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Friendship and Marriage

This paper was published on the Anglican website and is written by Gary Thorne, Diocesan University Chaplain, University of Dalhousie and King’s College, Halifax.

I wouldn’t suggest giving it out to your youth group (it’s a bit ‘academic’), but it is an interesting read and may provide some interesting insights for a group discussion on friendship, marriage and sexual intimacy.  To use it with a youth group, I recommend excerpting some particular quotes as ‘discussion starters’ for a discussion with young people.   Also see the following article by Philip Yancey for more talking points on sex and sexual intimacy.

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Friendship and Marriage



These thoughts on friendship are intended as a contribution to the present debate in the Anglican Church of Canada about whether the Church should perform a wedding ceremony for two men or two women, or at least give its blessing to such a wedding previously performed by civil authorities. By doing either, the Church declares that a marriage between two men or two women is an appropriate state of life to be made or declared ‘holy’ (‘sanctified’ or ‘set apart’ in the Name of the Triune God) by the Church’s blessing.

One important aspect of this debate is the recognition that the quality of love between two men or two women can be as deep and profound as the love experienced between two persons of opposite sex. Two men or two women can be struck by cupid’s arrow in much the same way as a man and a woman, and have similar experiences of ‘falling in love’ with one another. The notion of being ‘struck’ by cupid’s arrow suggests that ‘falling in love’ is something that is experienced more or less passively by the individual – one does not ‘choose’ to fall in love with this or that particular person, but one finds oneself, mysteriously and wonderfully, ‘in love’ with another. This experience of being ‘in love’ with another, whether it occurs between persons of opposite or the same sex, is interpreted by those involved as ‘grace-filled’ (i.e. experienced and received as a divine gift) and unique (i.e. not transferable to another). When a couple find themselves ‘in love’ they are often inspired to envision their entire future together, and they seek to make life-long vows of faithfulness and support to one another.


In the tradition of the Church, when a Christian man and woman discover themselves to be ‘in love’, often this couple will prayerfully seek discernment as to whether it is God’s will for them to live together for the rest of their lives in a marriage defined by the exchange of vows of mutual fidelity. The tradition of the Church has never formally allowed a man and man, or woman and woman couple who find themselves ‘in love’ to take these same vows. Many argue that the time has come for the Church to offer marriage as an option for same sex couples.



What does all this have to do with friendship? Friendship love at first might seem to be something very different from the ‘romantic’ love described by Paul Jennings in his paper ‘The Grace of Eros’ as the “joy and awe at having found the other; some sense of being loved as an undeserved gift; some sense of responsibility vis-à-vis the irreducible uniqueness of the beloved.”[1] In this paper I hope to suggest that such an experience can be present in particular friendships. I believe that the Church has inadequately understood friendship love in recent centuries and that this lack of clarity has contributed to the Church’s confused understanding of marriage and human love generally.


I thank the Primate’s Theological Commission for allowing this paper to become part of the discussion. In my pastoral ministry of twenty-five years I have many times felt handicapped by the shallow understanding of ‘friendship’ in Christian discourse. In my experience ‘friendship’ is seldom acknowledged as including the possibility of particular relationships of profound intimacy, spiritual union and mutual ‘exchange’. Friendship is seen to be a less intimate and inferior form of relationship than that of marriage. Thus the historic same-sex ‘covenanted friendship’ in the Christian tradition, described most recently in authors such as John Boswell and Alan Bray (considered below) is most often immediately equated with traditional marriage, rather than seen as a distinct and profound instance of friendship. I hope this paper will restore confidence in the divine beauty and eternal character of friendship. An earlier, and very different, version of this paper was delivered to the Atlantic Theological Conference in June 2005.


In Part I, The Eclipse of Friendship, I explain the reason for a lack of philosophical and theological attention to the notion of friendship for four hundred years, since the Reformation. In Part II, Friendship Recovered, I describe the renewed interest in theological and philosophical writings on friendship in the past twenty-five years or so. In Part III, Marriage and Friendships, I point out the source of some of the confusion in the present understanding of marriage in the Anglican Church of Canada. I suggest that in the last one hundred years the Anglican Church of Canada has begun to describe marriage in a way that is a significant development of, and departure from, the historic and traditional Christian understanding of marriage. My overall conclusion is that a recovery of a Christian understanding of friendship and friendship-love is urgently needed in our present debate.



