First off – a happy Christmas and Hanukkah, pleasant holiday festivities, and merry New Year to all! I hope all our Family Scholars readers are enjoying the season (or at least have had better luck than I in avoiding the stomach flu).
Secondly, a belated shout out to Amy for all her hard work in bringing the Symposium together for State of Our Unions – I really liked the way it allowed multiple conversations to flourish simultaneously, and the wonderful voices of our guest bloggers, who each brought something different and fresh to the conversations happening on the blog. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come and the “scholar” aspect of the blog will be more present (although I appreciate the opportunity to bring my voice as a lay person and novice researcher).
I’ve been ruminating on all the various discussions that came out of the symposium, but had not found anything I wanted to chime in on until this morning when I ran across this short piece by Wesley Hill at FirstThings on the importance of friendships for celibate gay Christians. It called to mind Katelyn Beaty’s symposium piece. Hill, who writes for the blog Spiritual Friendship, explores how single celibate individuals form friendships, and if these relationships are satisfying and fulfilling of their emotional needs, and then relates his reflections to the mission of the Church as a communion of strangers.
Hill references a thoughtful NYT article, Friends of a Certain Age: Why is it hard to make friends after 30? which explores the difficulties of making and sustaining meaningful friendships after a certain age. The conclusions are this: after a certain period in a person’s life, usually some time around the age of 30, individuals discover that the environments most conducive to forming lasting friendships are less accessible. No longer is there “proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other” like one finds in high school, college, and first jobs. This doesn’t mean that everyone over 30 is isolated and lonely (far from it) – it simply means that as we mature we become more settled in existing communities and relationships (for many this includes romantic partnerships, marriages, and families) which place constraints on forming new friendships and being spontaneous. New friends must clear several hurdles (the approval of a significant other, or the entire family, and the constraints of an established career and daily routine) before a lasting friendship is solidified. The Times article also suggests that with maturity comes the realization that sustaining friendships is challenging, and the emotional costs of failed relationships means that many individuals become more discriminating in the types of potential friend relationships they will enter into. We also stop maintaining some established relationships that are failing to meet emotional and social needs, because the efforts of supporting a large network begin to have diminishing returns. For many individuals the end result is a smaller social circle which presents challenges during unexpected life events and transitions like a divorce or cross-country move to a city where one has no established relationships.
Hill looks at friendship from the context of chosen celibacy, where friendship takes on a special significance in the lives of gay and lesbian Christians who choose not to enter romantic relationships and seek to express their love as philadelphic rather than erotic love. Considering the implications of the Times article, that friendships become more and more difficult to form and sustain throughout life, it raises valid questions about the sustainability of what he calls “Parish Celibacy” and what this means for those choosing that form of life. Hill writes:
When I speak to groups of Christians about celibacy and friendship, one of the questions that always comes up is whether intimate friendships are attainable in churches today, particularly for single young adults. “You speak positively and hopefully about friendship,” people say, “but are you and other celibate gay Christians actually satisfied by the friendships you’ve found? Do you have the companionship and intimacy you need?” This NYT essay points to some reasons for skepticism on that front. And if emotionally fortifying friendships aren’t attainable for young adult Christians, then is celibacy really a viable option for those Christians? Outside of religious orders, where proximity, regular unplanned interactions, and a setting that nurtures meaningful speech and mutual self-disclosure seem more readily available, where are the kinds of friendships that will sustain “parish celibacy” (which is the way I’ve started referring to the Christian practice of celibacy outside of vowed religious contexts, etc.)?
Hill wisely offers no definitive answer to this question – but rather reflects on his own lived experience to get at a few key principles which may offer an answer. The first is that participating in community is key – Hill’s lasting friendships formed mainly in graduate school, where he was part of a tight knit scholarly professional community. He also challenges the notion that friendships require “repeated, unplanned interactions,” noting that in the post-college setting he finds sustaining friendships actually requires intentionality and planning – things like regular brunches and standing dinner invitations are important for creating space for friendship in busy lives. He also notes that at a certain level, realized intimate friendship requires creating bonds of kinship. His closest friendships have resulted in the intertwining of his life with the families of his beloved friends – he is invited to be an uncle and god parent, and to be a caregiver within the family and a support when the family faces challenges. He not only receives the love of hospitality, as one might expect of a bachelor invited to the home of a married couple on occasion, but rather receives and returns love like a family member.
