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.

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.

12 thoughts on “Waiting for a New—Doubtless Very Different—St. Aelred

  1. I take back my words on the other thread. I know understand what Wes is saying as he doesn’t rule out friendship with one or more persons of one or more sex or sexual orientation.

    Thank you Wes.

  2. What is wrong with a vowed friendship? And why should we allow our dysfunctional culture dictate how friendships should be? Wes, didn’t you write about a vowed friendship in your book modeled on the old style between two women (or maybe you posted a link to that story). It was two straight women. You seem to be backtracking a bit and caving to Sam’s concerns.

    I understand what Sam is saying, but it leans to much toward legalism. Adding burdens that Scripture does not. Not only should gay people not have sex, but let’s keep them from having any vowed friendship that could provide needed support in their life. Heck, for good measure maybe we should lie on a bed of nails too.

    There is a difference between a healthy bond in which the vow facilitates a familial relationship versus a dysfunctional, emotionally dependent, sexually tense relationship. Sam doesn’t seem to recognize the difference.

    • PS: Part of the problem is that in Sam’s quote above he conflates “close friendship” with “familial” so that all he is left with is “marital.” Friendship is *not* familial. Familial involves permanent bound relationship either through blood, adoption, marriage or other vow. Obviously a vowed friendship based on former examples would be more akin to adoption than marriage. One makes a friend a “blood brother” so to speak through a ritual and vow. Family has much, much more obligations involved than friendship. Friendship simply doesn’t cut it which is why most celibate gay people are quite lonely despite having friends. What we need is family regardless if that involves marriage.

  3. Allberry’s remark that a vowed friendship takes the friendship from the familial to more like the marital doesn’t make sense to me. In my mind, it takes the friendship from no status to a familial status.

    I like your different descriptions of what form this could take. It seems to me that all of them are about “family-building,” whether it is adding a god-father or a brother or a sister or an aunt or an uncle, or something more like John Newman’s friendship.

    Yes, there may be “category confusion” but that’s only because the culture has strayed so far from what family and friendship meant in the Bible and throughout most of the history of Christianity. I don’t mind adding to the “confusion” to get things back on track.

    It seems similar to some of the ideas about developing a kind of Christian marriage “called” covenantal, even though they’re all supposed to be, because what is now called marriage in this country is so far from the Christian model (and was even before the recent SCOTUS decision).

    Similarly, a vowed friendship is a way of bringing back some of the covenantal or family-building meaning that friendship used to have. And because the definition is not based on sex, there’s no reason it couldn’t involve any sexual minority as a participant to the vow.

    So a young person who is becoming aware of their orientation would not need to rule out joining a family, or starting a small household vowed to each other.

    And it would be more in keeping with the Bible and Christian tradition.

  4. Not sure what “emotional over-dependence” is supposed to mean in the context of same-sex friendships that for some reason isn’t a concern for married couples operating under the modern romantic constructs…

  5. I don’t see anything wrong with friends, in any capacity, who care for and love each other coming together and pursuing a living arrangement in relationship with each other, whether it has vows or not. I would see the necessity of making vows- formally- as more of a way to protect certain property rights that might be shared under the arrangement or where there has been a reliance on each other for a period of time. As an aside, in our current culture we make it too much about `our business` what the nature of someone’s live in relationship is- even if there is a sexual component we might want to start showing more sensitivity to ties that are binding LGBTQ people together. I only say that based on a couple of gay relationships I know of which cooled off after many years and the sexual component to the relationship was gone but the couples remained together as companions because they loved one another. It would depend also what the starting point of the relationship was. Was the relationship already formed and then they became Christians afterwards OR would entering a relationship and running the risk of developing a sexual component be an inner conflict or a matter of conscience to them? Obviously most churches are not ready for fostering or affirming those kind of relationships . So it seems when you say you are getting married everyone associates that with having sex and or children but having an avowed friendship I think you are saying something different along the lines that I am committed to this person in a devoted and intentional lifelong way. I think as someone who is LGBTQ I would consider the merits of that kind of relationship.

  6. Pingback: The Pastoral Promise of “Vowed” Friendships | Spiritual Friendship

  7. Some practical musings …

    A Christian vowed friendship could identify the intention of the friends to be family to each other for life, and to follow the sexual requirements of the Church. In some cases, as when one of the friends is married, this identification may not be needed. But in the case of opposite sex heterosexual friends who are not married to each other or anyone else, or in the case of same sex homosexual or bisexual friends, it would clarify that the relationship is not marital; and thus for a Christian not sexual.

    There would need to be prudential guidelines for the cases where the friends shared a household and were potentially sexually attracted to each other. But that would apply independent of sexual orientation per se.

    With heterosexual couples, we can theoretically identify who is and isn’t intending to follow the Church’s teaching on sexual relationships by the presence or absence of marriage. A vowed friendship could do the same thing by identifying that the relationship is meant to be familial but not marital.

    This could potentially make it easier for Churches to accept gay people in vowed relationships by making it possible to assume that they are in agreement with Church teaching on this subject. This is not a minor thing, considering so many Christians seem to believe a sexually active gay relationship is in agreement with Church teaching. At least it could take away some of the excuse for people to automatically question the chastity of a gay couple.

  8. I’m sort of spitballing here, so this may or may not be helpful. I see the vowing of spiritual friendships to be familial, but in a way that shares some aspects of the marital (though not the sexual aspect). Perhaps this is because familial is increasingly non-committal in a way that friendship can also be, making the strong vows that we think of as marital more necessary.

    By way of example, my wife and I have a friend who, besides one another, each of us would consider our best friend. He is gay and celibate and longs for this sort of familial connection and commitment. As our friendship with him has deepened, we find that we desire the same sort of commitment and connection to him. While what the three of us have discussed isn’t as intimate as what my wife and I share, it is more intimate than what any of us share with any of the rest of our friends and even our parents or siblings. It’s the kind of commitment that would include shared geography (perhaps even shared living space, but certainly a shared day in day out of life), and shared decision making about budgets and jobs and even the raising of mine and my wife’s son. To make this kind of connection demands this kind of commitment, something that includes vows made. It may be less than what my wife and I have committed to one another, but something stronger than commitments we’ve made in other friend and family relationships, similar to the “your God will be my God and your people my people” promise shared by Ruth and Naomi.

    This commitment is still in the theoretical discussion phase, but it strikes me as something that would require a vowing, were we to ever pursue it. It would mean the sort of lifetime commitment that goes beyond even the closest of friendships and makes of them a family.

  9. Pingback: Dinner Invitations, Yes, but also Sharing Houses | Spiritual Friendship

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