Part I: The Eclipse of Friendship


Most people today think of friendship as a particular relationship or activity of mutual and reciprocal goodwill, characterized by qualities of honesty, trust, respect, self-disclosure, caring, and affection, between people who seek to spend time together.[2]


Western culture has only begun to reflect upon friendship philosophically again after a long time in which the role of friendship was largely ignored by philosophers and theologians as an essential force in the shaping of culture, the moral life and human happiness. Writing in the 1950s, C.S. Lewis remarks on the lack of attention given to the subject of friendship in modern times:


“To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it. … If a man believes (as I do) that the old estimate of friendship was the correct one, he can hardly write a chapter on it except as a rehabilitation.”[3]


In his anthology on friendship published in 1991, Michael Pakaluk claimed that after the writings of Emerson in the mid-nineteenth century “philosophers were largely silent about friendship”[4] until an article published by Elizabeth Telfer in 1970. Neera Badhwar in her 1993 philosophical reader on friendship agrees: “After a long eclipse, the years since 1970 have seen a remarkable resurgence of philosophical interest in friendship.”[5]


‘Friendship’ and the Reformation: philia love displaced by agape love
From the time of the sixteenth century Reformation, in the words of a contemporary theologian, “Within Christian thought agape [cf. 1 Corinthians 13] displaced philia [friendship], and it is impossible to think theologically about love without giving that simple fact careful consideration.”[6] Luther, for example, refused to allow friendship to have any role in ethics since he interpreted it narrowly as a form of self-love. In Anglican circles the name of Jeremy Taylor (1613-67) might come to mind as an exception to the displacement of philia love, but he did not encourage particular friendships as much as he understood friendship in a universal way, describing the Christian as a friend with all the world. Of particular friendships he writes: “…when friendships were the noblest things in the world, charity was little.”[7] Further, for Taylor marriage becomes the single particular state in which highest human friendship is experienced, nourished and expressed.


The perceived deficiency with friendship or philia is that it is an exclusive, preferential, reciprocal love. Jealousy and possessiveness thus belong to friendship. Agape, on the other hand, is an inclusive, unconditional, universal love, blind to merit or demerit, that goes out to everyone, even to the enemy who will not return such love. Soren Kierkegaard and Anders Nygren remain true to this modern notion that Christian agape must leave the preferential love of friendship behind. In the nineteenth century Kierkegaard writes:


“Christianity has thrust erotic love and friendship from the throne, the love rooted in mood and inclination, preferential love, in order to establish spiritual love in its place, love to one’s neighbour, a love which in all earnestness and truth is inwardly more tender in the union of two persons than erotic love is and more faithful in the sincerity of close relationship than the most famous friendship. … the praise of erotic love and friendship belong to paganism … what belongs to Christianity [is] love to one’s neighbour, of which not a trace is found in paganism. …

In … friendship one’s neighbour is not loved, but one’s other-self. If anyone thinks that … by finding a friend he has learned Christian love, he is in profound error.”[8]


Nygren’s criticism of friendship in the mid twentieth century depends upon Kierkegaard’s reasoning, but is even more dismissive of friendship love in that he despairs that St. John, in his Gospel and in his letters, speaks of friendship as divinely sanctioned. In John 15 Jesus speaks of his disciples becoming his friends: “You are my friends if you do as I command you.” He commands his disciples to be friends, and the specific nature of the love of the new commandment is that his disciples should love one another “as I have loved you.” This love is of such a quality and nature that it will be recognized by others: “…by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The love here is the distinct love of friendship of the new community, which was to be the continuation of his body in the world. Nygren cannot understand how this can square with the much more noble agape love he finds in the synoptics and in St. Paul. Nygren describes that agape love as being undeserved, spontaneous and unmotivated. Johannine friendship love, on the other hand, is preferential and thus Nygren concludes that “it loses something of its original, all-embracing scope; it becomes love for those who bear the Christian name.”[9]

Friendship’ and the Enlightenment: the particularity of philia love displaced by a universal love
But the preferential aspect of friendship not only has drawn fire from Christian theologians in the modern world. It has equally created problems for moral philosophy. If friendship is emotional, partial and personal, then how can it find a place within contemporary ethical theories that are rooted in the Enlightenment notion that moral decisions must be rational, impartial and universal? In an enlightened society tribalism is overcome and the impartial principle of universal agape love and the absolute value of and respect for each individual soul becomes incarnated in a principled, enlightened society in which everyone must willingly and freely sacrifice personal desires to the extent they encroach upon the rights of others who also have absolute value.[10]

Thus, whilst the reformation theologians were championing agape (universal) love over a narrowly understood philia (friendship) love, Kantian moral philosophy established a discipline of ethics in terms of the moral agent as a rational, abstract, solitary individual who makes moral choices by a reflection that removes all particularity. The rational moral agent seeks the universal rule or principle that always applies in this situation or, better still, in all situations. In the Kantian frame, the moral life is that life which is true to a continual reflection upon the question: “What would be the duty of any rational being in this particular situation?” Iris Murdoch suggests that much contemporary moral thinking depends on this Kantian view of the individual as,

