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The Problem of Gay Friendship

Rounding the bend in the road from the village of Thirsk in North Yorkshire, your first glimpse of Rievaulx Abbey will take your breath away. One minute you’re on a backcountry lane, charmed by the gentle slopes and the green of the farmlands but unprepared for the sudden sight of gray stone walls and arches. The next minute you’re staring at an eleventh-century Cistercian ruin, enclosed in a wooded dale like an unearthed treasure. Coming from the opposite direction, from the east, you might have the reaction my friend described to me once in an e-mail: “I’ve only ever approached Rievaulx on foot, after the over-the-moors-and-through-the-forest walk from Helmsley, but whenever I go there, I imagine those first monks standing in that valley, with the lovely little river running through it and the low wooded hills to break the wind, and saying, ‘Yes. This is the place.’”

My one visit to Rievaulx was a pilgrimage of sorts to honor Aelred, the abbey’s fourth abbot who ruled the Benedictine community from 1147 until his death in 1167. Known best for his treatises On Spiritual Friendship and The Mirror of Charity, in which he sketched a vision for monastic community, Aelred has become the unofficial patron saint of friendship, owing to his powerful depiction of the spiritual fruitfulness of same-sex love. I went to Rievaulx out of gratitude for that witness. I stood in what remains of the abbot’s quarters—now just a stone outline indicating where the four walls would have been—and said a prayer of thanks for the treatises that say of friendship what we moderns typically reserve for marital love: “See to what limits love should reach among friends, namely to a willingness to die for each other.”1

Distinguishing between “carnal” or “worldly” friendship on the one hand and a higher, Christ-like friendship on the other, Aelred maintained, in the face of his detractors’ suspicions and misgivings, that two or more monks could achieve a holy, purified intimacy that involved something like kinship ties or spousal promises. Echoing Cicero, he wrote, “Friendship is agreement in things human and divine, with good will and charity,” but it was his christological retooling of Cicero that sealed the argument: “Though challenged, though injured, though tossed into the flames, though nailed to a cross, a friend loves always.”2 The reason monks could forge such deep bonds of friendship, Aelred thought, is that Christ had already shown them the way.

For many of his contemporary admirers, however, Aelred’s significance goes deeper than this. The late historian John Boswell, in his classic work of revisionist historiography Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, puts it bluntly: “There can be little question that Aelred was gay and that his erotic attraction to men was a dominant force in his life.”3 Accordingly, many readers have seen in Aelred and his treatises the possibility of a Christian affirmation of gay partnerships. Aelred’s writings on friendship, in this view, may be read as commendations not just of chaste, intimate same-sex relationships but also of specifically romantic partnerships between men (and, by extension, between women). Aelred becomes, consequently, the patron saint of gay and lesbian love, the historical forerunner of advocates for same-sex marriage in the church today.

Reading Aelred in this way, as an advocate for gay marriage, is indicative of a wider phenomenon that might be described as the recovery or—better, I think—the reinterpretation of friendship. While many are investing in the fight for the legalization and celebration of same-sex marriage, another group of writers and thinkers have suggested that friendship, rather than matrimony, could be the more useful category for thinking about gay partnerships. The British theologian Elizabeth Stuart, for example, has suggested that “a great many lesbian and gay people understand their committed sexual relationships not in terms of marriage or of ‘living together’ like unmarried heterosexual couples, but in terms of friendship.”4 Drawing on the insights of queer theory and mindful of the problems attending a simple transfer of heterosexual norms and expectations to gay relationships, Stuart and others look to friendship—with its voluntary, nonhierarchical bonds of affection—as a potentially fruitful model for understanding the significance of erotic same-sex partnerships. The result may be, as sociologist Peter Nardi has expressed it, that gay and lesbian people have “elevated friendship to an importance perhaps not matched by any other group.”5 And “friendship,” in this view, comes to entail sexual expression.

