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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