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?
Consider this scenario: Let’s say a gay couple has been legally married for ten years or so. Their lives are intertwined before they ever start talking with their pastor or priest or spiritual director about what it would look like to surrender their sexual lives to Christ’s lordship. They own a house together, they have a child, they’ve become each other’s closest confidant and support, and on and on. Let’s say, then, that they become convinced of traditional, biblical Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality. They come to believe, in short, that gay sex is not part of God’s design for the flourishing of a same-sex relationship. What should they do?
Obviously the answer to such a question can’t be given in the abstract. There can’t, I imagine, be a one-size-fits-all approach. You’d need to know the couple, and you’d need to have a lot of godly wisdom, in order to encourage them toward greater Christlikeness. And you’d also need to prepare for the fact that the pastoral responses to each partner might look different. But can we rule out that one possible answer for this couple is to stay together and continue parenting their child and give up having sex?
I’m sure that in some cases embracing traditional Christian teaching on sexuality might mean that such a couple would separate. For instance, when Rilene, a lesbian who had lived with her partner for 25 years and whose story is told in the very affecting film Desire of the Everlasting Hills, returned to the Roman Catholic Church, she discovered that her newfound desire to be chaste meant that her relationship with her partner slowly dwindled. She didn’t stop loving her partner, but they did end up separating. I expect that that’s a likely—albeit very painful and heartbreaking—outcome for many gay Christians who embrace chastity. And it shouldn’t be an outcome that we Christians consider beyond the pale—after all, we follow a Lord who told us to expect such drastic sacrifices: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).
And yet I also expect that not every gay Christian who sets out to submit to biblical, traditional Christian teaching on sex will follow in Rilene’s footsteps. Listen, for instance, to the counsel from the US Catholic bishops’ document Principles to Guide Confessors in Questions of Homosexuality (1973), quoted here by Aaron Taylor:
A homosexual can have an abiding relationship with another homosexual without genital sexual expression. Indeed, the deeper need of any human is for friendship rather than genital sexual expression … If a homosexual person has progressed under the direction of a confessor, but in the effort to develop a stable relationship with a given person has occasionally fallen into a sin of impurity, he should be absolved and instructed to take measures to avoid the elements which lead to sin without breaking off a friendship which has helped him grow as a person. If the relationship, however, has reached a stage where the homosexual person is not able to avoid overt actions, he should be admonished to break off the relationship. (p. 10-11)
I can well imagine negative reactions to this both from those who lean theologically Left and those who lean Right—and indeed I feel some of that nervousness myself, for all sorts of reasons!—but can we really rule this out as one faithful option?
A few years ago, a friend sent me a link to a sermon by Greg Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Woodland Hills is a theologically conservative Baptist church, and, given the history and stereotypes of conservative churches, that makes this sermon all the more remarkable. The sermon is a brief foray into a theology of singleness, stressing the passages in the Gospels where Jesus dignifies celibacy. Most interesting of all, though, at least to me, was the anecdote near the end about a gay couple who attended the church for a while.
As Boyd tells the story, the couple gradually became convinced, through conversations with their discipleship small group in the congregation, that they should give up having sex. But they resisted this conclusion for a while because they felt that it would mean giving up their long-term relationship as well. Boyd said that, to his delight, the couple’s friends at the church convinced them that not sleeping together didn’t mean they needed to stop living together or considering their relationship as a “forsaking all others” sort of commitment.
The story ends there, and of course we’re all wondering, “What happened next?” I’d love to know how this worked out. Reading between the lines, it sounded to me as if the couple is no longer at the church. I wonder, how did the relationship go, assuming they stayed committed to abstinence? In what sense did it maintain “exclusivity”? What avenues of pastoral care and admonition did they pursue? I have a million questions!
But here, it seems to me, “vowed” or “covenanted” friendship might be precisely the right pastoral model for such a couple. It may be that such couples are, as Eve Tushnet has written in a slightly different context, meant to remain part of one another’s vocations: “God may be calling [the two partners] to love [each other], even though that love shouldn’t be expressed sexually.” If churches that maintain the traditional biblical perspective on sexuality are truly committed to evangelism in the coming decades, then—please God—many such couples will be crossing our paths all the time. What will be our pastoral responses to them?
So—to return to Sam Allberry’s review of my book—I wonder if Sam’s criticisms overlook an area where “vowed friendship” will prove to be germane for the church as it navigates new cultural terrain. Despite all the potential problems in “covenanted” friendships—and let’s not forget there are equal but not identical temptations faced by gay Christians who are not in “covenanted” friendships, who are trying to navigate the unbiblical life of contemporary “singleness”—I still expect this to be a viable way forward for some gay Christians committed to Scripture and the Christian tradition, perhaps more than ever in the days ahead.