Kelvin Holdsworth – on Friendship

Here is this morning’s sermon on friendship which was delivered in a rather chilly church.

There is something iconic about the friends who take their paralyzed friend to Jesus.

I remember doing it in Sunday school. We listened to the story. We acted it out. We coloured it in.

There is something wonderfully visual about the story of them carrying him towards the house where Jesus is and then kept out by the crowd taking him up onto the roof and carefully lowering him down towards the healer.

It is an iconic picture postcard of the healing Jesus.

This morning, I want to use those friends as the starting point for what I want to say. A leaping off point for thinking not about the healing miracle that Jesus does but about the miracle of healing and wholeness which friendship itself represents.

There is something about friendship which is tantalising throughout the gospels. Greater love, so we are told, has no-one than this, that someone lay down their life for their friend.

It seems to be an unusual and uncommon friendship that Jesus practises with his disciples throughout his life on earth. Ultimately, his crucifixion comes at the direct betrayal of one of his friends. Friendship is woven throughout the gospel scenes. Healings, teachings, parables and meals all seem to take place with the friendship of the disciples as a backdrop. And then the gospel writers highlight friendship in one or two key stories, such as this one we read today where someone’s life is changed by the action of friends.

I was tantalized by something that one of my own friends said a while ago about friendship, which I have not forgotten. It was a throwaway remark which lingered in the mind and which I’ve not forgotten. She said, “Isn’t it a shame that the church does not spend more of its energy thinking about friendship. If we based our theology on friendship, it might sort out all our other worries about other kinds of relationships.”

I thought that was brilliant – and worth sharing. Perhaps that is the theological work that we need to do. Celebrating what comes of our own friendships with one another. Delighting in teaching one another that friendship with God is not just possible but the very nature of God’s desire to relate to us.

When I stop to think about it, friendship is very important to me. And I know that I take a very contrary view on friendship to most people. I’ve always maintained that you can’t choose your friends. You can chose your family, but you can’t choose your friends. Most people think it is the other way around.

You can’t chose your friends, it is only your family that you can choose. That’s counterintuitive for most people and has got me into arguments several times. Yet people bend and manipulate family life in endless variations. Marriages, partnerships, inheritance, disinheritance, IVF, civil partnerships, conception, affairs, adoption, bigamy etc are going on all the time; people choosing whom they will regard as family. Friendship is different somehow. A friendship chooses two people and can’t really be forced or faked.

Last Sunday I led a guided tour around the church. It was great fun – not something I’d done before. We started out at the font and worked our way around the church taking the traditional order of the seven sacraments as our routemap. Baptism, at the font, Eucharist at the table and so on around the church. Finding places to talk about confession, confirmation, marriage, holy orders and anointing of the sick – unction, which we thought about in the oratory over there, the old resurrection chapel where people used to bring coffins the night before a funeral and which we now use to pray and store the holy oils of the church.

One of the bits where I really had to stop and think (for this was not really planned out using anything more than the back of an envelope) was when I got to marriage.

What does the church teach about marriage that is sacramental these days. The inheritance we have is of a sacrament based on property and avoiding intimate blood relationships.

After I went home, I realised what I wished I had said. I wished I had said, wouldn’t it have been great if the Western Church had named Friendship as one of the sacraments? Wouldn’t it be great if  we were taught to think by the church of the ways in which friendship between two people reflects God’s being and shines with grace that is Godly. For after all, I think that when I see couples preparing for marriage, the thing I hope for them most of all is that they will be friends. Would it undermine or enhance society if we made friendship our sacrament? If we let marriage take its honoured place amongst a whole host of relationships (teaching relationships, business relationships, therapeutic relationships, partnerships of so many kinds) which would benefit from being thought about as consequent upon a Sacrament of Friendship?

When I was on my way home from my recent holiday in Yorkshire, where my parents now live, I went to see an old friend from college whom I had not seen for 10 years. One of those rare treats that friendship gives – catching up after years apart. He is now a monk living in the North Yorkshire Moors. On my way in to the village where he lives, I went to see another monk. Well another monastery anway. I dropped into the lovely valley where the ruins of Rievaulx abbey stand. That was the place where a saint lived – originally from Scotland, Abbot Aelred lived in Rievaulx ruling a great monastery and writing his own ideas down which survive to this day. He is remembered especially for writing about friendship and was famous for allowing friendships between the monks rather than being suspicious of them as other abbots had been.

I sat in the ruins of that soaring Cistercian monastery and looked down the valley. Smokey mist was weaving in and out of the trees. Just like the ideas that I’ve been trying to explore this morning – you could not catch hold of it – it just hung in the air.

And I hoped for a day when we could rebuild something whole and holy from the tumbling ruins that seem to represent the modern church’s attempts to speak about human relationships.

A God worth knowing as a friend.

Church communities famous for their openness and characterised by good humoured friendliness.

And A Sacrament of Friendship that embraces, cajoles, emboldens, challenges, and comforts and whose borders are ever wider and whose circumference goes by the name of Love.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


  1. Hurrah !
    Thank you Kelvin – this has to be one of the finest sermons I have ever met – and I find it reads fully as well as I heard at the original vocal delivery. This morning I could feel the dew on the grass at Rievaulx, hear the birds in the trees and feel the mist on my face.
    Friendship. Aye.
    This surely IS the magnet that drew the disciples together. This is the glue that helped them cope with each others’ foibles. Friendship not only allowed but nurtured the love and trust needed to discover their positive attributes, to build their confidence and to bequeathe to us the greater inheritance…
    Friends. Friendship.
    Yes – I think we DO have here the eighth sacrament – the one that suffuses and reveals the true inheritance of Christ, and binds all together. That which we so casually fail to acknowledge, take so for granted, brutally slap aside or otherwise have failed to nurture……..
    Find a Friend. Be a Friend. Cultivate Friendship…….
    Now THERE’S a gauntlet for Lent.

  2. well done.

  3. Thanks Kelvin. Been thinking about this all day.

    ‘Chilly’ is an understatement. How do churches end up being colder than outside?

  4. Elizabeth says

    As I mentioned yesterday, I think the Eucharist can be understood as a sacrament of friendship. Not that the Eucharist, or the church for that matter, is synonymous with friendship (is church something you can choose, or something you can’t?) but I do think it’s a significant element. And the whole thing is rooted in a meal Jesus shared with friends and he deliberately called them such.

  5. Kelvin says

    Thank you for these comments.

    Gail – thanks for that suggestion about Lent. Its a good one.

    Kimberly – il miglior fabbro

    Holly – the answer is centuries of diligent practise.

    Elizabeth – I agree. The Eucharist has friendship at its heart. This has made me think about where the other sacraments intersect with a sacrament of friendship too.

  6. I suspect that the next stepping stone in this discussion is ‘strange kindness’ but first there’s a vestry meeting to prepare.

  7. Kasia says

    I agree with that. We have to appreciate friendship as an exceptional kind of Love.
    Thats true:”Isn’t it a shame that the church does not spend more of its energy thinking about friendship. If we based our theology on friendship, it might sort out all our other worries about other kinds of relationships.”

    Friendship is a sacrament.


  1. […] some credit both to Fr Ian who initially got me thinking about the sacrament of friendship, and to Kelvin, who wrote beautifully and movingly about it a few years ago (and who is probably wondering why […]

Speak Your Mind