Yet it is testimony to the elusive potential of a concept like friendship that, starting from the same place—an affirmation of friendship’s rich goodness—a wholly different picture could emerge, in sharp contrast to Stuart’s and other queer theorists’. What if instead of undergirding and ratifying sexually expressive same-sex partnerships, friendship were conceived as an alternative way of interpreting gay desire itself? What if instead of providing a way of thinking about the significance of gay sex, as Stuart considers it, friendship allowed gay people to question the necessity of gay sex altogether? Put differently, what if friendship could somehow make it possible to conceive of gay sex as unnecessary for gay relationships to be fully themselves?

Going back to Aelred, it’s significant that most of the saint’s gay admirers admit that, although the eleventh-century abbot likely experienced what we now call a “homosexual orientation,” he himself was celibate. The man who could describe a friend as one “to whom you so join and unite yourself that you mix soul with soul” and one whom you could embrace “in the kiss of unity, with the sweetness of the Holy Spirit flowing over you” apparently never had gay sex.6 What Aelred called “spiritual friendship” was a form of same-sex intimacy that sublimated or transmuted erotic passion rather than sanctioning its genital expression. In light of this, I wonder what it might look like to part ways with Aelred’s largest circle of admirers today and attempt to recover the abbot’s original vision of an intimacy between friends that doesn’t involve a physical, sexual union.

Those of us who wish to continue to uphold a traditional Christian sexual ethic are faced with the problem of how best to promote the flourishing of our fellow believers who are gay or lesbian. For the past several decades, the options have seemed relatively clear-cut: either one could encourage gay and lesbian believers to abandon the traditional Christian ethic and to seek an ecclesial blessing for their same-sex partnership (as so many mainline denominations have done recently), or one could encourage them to attempt to follow that ethic and seek “reparative therapy” in the hope that their same-sex attractions might be diminished to the point that heterosexual marriage might become a viable possibility.

Both of these options are frequently chosen, and yet both, I think, involve significant problems. The ecclesial blessing for same-sex partnerships requires one to dismantle the entire edifice of two thousand years of Christian teaching on embodiment, marriage, and celibacy—namely, that marriage is a sacred bond between one man and one woman and that sexual expression is permissible only within that covenantal relationship, whereas those who live outside that covenant are called to celibacy. The latter option of reparative therapy, meanwhile, requires an optimistic belief in the possibility of change for each and every gay and lesbian person. In recent years, however, a growing number of theologically conservative gay and lesbian Christians have raised serious doubts about the warrants for that optimism. Reparative therapy seems to have led to lasting change for some; but for many others, it has led to bitter disappointment and to the especially poignant suffering of being considered a person “of little faith.” For every success story, there seem to be a dozen others who testify to no real shift in their sexual orientation—to the point that the leader of the best known “ex-gay” organization in North America last year said, in a moment of unguarded honesty, that the “majority of people I have met, and I would say the majority meaning 99.9% of them, have not experienced a change in their orientation.”7 (Or, in the more precise terms of the Jones and Yarhouse longitudinal study of “sexual orientation change efforts,” 14 of 97 subjects reported “successful ‘conversion’ to heterosexual orientation” whereby “Most of the individuals who reported that they were heterosexual . . . did not report themselves to be without experience of homosexual arousal, and did not report heterosexual orientation to be unequivocal and uncomplicated.”8)

In contrast to both of these models, a recovery of Aelred’s vision of spiritual friendship could encourage gay and lesbian Christians that the scriptural and historic Christian understanding of marriage and sexuality is worth preserving. And also as a part of retrieving Aelred’s vision, we must own up to the fact that many people, through no choice of their own, have (in all likelihood unchangeable) sexual inclinations that will prevent them from marrying a member of the opposite sex. Continuing to take our cues from Aelred, we must also insist that these people are not to be denied intimacy, communion, and love. On the contrary, we ought to affirm that they have a need both to pour out love for God and neighbor and to receive that love from others in return. And in light of this, I suggest that friendship is a specific vocation to which they may find themselves called. Rather than seeing friendship as entailing sexual expression, we should insist that we envision celibate intimacy—but real intimacy nonetheless. We could say to our fellow believers who are gay and lesbian, “You, too, are called to love and be loved, and here is one path by which you may pursue that calling: by seeking out friendship with others of the same sex, by loving other men and women with a chaste, holy love.”

