Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian (Brazos, 2015).
As an unmarried seminarian, I found myself surrounded by classmates who were married, many of them with children. It wasn’t uncommon for professors to verbally acknowledge and extend academic grace to students who were behind, tardy, or absent due to a late night of caring for a sick spouse or child. There was a certain nobility ascribed to such sacrifice. At the same time, I remember once struggling to keep my eyes open in class, having stayed up late the night before talking with a friend who was going through a painful breakup, and wondering if the same grace would be extended to me for “merely” being a friend. If the commitments of marriage and parenthood could be prioritized at times over our other vocational responsibilities, could the commitments of friendship be prioritized as well? This is a question I never asked out loud, but wrestled with deeply on a personal level.
Dr. Wesley Hill’s book Spiritual Friendship encourages Christians to wrestle with questions like this as he challenges readers towards a more robust understanding and practice of friendship. Writing from his perspective as a Christian who is gay and committed to celibacy, Hill’s work is not only a historical and sociological examination of friendship, but a personal pursuit of life-sustaining relationships. He sets out asking pointed questions of our marriage- and family-centric culture: “Should we begin to imagine friendship as more stable, permanent, and binding than we often do? […] And if so, what needs to change about the way we approach and seek to maintain it?” (xv). These are timely questions for us as individuals and for the church as a whole.
Drawing from Scripture, historical accounts, art, literature, and his own experience, Hill paints a picture of friendship that is not luxury, but necessity. True spiritual friendship is, as Hill describes, not just about having someone to go to the movies with – it’s about commitment, giving and receiving love, self-sacrifice, letting go of one’s personal autonomy for the sake of another. It’s a relationship that looks a lot more like the unbreakable covenant bond of family or marriage than friendship typically does today. He writes, “What we need now isn’t disinterested, disembodied companionship. We need stronger bonds between brothers and sisters in Christ. We need ways to voluntarily surrender our freedom and independence and link ourselves, spiritually and tangibly, to those we’ve come to love,” (41). And while this is a particularly significant need for celibate gay Christians who will live their whole lives as single people, Hill asserts that this kind of friendship is something that everyone – single or married, homosexual or heterosexual, with children or without, male or female – needs.
In the first three chapters of Spiritual Friendship, Hill constructs a spiritual and historical foundation for the now-counter-cultural type of friendship he is seeking to cultivate. In Chapter One, he traces the disappearance of intimate friendship in our society. He also names the pain of this loss of friendship – the loneliness and the longing for “a location for my love” (22). In Chapter Two, Hill cites several examples of significant friendships, including some that were acknowledged and affirmed through public vow-making. His historical examination of friendship was fascinating to read. I had never realized that “in the days of people as different from one another as the eleventh-century abbot Aelred and the nineteenth-century villager Anne Lister, permanent, honored, church-sanctioned, same-sex friendships were a recognized thread of the fabric of society” (40). I read those words and grieve for what has been lost. But Hill goes on to consider what it would look like to bring promise-making friendships back into the church, and in Chapter Three he illuminates the biblical call to friendship. In the Old Testament we see friendships that are vital to the story of God’s people: David and Jonathan and Ruth and Naomi. In the New Testament, Jesus himself dignified and pursued friendship, and we see friendship – the bonds formed between Christian brothers and sisters – as a catalyst for the growth of the church and the Gospel.
In the second half of the book, Hill turns his attention to more present and practical matters. In Chapter Four, he highlights friendship as a major part of the vocation of celibacy, and examines both the challenges and opportunities of pursuing close friendships as a gay man. His honesty and vulnerability in this chapter, as well as in Chapter Five, call us all to think about how we as sexual beings steward our friendships. In the fifth chapter, Hill discusses the inevitable call to suffering that comes with the call to friendship, and some of the dangers that can come with treating friendship like a “panacea.” In a sentence that I might prefer to skip over, he writes,
“If our churches and communities learn to take friendship seriously as a genuine love worthy of honor and public recognition – and I hope they will – the result will be, I trust, a diminishment of all our various forms of isolation and loneliness, but it won’t mean the simple cancellation of the price of suffering” (100).
Friendship is not without cost, not without pain, and I’m grateful that Hill doesn’t shy away from acknowledging this. In the final chapter of Spiritual Friendship, “Patterns of the Possible,” Hill suggests several practical steps towards developing committed, self-sacrificing friendships and to fostering stronger, richer church communities through friendship.
Some critics have raised concern about the notion of vowed or covenantal friendships that Hill describes in his book: couldn’t such a friendship look too much like marriage, leading to confusion, temptation, and intimacy that goes beyond the bounds of friendship? While Hill does not explicitly address this question in his book, he does make several points that speak to it. First, as he describes in Chapter Two, this type of suspicion is part of what has contributed to the current devaluing of friendship in our culture. Fear of inappropriate same-sex intimacy (or even opposite-sex intimacy) has led us to distance ourselves from intimacy altogether. So there must be another way if we were truly created to be in community. Second, Hill shares from his own experience that not every friendship can be close, intimate, and lifelong. Emotional or physical attraction or unhealthy attachment may arise, and this may cause pain and a necessary parting, whether temporarily or permanently. This is one aspect of the pain of friendship that Hill addresses in such a tender, eloquent way. “Friendship, in a word, is cruciform” (100). It’s about self-sacrifice, radical obedience, and costly love. Which sometimes means death. Third, and in my mind most significantly on this point, Hill strongly advocates that “friendship (like many other loves) flourishes best when it’s consciously practiced in community with others” (109). It seems to me that as our church communities take steps toward cultivating and affirming friendships, we can also take greater steps towards supporting the health of these friendships, which would include providing accountability to help guard against sin and work towards repentance when needed.
This book leaves me asking some hard, but necessary, questions. What does it look like for a church to make space for the affirmation and cultivation of friendship? How do the vows we make to one another as fellow church members strengthen and support friendship? How could affirming and even reimagining friendship serve and bless our entire community – regardless of marital status or sexual orientation? How do I, personally, make time and space for the development of intimate, committed friendships – even with the knowledge that such relationships will bring their share of pain?
The subtitle of Spiritual Friendship is, “Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian.” This is a book about that, but it’s also a book about so much more. Though Hill discusses his particular perspective and experience as a celibate gay man, he writes with such attentiveness to all of his brothers and sisters in the church that this really is a book for everyone. I wholeheartedly recommend it, and especially encourage those of us in positions of church leadership to seek to model, affirm, and support the growth of true spiritual friendship in our church communities.
 While opinions vary about the proper terminology to use in describing Christians who are attracted to others of the same gender, Hill describes himself and others like him as gay Christians (or, more specifically, celibate gay Christians), so I have sought to cooperate with his terminology in this review.
 I’m glad to have read Hill’s previous book, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, as knowing more of his personal story enriched my reading of Spiritual Friendship. However, the second could certainly be read without reading the first.