Now for many, going to grad school is not really an option – but the underlying principle of forming lasting friendships through participating in a community isn’t limited to education. My thoughts returned to Beaty’s article suggesting that the church community needs to be a place of support for middle-class marriages, fostering a culture of “parish fidelity,” and how her suggestion is very similar to what Hill is suggesting in the realm of friendship. The Church has a role (I might suggest even a responsibility and mission) to foster strong relationships among its membership – both marriages and friendships.
One way the Church can do this (across class, racial, gender, and educational divides) is by creating regular routines of interaction designed to foster relationships rooted in commonality of belief. The Church’s liturgy is already designed to draw parishioners into a deeper relationship with Christ, but every liturgy is a communal exercise which also unites believers together in faith. I agree with the hypothesis that Churches can strengthen both marriages and single parishioners by becoming inviting places where fellowship is a characteristic of the church’s life. Things like after-church fellowship hours (with plenty of free donuts and coffee to entice newcomers) and established home fellowship groups which bring church members together into each others homes for times of study and prayer on a regular basis are key elements of a healthy church culture. They require intentionality on the part of church leaders and members – organizing potlucks and small groups, providing child care at bible studies and other gatherings (and scheduling bible studies and other weekly activities so that those working full-time, or multiple jobs, have access). This is a challenge both for lay people and pastors who already lead busy lives.
Finding time is a challenge, but it isn’t impossible. My father attended a Bible study at my parent’s church for many years that was held at a Denny’s and started at 5:30 AM each Tuesday morning. It was scheduled so that several men at the Church who worked manufacturing jobs could attend and still get to their shifts on time. He noted that over the years that group regularly had 30 guys attending because it was scheduled in such a way that everyone was available, and he formed many lasting relationships within the group as a result.
Hill’s last point is perhaps the hardest to generalize. Ideally Churches can provide a context in which friendship bonds become kinship bonds, but there is no certainty in this occurring (just like attending college doesn’t guarantee lasting friendships). In far too many instances the Church is much better practiced at alienating people than drawing them into relationships. However – the Church is uniquely positioned as a social institution to create kinship because Christian theology in large part teaches that believers are already being made brothers and sister through their relationship to Christ. For Christians who take their faith seriously, there is already a realization that across age, race, gender, sexuality, class, and all other divides there is equality among all believers (each is made new in Christ) and a calling to love each other, which, when put into practice, is socially transformative. The challenge for the church today, which both Hill and Beaty recognize, is getting to a place where it realizes its mission is to be loving and transformed by love.
Doing this is going to be a challenge for Christians, especially when it comes to relating to and loving minority communities like the LGBT community which Hill is a part of. In many Churches it is not just an issue of singleness which gay parishioners struggle with, but also the stresses of feeling the need to hide one’s sexuality and conform to community stereotypes in order to be accepted as a valued member. This is alienating and raises walls against real forms of intimacy and real friendships. The church has to become a more welcoming and safe place, and it must do so while acknowledging it has badly applied its own theology in ways that have unfairly and seriously hurt gay people and made them feel that they are somehow undeserving of the grace extended to everyone else. Correctly applying the Church’s theology doesn’t necessarily mean that the Church becomes accommodating of gay relationships (although many churches do interpret their doctrines this way), but it does mean anyone professing Christ is a part of the body – welcomed in and accepted as they are. I appreciate the perspectives of colleagues of mine like Amy who lay out a good foundation for beginning these difficult conversations within the church context, and the voices of Hill and his colleagues at Spiritual Friendships blog who represent the voices of religiously conservative LGBT individuals who model a different way of relating sexuality and spirituality. My hope is that their voices will begin opening doors within the more conservative wings of the Church to begin conversations on how to be the loving and inclusive places they are meant to be.
[P.S. - this post focuses primarily on the Christian Church, but I imagine that the ideas about religious institutions as places that foster community and friendship apply broadly across religious divides within their specific faith contexts].