Such a model has already been explored in this connection, in fact. In 1995, when a group of conservative Anglican theologians drafted “An Examination of the Theological Principles Affecting the Homosexuality Debate,” otherwise known as the “St. Andrew’s Day Statement,” they speculated:

Both vocations [to marriage and singleness] in their different ways give equal expression to the blessing of human friendship, which is sanctified by Christ who calls us his friends (John 15:13-15; cf. Isa. 41:8) and elevated in him to become the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14). Every aspect of our common life in Christ, friendship included, has a properly exploratory character: understanding our humanity in him, we are freed from human constructs to search out and discover the richness of creation that is opened to us by God’s redeeming work.9

In other words, gay and lesbian Christians who, by virtue of their biblical and traditional convictions, commit themselves to a life of celibacy may find that they are thereby positioned to befriend others and to be befriended. Far from being asked to deny their impulse to reach out for communion and companionship, they may find that impulse sanctified, taken up, and transmuted in a divine economy that is always in the business of dispensing grace in the midst of (not only in the removal of) human weakness.

Admittedly, however, there are problems with this model too. For instance, Gerald Bray responded to his fellow Anglicans who crafted the St. Andrew’s Day Statement with a caution: “To suggest, however obliquely, that friendship can be a homosexual substitute for marriage is dangerous and potentially destructive of the whole concept.”10 Drawing on the ancient distinction between eros and philia, Bray worried that if friendship were seen as entailing the sublimation of erotic love, then the whole Western ideal of self-giving, nonacquisitive love between members of the same sex may find itself on shaky ground. The only way friendship can be preserved as friendship is, apparently, if it is sharply distinguished from romantic attraction. One thinks too, in this connection, of C. S. Lewis’s contrasting images of erotic love and the love of friendship: we picture lovers face to face, lost in each other’s eyes, but we picture friends shoulder to shoulder, looking outward, engaged in some common pursuit. If the friends should turn and face one another, the whole tenor of their comradeship would be altered beyond recognition, and friendship as a unique form of human affection would be compromised.

More practically, it does seem worrisome, for those committed to chastity, to think of same-sex closeness becoming the occasion for sin. Imagine two gay Christian friends, both living a celibate life, who follow Aelred’s counsel and love one another so much that they commit to the possibility of laying down their lives on one another’s behalf. Surely, in such a friendship, the temptation to transgress sexual boundaries is immense—perhaps too immense to risk such closeness?

Pondering these dangers, though, I find myself thinking of another danger emerging from the opposite direction. I think of the gay Christians I know (among whom I count myself), and I remember the stories of their loneliness. I think of their despair over the lack of intimate human communion in their churches, and I wonder what can be done about it. From the vantage point afforded by their suffering, I find myself wondering whether celibacy without close friendship is really viable after all. And I wonder, which is the greater danger—the possibility of sexual transgression or the burden (and the attendant temptations) of isolation created by the absence of human closeness? A great company of saints witnesses to the fact that we can indeed flourish without sex; I don’t know of one who witnesses to the possibility of our flourishing without love.

To the John Boswells and Elizabeth Stuarts of the world, I want to insist that Aelred’s vision of spiritual friendship need not, and ought not, be co-opted for the project of overturning traditional Christian sexual ethics. But to my fellow traditionalist believers, I want to place Aelred’s vision as a disturbing question mark over our pastoral approach to the question of homosexuality. If we can’t envision a way for celibate gay Christians to embody his ideal of same-sex companionship today, what is our alternative way of ensuring that those Christians aren’t asked to shoulder a burden beyond what they can bear? Outside the cloister of an idyllic eleventh-century abbey in North Yorkshire, what is our solution to the problem of gay loneliness?


1. Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, trans. L. C. Braceland (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010), 78.

2. Ibid., 57 and 59.

3. Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 222.

4. Stuart, Just Good Friends: Towards a Lesbian and Gay Theology of Relationships (London, UK: Mowbray, 1995), 28.

5. Nardi, “That’s What Friends Are For: Friends as Family in the Gay and Lesbian Community,” in Modern Homosexualities: Fragments of Lesbian and Gay Experience, ed. Ken Plummer (London, UK: Routledge, 1992), 120, as quoted in Stuart, Just Good Friends, 36.

