking) limited exclusively only to one, close friendship is not. We have the capacity for—and it may be healthier to cultivate—close friendship with a small number. This is not the case with marriage. A covenant may not be the best vehicle for the commitment we need, and yet are so often lacking, in friendships today.

I have three main thoughts in response to this line of criticism. I’ll post the first one today and the second and third ones later in the week.

The first is simply that Sam and I may have a genuine disagreement here! I share all of Sam’s concerns about the dangers that might arise in a “covenanted” same-sex friendship, including co-dependency, sexual temptation, and others. But I have become more and more convinced that abusus non tollit usum (“the abuse of a thing does not negate its proper use”). Is it an adequate argument against committed, promise-bound friendships to note that they may go badly wrong? I’m not yet persuaded that it is.

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Hoping for Love

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My friend Alan Jacobs, a traditional sort of Anglican Christian, wrote this the day after the Obergefell ruling:

Perhaps I am soft on sin, or otherwise deficient in serious Christian formation — actually, it’s certain that I am — but in any case I could not help being moved by many of the scenes yesterday of gay people getting married, even right here in Texas. I hope that many American gays and lesbians choose marriage over promiscuity, and I hope those who marry stay married, and flourish.

I know what he’s saying. I felt that too.

But I was thinking more today, What is that experience? For those of us like me who hold to a Christian view of marriage that contradicts the SCOTUS definition, what does it mean to be moved by scenes of gay marriage?

Well, for starters—and I’m speaking for myself here, not necessarily for Alan—I think that for many, many (not all) gay people in America today, the options have not been (1) belong to a healthy, vibrant Christian community in which celibacy is held in high esteem and deep spiritual friendships with members of the same sex and opportunities for loving service and hospitality abound or (2) be in a romantic relationship with a partner of the same sex. That has not been the choice facing many gay and lesbian people. Instead, for many (not all) today, the options have been (1) be ostracized (or worse) in church and effectively live without meaningful same-sex closeness of any kind or (2) be in a romantic relationship with a partner of the same sex. Listen, readers, this is the reality for many gay people who have had a brush with the Christian church in recent years:

So many people have been told (explicitly) that they aren’t welcome, treated as problems rather than persons. They’ve been disowned, had their trust betrayed and their confidences exposed, been kicked out of their homes and their churches, threatened with expulsion. They’ve listened as preachers proclaimed that people like them were destroying the church, that their desires were uniquely and Satanically destructive, that homosexuality by its nature cut them off from God; that their only hope for a faithful Christian life was to repent of their homosexuality, become straight, and get married. All by Christians who claimed that their actions were the result of their faith in Jesus.

And often this abuse—I know labels can obscure complexity but in this case I think naming the abuse is important—is inflicted on people who are trying to live out the full Christian sexual ethic. The treatment they receive would be unjustifiable even if (and even when) they reject Christian teaching on homosexuality, but what’s sort of amazing is that simply self-identifying as gay or even “struggling with same-sex attraction” will earn you condemnation and shame in many Christian communities. Your shame is treated as a sign of faith; any hints of self-acceptance are treated as rejection of God. It should come as little surprise that many of the people who receive this mistreatment eventually reject (what I believe to be) the Christian sexual ethic, and often reject Christianity entirely.

So, I think part of the reason I got a lump in my throat on Friday as I was scrolling through news feeds and seeing gay friends’ pictures pop up on Facebook and Twitter is because I know that for so many of these people, the alternative to their current jubilation has been a gulf of loneliness and marginalization. I persist in believing in the traditional Christian picture of marriage—what G. K. Chesterton once called a “triangle of truisms,” i.e., “father, mother and child”—but I know that when many people depart from it, they’re doing so after undergoing a significant amount of ill-treatment.

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Clarification on Our Mixed Orientation Marriage

Back in January, I wrote a post about my mixed-orientation marriage with Anna. Since then, I’ve mulled over things I wish I’d said a little better, and things I would have liked to include but didn’t.

The reactions to the post were varied. Many people in our lives voiced their support and gratitude that we’re sharing our journey with them. Others were confused and, quite frankly, turned off by it all. Some saw it as a situation to be fixed, a broken “half-marriage” if you will. Those who do life with us day to day, and those who know us well, are fully aware that this isn’t the case. But with the limited picture painted for them in a few thousand words, I can understand how many see a much more dire circumstance than what actually is.

The fact of the matter is that it is impossible, in the scope of a blog post, to capture all that a marital (or any significant) relationship is. And just as it is important to consider authorial intent when reading divinely inspired scripture, so too must a reader consider the purpose of any writer when making inferences and forming impressions and opinions based on that writer’s words. In fact, I imagine that if we all, myself included, got a little better at that, we’d get a lot further in dialogue with those whose beliefs and experiences run so counter to our own.

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Interview with Jonathan Merritt

Over at his Religion News Service site blog yesterday, Jonathan Merritt interviewed yours truly about my new book Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian.

The interview started off with my saying,

According to Christian writers of the past, spiritual or Christ-centered friendship—the kind of friendship I’m writing about—is a bond between two (or more) people who feel affection for each other. But it’s also a bond that has a trajectory. It’s a relationship that’s about helping one another along towards deeper love of God and neighbor. I like that but would add that as those sorts of friendships mature and deepen, they often start to become more committed and permanent. It’s almost as if the friends want to become more like spiritual siblings.

And it goes on from there. Read the whole thing.

“Chaste, Gay Couples” and the Church

I’ve noticed curiosity recently about the idea of “chaste, gay couples”—couples who accept the Church’s historic teaching on sexuality, yet live together in an exclusive, committed partnership.