…rational and totally free…. He is morally speaking monarch of all he surveys and totally responsible for his actions. Nothing transcends him…. We no longer see man against a background of values, of realities which transcend him. We picture man as a brave naked will surrounded by an easily comprehended empirical world. For the hard idea of truth we have substituted a facile idea of sincerity.[11]

Generally speaking, contemporary ethical theories fall under two main headings. There are theories which develop from deontology, which identifies moral reasons for action as those that are universalizable and impartial, and there are theories which develop as instances of consequentialism,[12] according to which a moral agent does whatever action produces the greatest aggregate welfare for all human beings: universal benevolence. In either case, the partiality of friendship on the one hand, and its exclusivity on the other, makes friendship ethically problematical and suspect. As long as these Enlightenment notions of ‘isolated autonomous rational self’ and ‘ethics’ were not seriously challenged, there was little interest in the notion of friendship.


Part II: Friendship Recovered


This challenge came in the last quarter of the twentieth century when the ‘virtue’ approach to ethics criticized the understanding of the Enlightenment view of the ethical life and its ‘suspicion’ of friendship. ‘Virtue ethics’ proposes that the central concern of the moral life is the formation of a good and worthy character. The task of becoming a good person is dependent upon the development of virtues that will help guide us to the good life, happiness (eudaimonia = “the best possible life”[13]), or the life worth living. This development and growth in virtue requires relationships with people who share a common vision and desire of the good: our best and closest friends. We cannot acquire the virtues nor flourish in the virtuous life apart from our friendships. In our friends we achieve a continual self-awareness and self-examination that can only come from trusting, open, honest communication and interaction with those for whom we care and with whom we spend time. The friend wishes happiness, ‘the good and fulfilling life’, for her friend, and in so doing becomes herself the person she wishes her friend to become. By seeking happiness or the ‘life worth living’ for one another, friends are transformed precisely into that ‘life worth living’.

The virtue approach asks ‘how shall I live and how shall I become a person who lives in this way?’ whereas the Kantian approach asks constantly, ‘how should I act’ or ‘what shall I do?’ The moral life thus becomes an endless succession of decisions to be made and problems to be solved according to a rational law-like paradigm. In virtue ethics, on the other hand, the emphasis is on how we should live; we cannot separate the decisions we must make from the person we are trying to become.


The role of friendship in the modern ethical theory influenced by Kant is minimal, and even seen as an obstacle to the ethical life. The moral agent is not a person who has developed a moral character, but rather a person who is best able to act on abstract and universal principles of justice. The view of the moral self as purely rational implies that the emotional intimacy of particular friendship can provide no significant insight into one’s moral self. In virtue ethics, on the other hand, the development of the moral character is accomplished precisely through friendships. Thus, in the return to a consideration of virtue ethics, friendship becomes necessary for the development of virtues as states of soul or character.

Thus has occasioned the return of interest in the understanding of friendship as constitutive of our very humanity. Descriptions of friendship from the ancients onward are re-discovered and made popular again. The long standing overly simplistic and reformation objections to friendship that philia love is a lesser love than the ideal Christian agape love will no longer convince. Rather, we read in recent western literature that only in and through particular friendships of philia is agape love learned and achieved. Paul Wadell, a proponent of virtue ethics, puts it nicely:

“… when friends are brought together by a mutual love for God and a desire to follow Christ, their friendship is a relationship in which they learn the ways of God, imitate Christ, and thus learn to embrace those they hitherto ignored. In this context, agape is not something other than friendship, but describes a friendship like God’s, a love of such generous vision that it looks upon all men and women not as strangers but as friends.”[14]


‘Friendship’ and Community
More than this, the recent and renewed interest in virtue ethics also takes up the role of community in the definition of the virtuous life that results from friendships. In our contemporary liberal, pluralistic or commercial society the very desirability of a ‘common good’ is denied. Each individual and group is encouraged to define its own understanding of the ‘life worth living’, as long as such values do not offend the rights of other individuals and groups to pursue their own individual or private goods. This lack of common vision of the good denies the possibility of true friendships, except within very specific groupings.