6. Aelred of Rievaulx, De speculo caritatis, as quoted in Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, 225.

7. Warren Throckmorton, “Alan Chambers: 99.9% Have Not Experienced a Change in Their Orientation,” Patheos, January 9, 2012, http://wthrockmorton.com/2012/01/alan-chambers-99-9-have-not-experienced-a-change-in-their-orientation/.

8. Stanton L. Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse, “A Longitudinal Study of Attempted Religiously-Mediated Sexual Orientation Change,” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy 37 (2011): 404–27.

9. The statement is available along with a range of responses from theologians such as Jeffrey John and Rowan Williams in Timothy Bradshaw, ed., The Way Forward? Christian Voices on Homosexuality and the Church, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004).

10. Bray, “Call to Biblical Values,” in The Way Forward?, 42. See also C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace, 1960), 60–61.

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Wesley Hill :
Wesley Hill is an assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (2010) and is currently at work on a book about friendship.
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  • Tom

    A gay Christian is perhaps better to have strong and close friendships with straight people rather than with gay people. Or if with gay people, then better that they are those to whom s/he does not feel attracted.

  • David Garner

    This is an administrative test.

  • Tim

    All serious commited relationships require discipline to keep them special / holy. Marriage vows and traditional conventions of society act as a help and prop, yet evidently unfaithfulness can occur in all relationships – always in a detrimental way. So commitment and discipline in a same sex relationship is good and worthy, but it is harder to imagine an intimate relationship where the couple would possibly like to enjoy the sexual dimension – but discipline themselves not to, than it is to imagine someone chosing to live a celibate life “alone”., or choosing to embace a homosexual relationship. Surely, as you say, it’s placing too much temptation in the way. For all I know it may be possible, but doesn’t seem a viable model for many, practically, for all it’s ideals. I really think the “greatest love” which shows itself by the laying down of one’s life is not at all restricted to or even envisioned as relating to special friendships. We see acts of selfless “love” often enough between strangers in crises situations – call it heroism if you like, but it can’t be belittled.But of course, ultimately Jesus was referring to his own real sacrifice on the cross.
    Still, an interesting article, highlighting the difficulty of being holy in such circumstances.

  • Chris Roberts

    It has been nearly fifteen years since I read Aelred (and lived in North Yorkshire), so I’m ill-equipped to think about this question with respect to Aelred himself, but it’s a question which seems latent/implicit in your presentation of Aelred: does his theory of friendship presuppose a monastic context? He may or may not address the question explicitly in the text, but do his ideas about friendship rely on a broader monastic context in order to hold water? (In the same way that the older theologians in Creation and Covenant rarely address sexual difference directly, even as their ideas about marriage depend on latent premises and beliefs about it which one can identify by reverse engineering their arguments.)

    In other words, in the same way that sacramental marriage presupposes “church” as its context (rather than merely a freestanding autonomous couple), does Aelredian friendship presuppose “monastery”? If Aelred suggests to gay Christians “be chaste celibate friends,” do we also have to address the possibility that he might also be saying “but you can only do it if you are willing to be monks.”

    Is there a reason friendship outside the monastery feels so elusive? Does the tradition in fact have a monastic answer to “what is our solution to the problem of gay loneliness?”

    Sort of reminds me of how I used to ask Ron Belgau: is there a danger in single life of “being your own abbot”? Why not be a monk? Or why not acknowledge that this whole attempt at being “single” (maintaining one’s own single household, from which one ventures out to manage various friendships) is a modern experiment, and that the tradition is not necessarily at fault for failing to offer a for single people how might live because singleness has not developed as a Christian lifestyle for good reasons. Is it possible that non-monastic singleness is as anachronistic as gay marriage in so far as both are refusals to accept the vocations which the tradition has developed over time for meeting human needs?

    I do not know. I apologize for these questions. Asking you “why not be a monk” makes me feel like an elderly father asking his adult daughter “when are you going to get married and give me grandchildren.” I don’t want to nag about something that isn’t my business, and may very well represent a projection of my own monastic daydreams. But on the other hand, I really don’t know the answers to these questions; they are pressing questions for me. Hearing you would help me and I hope talking it through would help you account for one possibility that I think your essay raises but doesn’t address (probably for reasons of space – but maybe in the book?).