Celibate, LGBT, Christian couple Lindsey and Sarah have been blogging for just over a year now at A Queer Calling—an excellent resource that is popular with many people I know (including myself). Eve Tushnet devotes space to talking about “vowed friendships” in her new book Gay and Catholic (I think Tushnet is talking about something slightly different from couplehood—but this point has been lost on some of her critics). And, late last year, the Anchoress hosted a discussion at Patheos entitled, “Homosexuality, Celibacy and Partnership: An Awkward Question,” in which Ben Conroy asks:

If we accept some of the distinctions these writers [at Spiritual Friendship] have made—that to be gay is not reducible to what the catechism calls “deep-seated homosexual tendencies”, that being gay can be a call to particular, unique kinds of virtue, that the modern, Western notion of sexual and romantic partnership has appropriated kinds of love that historically were also found in non-sexual relationships—doesn’t that open up a space for the idea of a committed, lifelong, celibate partnership between two gay people as being a valid vocation, a holy thing, a place where virtue and love might flourish? [emphasis in original]

Two Friends

I can’t possibly hope to answer that question fully now, so what I offer here are two pointers for further conversation about this issue. One is positive, the other cautionary, since I’ve noticed two common reactions to the idea of chaste couplehood—firstly, censorious condemnations from right-wing Christians, but also, over-enthusiasm from some young gay Christians.

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John Corvino: Remembering Robert

Today is World AIDS Day. According to UNAIDS, over 75 million people have been infected by HIV, and over 35 million of those have died. Behind each of those lives and deaths is a story. I thought I’d share this story (originally written in 2002), from my friend John Corvino. It’s a reminder that—despite protease inhibitors and drug cocktails and “the end of the plague”—AIDS still kills:

johncorvinoLast month I learned of the death of an ex-partner.  It’s an odd feeling to lose to death someone whom one has already lost to painful separation.  But it’s a loss nevertheless.

Robert and I met as graduate students in philosophy at the University of Texas.  I had just “escaped” from Notre Dame, and I had high hopes for Austin.  It was 1991: Ann Richards was governor, and the UT student-body president was an African-American lesbian socialist.  (“Toto, we’re not in South Bend anymore.”)

Robert approached me at the new students’ party.  Physically, he wasn’t my type, but there was something about him I found mesmerizing.  He had a keen intellect and a razor wit.  We got into an argument during that party—the good kind, the kind that philosophers thrive on.  We quickly became friends, and then something more.

The relationship is hard to explain to people who didn’t know us (and even to some who did).  It was passionate but not sexual; full of conflict yet strangely comfortable.  The contradictions suited us.  Most people were unaware that we didn’t have sex, which was fine with us.  (How many of us know the details of our partnered friends’ sex lives?)  Some would say the relationship didn’t “count”, but it counted to us, and that was what mattered.

He had a brilliant sense of humor.  Robert, who had grown up in Odessa, often poked fun at his West Texas roots.  He used to steal phone-message pads from the philosophy department secretary and then leave notes in my office mailbox, often beginning with “Robert Ramirez, of Paris, New York, and Odessa, called…”

Read the rest of the article on John’s site >>

‘Til Death Do Us Part (and Why That’s About Friendship Too)

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I wrote the cover story for this month’s issue of Christianity Today on—you guessed it!—friendship.

A lot of what I say in the piece grew out of conversations here at SF, and I am truly grateful to you all for reading and thinking with me over the past months about these things. A fuller version will appear in my forthcoming book, but until then, here’s a teaser trailer:

I imagine a future in the church when the call to chastity would no longer sound like a dreary sentence to lifelong loneliness for a gay Christian like me. I imagine Christian communities in which friendships are celebrated and honored—where it’s normal for families to live near or with single people; where it’s expected that celibate gay people would form significant attachments to other single people, families, and pastors; where it’s standard practice for friends to spend holidays together or share vacations; where it’s not out of the ordinary for friends to consider staying put, resisting the allure of constant mobility, for the sake of their friendships. I imagine a church where genuine love isn’t located exclusively or even primarily in marriage, but where marriage and friendship and other bonds of affection are all seen as different forms of the same love we all are called to pursue.

By shifting our practice of friendship to a more committed, honored form of love, we can witness—above all—to a kingdom in which the ties between spiritual siblings are the strongest ties of all. Marriage, Jesus tells us, will be entirely transformed in the future, barely recognizable to those who know it in its present form (Matt. 22:30). Bonds of biology, likewise, are relativized in Jesus’ world (Mark 3:31–35). But the loves that unite Christians to each other across marital, racial, and familial lines are loves that will last. More than that, they are loves that witness that Christ’s love is available to all. Not everyone can be a parent or a spouse, but anyone and everyone can be a friend.

Read the whole thing.

Love True Love, Wherever It Exists

Recently, Wesley Hill posted some wonderful thoughts here about the film Desire of the Everlasting Hills. It is a captivating documentary about three Christians who either return or convert to Catholic Christianity, leaving behind active homosexual lifestyles. There are so many wonderful takeaways, many of which Wes highlights quite well. But I want to focus on one aspect of their stories that struck me as particularly powerful: sacrificial love.

It is no secret that the theological river where I happily find myself swimming believes in a traditional, Side B sexual ethic where all sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is contrary to the clear teaching of scripture. I have no qualms with the teaching. However, many times this strongly held belief can go too far, resulting in characterizations of gay people in monogamous relationships that are misinformed or worse (homophobic).

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