On Friendship – for St Aelred’s Day and the Primates

This is an extract from a sermon I preached in 2009 after visiting Rievaulx, the place associated with St Aelred who has his feast day today. The central idea is that we would have a better world if the church had made a sacrament out of friendship rather than marriage. It seems particularly appropriate to repost this during the current Anglican Primates’ Meeting.


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. Paul Hutchinson says

    Thank you (from not far north of Rievaulx) for posting this today. His exploration of friendship offers a very different kind of vision of Christian community to the one which has the dominant voice today. I see friendship in action in all kinds of wonderful ways, and sometimes wonder why the Church has placed marriage (for all its great strengths) on such a pedestal, and made such imperial claims to control it…

  2. As someone with autism I struggle with friendship, and consequently with “what a friend we have in Jesus” or any similar religious model. I am not really wired to do relationships well. I am married, which is not always easy, but I think one friendship is all I can manage.

    Last year I was getting anxious that I didn’t have any friends so I had a chat with someone from one of the autism charities. He talked it through and asked me if I wanted friends. My honest answer was “not really”. I think the pressure to have friends comes from others rather than from within me.

    So, if we model the church, or any institution on friendship, or if we talk about a “relationship with God” it really does go right over my head, and it must be the same for others.

    • Thanks for that comment, Gordon. It is a perspective I hadn’t thought about.

      I would note that my suggestion of thinking of a sacrament of friendship would still include you through the way you describe your spouse. However, a sacrament of marriage is denied to me as a single person and there are plenty who would deny me it as a gay person too.

  3. margaret of the sea of galilee says

    Do you know Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel’s book Rediscovering Friendship? She looks at “friendship” from Biblical as well as wider theological and political perspectives.

  4. Mary Birch says

    Perhaps of us all the Quakers-the Society of Friends- come nearest to this understanding of friendship in a sacramental sense, the outward and visible form of an inward and spiritual grace?

  5. Mary Birch says

    Don’t know how the first 5 words got there, I didn’t write them….please ignore.

  6. Tracey says

    Just a member of TEC here, wanting to say a heartfelt thank you for the support we’ve received from fellow Anglicans. It means a very great deal. Bless you.

    Tracey Henley
    Silver Spring, Maryland, USA

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