Thus it is an oft-repeated lament that contemporary western culture suffers from a pandemic of loneliness and feelings of isolation. The attempt to overcome such loneliness is thought to contribute to the establishment of cults and extreme political groups. The natural forming of deep, enduring friendships in western culture has been made difficult precisely because of the lack of pursuit of a common good. This is the opinion of Alasdair MacIntyre whose book, After Virtue, in 1981 was one of the initial compelling calls to return to a virtue ethics. He concludes that we are about to enter a time akin to the ‘dark ages’ which accompanied the collapse of the Roman Empire, but he tells us that “This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.”[15] The final pages of After Virtue twenty years ago evoked an immediate and sustained response from many quarters. In those pages MacIntyre suggested that just as culture was able to survive the long centuries of the dark ages by “the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.” so in like fashion, he says, the tradition of the virtues will only be able to survive the coming moral bankruptcy of western culture by


“…the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.”[16]


Picking up on this theme, Stanley Hauerwas has argued for more than a decade that the Christian Church must become the type of community in which the demands of mutuality present in the highest friendships are to be discovered and nourished. In terms of the relation between agape and philia, Hauerwas says this:


“…one might say that philia in the Christian church forms Christians to embody the love theologians have described as agape. … it is not that that we Christians are formed by philia to become individuals who can individually practice agape. Rather it is that we are formed by philia in the church to become a community which in its corporate life in the world loves the world in the manner of agape, whose practice it has learned in seeking to conform itself to the God who is in Christ.”[17]


Any account of the virtues requires a teleological understanding of human existence articulated through a community’s narrative. Thus, for Aristotle and the ancient pagans the virtuous soul formed by friendships within the ancient polis [city-state] will be very different from the virtuous Christian soul formed by friendships within the church.[18] The ‘core values’ of the Greek polis are very different from the core values of the Christian Church. For example, friendships in the church specifically reject the pagan pride that is based on being more gifted and refined, and in conflict and competition with the rest of the world. Rather, the special nature of the church in both the Old Testament and the New does not have to do with worthiness or ability (the source of pagan pride) but with God’s special election, and of our responsibility to be witnesses of love to the whole world. The Christian is called to rebuke his friends in the church community, “… if your brother sins against you, go to him and tell him his fault” (Matthew 18.15), but not out of pride or revenge. Rather, this text is immediately followed by Peter’s query as to how many times he should forgive his brother: “not seven times, but seventy times seven” (18.22). Thus, rebuke for the Christian is within the context of love and forgiveness and not of pagan pride, justice or revenge.


To summarize thus far, the nature and role of friendship in contemporary political life generally, ethical thinking, and the Christian life of holiness, has only been possible since the fundamental questioning of Enlightenment values. Enlightenment principles have encouraged an exaggerated language of rights of the individual and a contractual understanding of the moral life that led to the single focus on agape love. A renewed understanding of the role of community in defining moral virtues and establishing habits of the soul has contributed to the re-discovery of the importance of friendship in the shaping of the virtuous life, and a renewed interest in philia love in both philosophical and theological discourse. In the last quarter of the twentieth century we have again begun to value friendship as the ‘highest love’ possible for humankind.



Agape Love and Philia Love: a false dichotomy
In a brilliant study at the turn of the twentieth century in Russia, Pavel Florensky[19] says of friendship,

Philia knows a friend not by his outward pose, not by the dress of heroism, but by his smile, by his quiet talk, by his weaknesses, by how he treats people in ordinary human life, by how he eats and sleeps…the true test of a soul’s authenticity is through life together, in the love of friends …



What is friendship? Self-contemplation through a friend in God. Friendship is the seeing of oneself with the eyes of another, but before a third, namely, the Third. … Friendship gives people self-knowledge. Friendship reveals where and how one must work on oneself.”[20]


The friend is like a mirror in which we see both what is lovely and what needs to be re-arranged in our own soul. Rather than oppose agape and philia loves, he shows their necessary connection. Agape love – that rational willing of the good for all persons – is dependent upon a friendship love (philia), and vice versa:


“in order to treat everyone as oneself [agape love] it is necessary to see oneself at least in one person, to feel oneself in him; it is necessary to perceive in this one person an already achieved – even if only partial – victory over selfhood…But for philia love of a Friend not to degenerate in a peculiar self-love, for a Friend not to become merely the condition of a comfortable life, for friendship to have a depth, … what is necessary is agape love … philia is the “leaven,” while agape is the “salt” that keeps human relations from spoiling.”[21]


Writing a decade before Martin Buber’s Ich und Du (published in 1923, translated in English as I and Thou in 1958), Florensky describes how our identity and selfhood are properly received only in the appropriation of the ‘other than oneself’, or of the Thou.


