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.
As I tried to make clear in my book, I often think about “vowed” friendships as a sort of icon or signpost offering inspiration and motivation, rather than a blueprint that we ought to try to imitate in every detail. At one point, I cheekily wrote, “I hardly expect my Anglican church, for instance, to get excited about the Orthodox rite of adelphopoiesis, or ‘brother-making,’ anytime soon.” What I was trying to say with that remark (and others like it scattered throughout the book) was that I’m not sure it’s feasible, or even helpful, to try to repristinate the older traditions of vowed friendship. Such friendships flourished in a world whose assumptions about kinship, mobility, and sexuality (to name just a few factors) were very different than ours. Those friendships had support and communicated meaning in such a way that they wouldn’t automatically now, if we simply transplanted them into our context.
As with many other practices of the Christian past that most of us tend to live out differently now in the modern West—take the “kiss of peace” (Romans 16:16) for example, or the wearing of veils (1 Corinthians 11:2-16), or the washing of feet (John 13:14)—I assume that vowed friendship, also, will be practiced more today by unearthing the basic impulses and instincts that gave rise to it in the first place and then imagining ways to embody those things afresh today. As I wrote in my book,
[I]f we translate the practice of committed, promise-bound friendships into our time, we can retrieve some of the wisdom of those relationships and apply it afresh in our own changed contexts. This will, of course, require imagination and an ability to improvise. I can’t kneel at a communion rail and make vows to my friend under stained-glass-tinted Easter morning sunbeams. But I can learn from historical precedents and look for ways to reclaim their benefits in my own cultural contexts.
In my own case—and this is something I’d like to try to write more about sometime—improvising on the old form of “vowed” friendship has most often meant forming close relationships with married couples. That’s a very different thing, obviously, than making promises to one other friend. I’ve described elsewhere my experience of becoming a godfather to one of my married couple friends’ daughter and making a public commitment, in the context of a Eucharistic service, to help bring her up in the faith. That was an anchoring moment in my life, a time when I knew I was being intentionally drawn deeper into a committed relationship with an entire family. I’ve also described the time when a minister friend came over and prayed a blessing on my friendship with another couple, since we felt that our friendship was increasingly taking on a more overtly familial and for-the-duration sort of hue.
None of these experiences in my life has been a “vowed” friendship per se, but these experiences certainly have taken a good deal of inspiration from the rich Christian history of vowed friendships. I view these relationships and experiences as very much in continuity with what St. Aelred, John Henry Newman, Pavel Florensky, and the rite of adelphopoiesis were all trying to promote.
I’ll say more tomorrow about why I’m not trying to make my experience the norm here, but it did seem worth mentioning why I didn’t fully recognize my own position in Sam’s criticisms of my book.