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.
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.