“In being reflected in a friend, the ‘I’ recognizes its alter ego in his ‘I’… where I is one and the same as the other, but also different.”[22]


Without friendship a person can neither know herself nor develop herself in giving herself to the other in love. In his discussion of the four Greek words for love (eros, storge, philia and agape), Florensky acknowledges that these notions inform one another and are not really four different ‘things’. For example, he uses the word philia as relating closest to friendship love, but insists that eros (‘desire’ or erotic love) and agape must also be present in the love of friends. He concludes this discussion with a moving meditation on the last chapter of John 21 in which he points to friendship love as the highest love. In friendship love, agape is embodied and made real.[23]


Within his discussion of friendship, Pavel Florensky also drew significant attention to the notion of formal ‘covenanted friendships’ within the Christian tradition. He speaks of the ‘indissolubility’ of such friendships, as strict, he says, ‘as the indissolubility of marriage’.

Florensky describes the ancient Christian rites of adelphopoiesis[24] (brother-making, or the pledging of brotherhood) in which two males or two females are joined together in a covenant of chaste bonds of friendship love. He describes a typical expression of the rite as containing the following elements: (1) the brothers stand before the lectern upon which are the Cross and the Gospel; (2) prayers and litanies are said that ask that the two be united in love and that remind them of examples of friendships from church history; (3) the two are tied with one belt, their hands are placed on the Gospel, and a burning candle is given to each of them; (4) readings from Scripture, including the Gospel of John 17.18-26; … (7) the brothers partake of the pre-sanctified gifts from a common cup; (8) they are led around the lectern while they hold hands, as the troparion is sung: ‘Lord, watch from heaven and see”; (9) they exchange kisses; and (10) the following is sung: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Ps. 133:1). The exchange of the cross takes place either before or during the rite, as a sign that the brothers will bear each other’s cross, and as a reminder of self-renunciation and faithfulness to his friend.[25] This exchange of the crosses during the rite symbolizes the mutual ascesis or life of renunciation within the friendship.

For Florensky, friendship and marriage are two different things. He says,

… marriage is “two in one flesh,” while friendship is two in one soul. Marriage is unity of flesh, homosarchia, while friendship is unity of souls, homopsuchia.


Part III: Marriage and Friendship


We have suggested several times now that friendship is the highest form of human love. A dominant theme in modern American culture, expressed in many ways in Christian Churches, is that this friendship love is given its highest expression in marriage. As the hallmark wedding bulletin cover puts it: “Today I will marry my best friend”. In what follows I shall challenge the notions that friendship is the essence of marriage, and that marriage is the highest form of friendship.


Of course there is little doubt that a degree of friendship must exist in any marriage. Without friendship love, the marriage would not ‘represent and signify the unity which is betwixt Christ and his Church.” But simply to expect to find and nourish friendship in marriage is not to say that marriage is the deepest form or expression of friendship. Nor is the presence of friendship in marriage an indication that the primary or essential reason for marriage is the expression and deepening of a friendship love. I suggest that equally profound and intimate forms and expressions of friendship may be found in relationships and states of life outside of marriage.


Recent historical research makes clear that wonderful and grace-filled friendships of man/man and woman/woman have been present in the Christian Community for much of its history. It is not only a recent phenomenon for two Christian men or two Christian women to know the congruent grace of ‘falling in love’ with one another and desiring to spend their lives together in joy and fidelity. But why is it only now that the Church is challenged doctrinally and pastorally to define these loving and grace-filled relationships as ‘marriage’?


The most common answer is that we now know more about the psychology of persons such that we have ‘discovered’ that some/many men can only have the deepest emotional, physical, spiritual and romantic intimacy with other men, and likewise that there are some/many woman who can only know the joy of sharing their souls profoundly and intimately with other women. But this ‘discovery’ only begs the question. The question remains: why is ‘marriage’ suddenly seen by the Church to be the appropriate state of life for two Christian men or two Christian women who love each other deeply and commit themselves to lives of fidelity, intimacy and sacrifice for each other?


t is the church’s definition and understanding of marriage that will determine whether marriage is the appropriate state of life for such grace-filled relationships. I will suggest that charting some of the changes of thinking in the Anglican Church of Canada within the last one hundred years will help to explain why it now seems right for the Anglican Church of Canada to ‘marry’ two men or two women who are willing to make the traditional vows of marriage previously reserved for a man and a woman. In fact, recent changes to the Marriage Canon of the Anglican Church of Canada, revisions to the liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer, and the liturgy of the Book of Alternative Services all lean the Anglican Church of Canada decidedly in the direction of same-sex marriages.


The changing understanding of marriage within The Anglican Church of Canada

In this final part of my paper I indicate how the Anglican Church of Canada has subtly and unconsciously revised its definition and understanding of marriage. I briefly detail how The Anglican Church of Canada has been influenced by the dominant culture and has changed marriage itself into a kind of friendship, and at the same time has eroticized the highest experiences of friendship so that such friendships are understood to require marriage for their fulfillment. I will suggest that an exaggerated yet deficient theology of sexual intimacy and sex acts has diminished the wonderful and divine mysteries to be known in both marriage and friendship.