    [This comment cross-posted at Spiritual Friendship.]

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  • http://jskogerboe.com/ jskogerboe

    This is thought provoking. Deeply challenging, but very good. Professor Hill, I am a heterosexual conservative Christian just finishing my Seminary internship year and about to be ordained a Pastor in the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations. We affirm, as you do, the traditionally understood prohibition of homosexual behavior in scripture, but I think the conservative evangelical church has often done a miserable job of ministering to those in the gay and lesbian community. My best friend from high school is gay, and I struggle to know how best to love him and my other gay friends well. I walk an uncomfortable line – standing on my convictions without unnecessarily sucker-punching them with ignorant or insensitive blather in an area of life that is obviously deeply personal and deep-seated for all of us: our sexual nature and desires and the way those shape our relationships. My heart understands the need for intimacy and friendship and love. I know everyone needs that. I’m glad I found you – I intend to read more of your writing and follow you in the coming months. Thank you for your voice. I deeply respect your decision to live a celibate, God honoring life. Actually, my internship is not far from Ambridge at all. I’m in Bethel Park, just south of Pittsburgh. One day soon, if you would ever allow it, I’d be so grateful if I could drive up to meet you and buy you a sandwich. God bless you and your teaching and your ministry.

  • Ben

    Thank you, Wesley. This makes me wonder if the church were to take the ‘risk’ of sharing intimate friendship with the gay people that God has gifted us with, whether we might be in a radically different place as ‘groups’ so often divided.

  • Bearnabas

    I’m not sure but the Aelred Dilemma may be a false dichotomy. It’s common for gays to latch on to any hero of history they can find. That they co-opted a monk, however celibate, to talk about same-sex love is not surprising. However, for the conservative to also co-opt that monk and use him as an example is a dangerous one.

    Monks take a vow of celibacy. They do it because they feel God has called them to do it.

    Gays do not, normally, take a vow of celibacy. Straights do not, normally, take a vow of celibacy. They do so in accordance to the call from God they receive. If God does not call, celibacy is not the answer.

    I fear for gay Christians who believe they should not, can not, ever become sexually active lest they break a Christian dictum highlighted these days by conservative Christians: the one man/ one woman model. Since many other people have pointed out that David, Moses, Abraham, etc. did not fear for their lives for taking more than one wife—there was no one man/one woman model for them. If the patriarchs did not sin in breaking that “model” then perhaps it wasn’t a model to begin with.

    Gay Christians who project this model onto themselves find themselves in the dilemma you are expressing. Perhaps YOU are called to celibacy. But blanketing the rest of gay christianity with celibacy is absurd. It is a call, not a command. I can’t imagine straight people even questioning this if we applied it to them. Or coming up with complicated strategies for themselves to keep celibate and remain in a marriage.

    I appreciate the scholarly way, and gentle pressure, you apply in this article, but I think it feeds a false dichotomy for gays—stay celibate or be in sin. Aelred isn’t God. It would seem God spoke to OT Jews differently than he spoke to NT Christians—and I’m not sure why he would do that (if you take the above cultural norms into consideration). My thought is that marriage is important and that it is for all. I think it’s unnecessarily stressful to load this weight on the backs of gay Christians to stay celibate without a call. It will break us in one of two ways: either we will be broken Christians, always failing at the celibacy, or we will be outcast gays, always failing at the Christianity, tossing it for being unrealistic, or being tossed for being sinners. Gays faced with such a decision have often taken their own lives. I know. I was almost one. As a gay Christian, I find both of those options dangerous and irresponsible for the church.

    The better way is the opening of marriage for all. This way gays can serve God, serve the church, in relationships that endanger no one, and bring them peace.

    While Aelred may have found celibate friendship to be a great thing, it is not necessarily a great thing for everyone else. No one takes David as a model for marriage. Or Moses. Or Isaac. Or Jesus. Or Paul. We take them as models for devoting a life to God, and that’s Christianity. What we do with our agape, not what we do with our eros.

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