Spiritual Friendship by Wesley Hill (Brazos, 2015)

I have been looking forward to this book for a while—its arrival had been rumoured for some time among facebook friends. My anticipation had to do with both the subject—friendship, and the author, Wesley Hill, an Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA.

I am drawn to Hill’s work for three reasons. First, because while we’ve never met, we share a significant amount of professional and personal overlap. We both studied at Durham University, for example, and indeed we both found those years to be transformational: we both became Anglicans while there. We have common friends. The evangelical Anglican world (whether we are Episcopalian, Anglican Church of Canada, ANiC or ACNA) is a small one and we are just one degree removed. At points, when I read his work—I was introduced to him through his remarkable book, Washed and Waiting—I can almost anticipate what’s coming next and yet am surprised at how he takes and develops what I had “just known” was coming. In many ways, he seems to me to be a kindred soul.

Second, and following on, he inhabits the ever shrinking middle in the current debate about how best to welcome gay and lesbian people in Christian churches. He, along with other voices like blogger and Catholic convert Eve Tushnet, embraces the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage and does so as a gay man, thereby making him an object of pity and/or suspicion by people on both sides. He is either woefully mistaken or worse, some sort of “Trojan Horse” for the extremes, both liberal and conservative. It may be that I have my own quixotic bent toward doomed battles, what J.R.R. Tolkien called “the long defeat,” but for whatever reason, that makes him attractive to me. Although I am straight (that likely didn’t need to be said; it’s pretty obvious!), Hill and I are fellow travellers (albeit lonely ones) on this journey.

Third, I am drawn to Hill’s work because of a shared appreciation for C. S. Lewis’s work, and in this context especially, the little book, The Four Loves. Hill’s book, Spiritual Friendship is in many ways a friendly criticism of Lewis’s chapter on friendship. And that is what I want to focus my remarks on.

Hill and Lewis agree that modernity doesn’t quite know what to do with friendships. They have been displaced by other loves, notably, in Hill’s view, by an idealized and idolized view of marriage as the relationship without which no one will ever be complete. Modernity simply has no category for strong same-sex friendships and so must sexualize them. For example, David and Jonathan, or Aelred and his monks, or the rare but real Christian practice of “brother-making,” (vowed friendships), these must really be covers for not simply erotic, but sexualized love. Hill and Lewis both argue that this is a little like the assertion, “There’s an invisible cat in that chair.” The lack of a cat, rather than being counter-evidence, is regarded as conclusive proof of feline invisibility. What might happen, wonders Hill, if we take the Bible, the monks, and the vowed friends, at face value? How might that challenge our views of friendship?

Here Hill parts from Lewis, and rightly so. Lewis’s view of friendship is, for all of the above, very modern and not very medieval. It is primarily mental; it is bent toward a shared interest or project (here Lewis uses the metaphor of the friends standing side by side, looking at a common object rather than standing face-to-face, looking at each other). Hill counters that deep same-sex friendship blurs the lines with other loves—at points erotic, at points affectionate. While this certainly echoes my own experience with two friendships, I agree with Hill that it may well be the unique insight that gays and lesbians offer to the Church—and have been offering already for many centuries. Many modern western churches (I refuse to say the Church here) have followed modernity into a withered and withering conception of friendship that potentially does great harm not only to their gay and lesbian members, but to their straight singles, too (and having been a Christian single until my 30s, I speak also from experience).

The last chapter, “Patterns of the Possible,” is particularly helpful for those of us engaged in parish ministry for its suggestions.

I highly recommend this little work to all who wish to be unsettled and enriched.

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