The understanding of marriage and the role of sex acts in marriage has shifted considerably in the past one hundred years. The Solemn Declaration, the founding document of the Anglican Church of Canada, locates the formal doctrinal understanding of Christian marriage in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. There we read that there are three purposes of marriage: (1) procreation; (2) “a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication”; and (3) “mutual society, help and comfort.” Friendship holds third place: not of the esse of marriage, but present nonetheless. It should be noted that, in the second reason given for marriage, we still see the ancient Christian view represented that the “gift of continency”, i.e. virginity and the single life is the preferred and normal state of life for the Christian. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer warns of inappropriate sexual activities within marriage, viz. that marriage “is not by any to be enterprised… to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding…”

When Canada introduced its own Book of Common Prayer in 1918 there appeared a revised understanding of the three purposes of marriage as follows: “the hallowing of the union betwixt man and woman”, procreation (now in second place), and “mutual society, help and comfort.” The reference to the “gift of continency” has disappeared and thus the marriage rite no longer contributes to the retention of the corporate Christian memory that for most of its history other states of life than marriage have been acknowledged as normative for Christian living (virginity and the single life as more perfect for the Christian disciple in general, the unmarried life for priests, the religious life within monastic communities, etc.). Rather, marriage is seen more positively as the preferred and the naturally more normal state for the Christian. But it is only when we come to The Book of Alternative Services (BAS) of 1985 that the changes in the definition of the purpose of marriage becomes institutionalized for Canadian Anglicans.

In the BAS the three purposes of marriage are: “mutual comfort and help” (now in first place), “that they may know each other with delight and tenderness in acts of love”, and procreation not only in the third place but bracketed as optional.


The changes are significant: first the downgrading of procreation as the primary purpose of marriage as traditionally understood (16th century BCP), to secondary (Canada 1918 BCP) and finally to tertiary and optional (BAS 1985); second, the transformation of the concern about ‘avoidance of sin’ (16th century BCP) to an ambivalent acceptance of sex acts in marriage, to a very positive and poetic statement about the role of sex in marriage (BAS 1985); third is the promotion of the relationship between the couple (the friendship?) from third position to the primary purpose of marriage. This shift in understanding of the purpose of marriage is consistent, if developed, with the 1967 version of the Marriage Canon that gives as a purpose for marriage, “the creation of a relationship in which sexuality may serve personal fulfillment in a community of love.” In other words, the creation of a friendship in which sexual intimacy has a significant place and function.

Thus the Church articulates in its liturgy the expectation that a profound friendship will develop and flourish within marriage. Marriage becomes synonymous with friendship and friendship becomes its defining purpose.

This development of the understanding of marriage through liturgical development and revision of the Marriage Canon in the Anglican Church of Canada is consistent with (and assisted by) shifts of thinking of successive Lambeth Conferences in the first half of the twentieth century. The 1908 Lambeth Conference referred to “the reverent use of the married state,” (Resolution 43) and the 1920 Conference to “the paramount importance in married life of deliberate and thoughtful self-control.” (Resolution 68) Both of these comments are related to the Conference’s rejection of birth control.


At the Lambeth Conference in 1930, however, the Anglican Church made a fundamental departure from the Christian moral tradition in matters of sex and sexuality when it shifted from the thinking of the previous two Lambeth Conferences and declared that there is a role for artificial means of birth control in the sexual relationships of married persons. Whether or not the participants of Lambeth 1930 understood the significance of their determination, certainly Pope Pius XI recognized that Lambeth 1930 represented a major departure from the tradition of the church. His encyclical Casti Connubii (Chaste Marriage) can be seen as a direct response to Lambeth 1930. The encyclical reads in part:

54. … Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.

56. Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.


What Pius XI points out here is that at Lambeth 1930, perhaps for the first time, a Church claiming to stand within the Catholic moral tradition had explicitly and officially said that sexual intercourse, as a sex act unrelated to procreation, is one of the goods of marriage.[26] By 1958 the Lambeth Conference was prepared to accept family planning as “responsible parenthood” (Resolution 115).

It is in the light of these changes of the Church’s understanding of marriage and of the role of sexual activity within marriage that we must see the present debate in the Anglican Church of Canada regarding the blessing of same-sex unions, or same-sex marriages. Also relevant, I believe, is the lack of direction or instruction from the spiritual leaders of the Anglican Church of Canada as to what sex acts are appropriate within marriage. As long the reason for sexual activity was the possibility of procreation, what was appropriate was more or less clear. But since the most recent teaching of the church seems to be that marriage is the highest form of friendship in which procreation is entirely optional, and in which the couple “may know each other with delight and tenderness in acts of love,” what are these ‘acts of love’? Well, one would assume that physical acts of intimacy are to be expressions of the appropriate vulnerability of the partners to each other: acts of mutuality in which there is no evidence of coercion, dominance or submission. These sex acts are to be expressions of intimacy, and the means whereby the couple is to come to know one another more profoundly. Sexual activity is permitted, presumably, that is productive of a deeper and more intimate relationship. In the absence of any other teaching or direction from the Church, in today’s North American culture, why would a married couple not reasonably conclude that oral sex or anal sex, if consensual and seeming productive of intimacy is just the type of intimate sexual activity that the church encourages to deepen their relationship?


It is little wonder, I suggest, that in the light of such an understanding of marriage and the role of the sex act in marriage that thoughtful, pious, sincere Anglican Christians conclude that the type of covenanted friendships of the Christian Tradition described by Florensky must be relationships which involve sexual intimacy. Indeed, how else could a faithful Canadian Anglican Churchman think?

To describe such covenanted friendships as sexual in nature is a departure from all previous Christian tradition. These covenanted life-long brotherhoods and sisterhoods in the Christian Tradition were not a form of marriage. Indeed, the language around such covenant-making itself does not focus on physical acts of intimacy at all. But all that history is in the context of a Christian understanding of marriage in which sexual acts necessarily were seen to be related to at least the possibility of procreation. The Church no longer holds to this traditional teaching. Rather, marriage has come to be understood as the ‘highest’ friendship, and the role of intimate sexual activity within marriage is seen as formative and productive of that friendship. Since the Church recently has changed its teaching on the nature of marriage and on the purpose and role of sex acts in marriage, it seems reasonable to think that this is cause to re-consider same sex marriage as well.


In a lecture given in 1989 and later published in 2002, the present Archbishop of Canterbury rightly discerns the implications of the Anglican Church’s approval of the use of contraception as part of its recent understanding that sex is not primarily for procreation:


“In fact, of course, in a church which accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very
ambiguous texts, or on a problematic and non-scriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation
without regard to psychological structures.”[27]





I have suggested that friendship is necessary to becoming fully human. Friendship is the means by which we grow in Christian virtue and holiness. Our friendship with God in Christ transforms our character such that we become holy, and our friendships with one another are part of that activity of the formation of this virtuous life. It is in this context that the whole question of same sex relationships must be understood. Christians cannot be denied that highest human friendship by which we come to know our holiness and communicate the character of God. Such friendships always include living together in community, at least the Church community. The Scriptures speak of marriage as that institution in which two radically different yet complementary persons (male and female) enter into a relationship that echoes the love that eternally binds together Christ and His Church. Although marriage is not in itself friendship, nor is it dependent upon friendship as a state of life sanctioned by Christian tradition, it is a state of life in which there is every expectation that friendship should be nourished. Finally, throughout the history of the Church, there have been particular and deeply intimate friendships between man/man and woman/woman that have embraced agape, philia and eros love. These friendships have been recognized as such a means of God’s grace that they have been blessed, offered to God in prayer, and expressed in covenant form. Such friendships include a vowed commitment to live together in mutual love in a life of sacrifice for the other by which such friends grow in holiness. These lovely and truthful friendships reflect God’s character, and His Kingdom is made more real among us when we celebrate this fact. If we fail to acknowledge the reality of God’s grace as expressed in these profound and intimate form of friendships, or equally if we deny these friendships by turning them into marriages, the Kingdom will be less present among us.


In this paper I have sought to indicate the source of some of the confusion in the current debate. In addition, I challenge all members of the Anglican Church of Canada to think seriously about the Church’s teaching on marriage, as that teaching is expressed in its present liturgies and Canon on Marriage. I suggest that such a reflection might lead the Church to consider two possible ways of moving forward in our current situation. On the one hand, the Church may conclude that it has unintentionally fallen into an un-historic and deficient view of Christian marriage and it may seek to correct that teaching in its liturgies and Canon on Marriage. At the same time it would decide on the appropriate state of life other than marriage that it wants to sanction for intended life-long particular friendships between man/man and woman/woman that long have been recognized as a means of God’s grace. On the other hand, the Anglican Church of Canada may conclude that the Holy Spirit has led it to its current innovative teaching that friendship is the essence of Christian marriage. If it affirms this teaching, then there is strong argument that such marriage should be available to all, including same-sex couples.



Gary Thorne
Diocesan University
The University of Dalhousie and King’s College, Halifax


[1] Paul’s paper was the second published by the Primate’s Theological Commission and posted on the web. See

[2] Generally speaking this is the third type of the friendships described by Aristotle, based on goodness and virtue. Aristotle’s other two types of friendship are firstly, of pleasure, and secondly, of usefulness. He says, “these two types are friendships only incidentally” (Nichomachean Ethics, 1156a).

[3] Lewis, C.S. (1960) The Four Loves, San Diego, New York, London, pp 87, 90.

[4] Pakaluk, M. ed. (1991) Other Selves: Philosophers on Friendship, Indianapolis, vii.

[5] Badhwar, N. K., ed. (1993) Friendship: A Philosophical Reader, Ithaca and London, ix. Significant exceptions to this assessment of the lapse of interest in friendship in the modern west might include Martin Buber’s Ich und Du published in 1923, the writings of the French philosopher Simone Weil who died in 1943, and even perhaps Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, first published in 1954.

[6] Meilaender, G. (1981) Friendship:A Study in Theological Ethics, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2. For example, William Barclay speaks of agape as the noblest form of love, noting that “Agape has to do with the mind: it is not simply an emotion which rises unbidden in our hearts; it is a principle by which we deliberately live” (New Testament Words, p. 21). Agape is the kind of love that we must have for all others – even our enemies (Matt. 5:44). The Christian must always act out of love, i.e., in the best interest of his fellow human beings.

[7] Taylor, J. (1847-54) ‘A Discourse of the Nature and Offices of Friendship’ in Taylor, Whole Works vol 1, ed. R. Heber, 72.

[8] Kierkegaard, S. (1964) Works of Love, trans. Howard and Edna Hong, New York, 58, 68.

[9] Nygren, A. (1969) Agape and Eros, trans. Philip S. Watson, New York, 154.

[10] Contemporary Canadian society is profoundly shaped by just such an Enlightenment or ‘liberal’ understanding which is praised as that which holds our pluralistic nation together. Our social institutions and commitment to such universal moral (and, in today’s language, ‘spiritual’) principles ensure cooperation between people who share no common notion of the good or the virtuous life.

[11] Murdoch, I. (1983) ‘Against Dryness; A Polemical Sketch,’ in Revisions; Changing Perspectives in Moral Philosophy, ed. S. Hauerwas and A. Macintyre, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 44.

[12] Utilitarianism can be seen as an instance of consequentialism.

[13] cf. Ackrill, J.L. (1980) “Aristotle on Eudaimonia,” in Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, ed. Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, California, 24. For Aristotle’s definition of eudaimonia as ‘final end’ see his Nicomachean Ethics 1097b1-7.

[14] Wadell, P. (1989) Friendship and the Moral Life, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 96.

[15] MacIntyre, A. (1984) After Virtue, (second edition) Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 263.

[16] Ibid. MacIntyre’s claim that we are waiting for “another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict” has been responsible for the ‘New Monasticism’ movement in North America which has established communities in inner cities based on a new ‘St. Benedict’. This movement openly acknowledges its initial inspiration to MacIntyre’s challenge in After Virtue. See Ruyba House, ed. School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism (Oregon, 2005).

[17] Hauerwas, S. and Pinches, C. (1997) Christians among the Virtues: Theological Conversations with Ancient and Modern Ethics, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 82.

[18] See John Milbank’s criticism of MacIntyre on precisely this point in Milbank, J. (1990) Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, Oxford: OUP, 352-364.

[19] Florensky, P. (1997) The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters, trans. and annotated by Boris Jakim, Princeton: Princeton University Press. (1997),

[20] Florensky (1997), 314.

[21] Florensky (1997), 297.

[22] Florensky (1997)

[23] Florensky (1997), 291, 326. Florensky’s conclusion that Friendship love is the highest love, inclusive of eros and agape in the divinely ordered particularity of philia, is consistent with the ancient philosophical tradition as developed in such Christian theologians as Boethius, Aelred of Rivieulx, Dante, and Aquinas in the Middle Ages.

[24] There has been enormous interest both in the plethora of versions of rites of adelphopoiesis in the tradition and generally in the history of formalized covenants of friendships. A series of articles in Traditio 52 (1997), pp 261 -381, is perhaps the best place to begin to appreciate such recent studies as John Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (1994), and Alan Bray’s studies prior to his book, The Friend, published in 2003. These essays in Traditio give a comprehensive overview of recent research in the area of ritual brotherhoods in Byzantium, Roman and post-Roman societies, and Western Medieval Europe.

[25] As described in Florensky (1997), 327, 328.

[26] This was pointed out to me in an unpublished paper by the Rev’d Eric MacDonald which was presented to a local Anglican Clericus meeting in Nova Scotia in 2005.

[27] The Body’s Grace was originally delivered as an address in 1989. It is now part of a series of essays collected in Theology and Sexuality (ed. Eugene Rogers, Blackwells 2002).


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