Companionship is one of the deepest of human needs.
When God contemplated the singular human being he made in Adam his first response was that “it is not good for man to be alone” and He immediately fashioned him a companion, one with whom he could break bread – for that is the derivation of the word.
Towards the end of his life, Jesus seals his ongoing companionship, not only with his immediate companion-disciples, but with all future followers, when he breaks bread and distributes it to future generations, so that we too are drawn into a relationship of special significance, we with Him and He with us.
Companionship takes many forms. Some describe themselves as “soulmates”, special people with whom similarities and differences can be shared with a special confidence, and with whom discord and loss is felt with particular acuteness. Other relationships may be less intimate but no less meaningful.
Companionship is important not least because both in its desire and fulfilment, it is God Given.
We might pick examples of companionship from a multitude of sources biblical, personal, even fictional.
In 1 Samuel 18;3 we are told “And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself”.
At John 21;20 we read – ” Peter turned and saw following them the disciple that Jesus loved, who had lain close to his breast at the supper”, a signifier of close companionship even by He who loved the whole world.
Close companions are not immune from discord. Consider, in a secular non-sexual context the songwriting partnership of Lennon and McCartney; they are inseparably linked as the embodiment of an era; they became estranged, but who can doubt that the loss of John Lennon was felt especially deeply by his rival/companion Paul?
We could easily make a lengthy list, which might include inter alia Boswell and Johnson, Holmes and Watson, and then there was Grey Friars Bobby.
We almost define our humanity by the relationships and loyalties which we develop and sustain, and few of us would wish to experienced prolonged periods of loneliness, even if we had our eight favourite gramophone records to remind us of happier times.
The bond of marriage is a recognition of such companionship, though in practice that comes in a variety of forms. Few of us can know the interior lives of most marriages, but the well documented and unconventional relationship of Harold Nicholson and Vita Sackville West was both challenging to most of our notions as to what a marriage should be, and yet touchingly human in its devotion.
Sexual relations may or may not feature in marriage or companionship; in the right context it is plainly a fortifying blessing. It can also be a stumbling block and a difficulty to be negotiated patiently and sensitively, sometimes with suffering, as with the marriage of Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard.
The more one thinks about this subject, the more textured and complex it becomes. Companionship is undoubtedly a blessing which is identifiable when seen, but difficult to define.
Last year, soon after his election to General Synod, and as he realised that he was going to have to address difficult issues of sexuality, Brother Ivo was recommended the book “Covenant and Calling” by Robert Song. It has been one of those works to which one’s mind returns from time to time to reflect on events as they arise.
As a prelude to its exploration to the nature of non-procreating relationships, Robert Song offered the interesting invitation to consider that, whilst marriage is an institutional good, it is, in Biblical Terms, a temporary state. It may be the right context for the multiplying of humankind, yet our heavenly future lies in a relationship beyond marriage, with God, and within that relationship, all who can be will already be; there will be no reproductive imperative in heaven, and all need for companionship will be fulfilled in the restored relationship with God through the sacrifice of Christ.
This longer perspective matters. Marriage is not a sine qua non of salvation indeed Robert Song reminds us that initially, celibacy was the more recommended status for believers. Our needs for earthly companionship were recognised as strong and so the accommodation of human desire was acknowledged as the Church matured.
Not all good intimate relationships of trust and vulnerability are marriages; whether married or not, they may or may not have a sexual component.
When they are deep, meaningful, and defining of identity, should not the church not have a liturgy of blessing for them? We may debate the qualifying criteria, but in principle..?
Everyone in the Church knows we are going to have to look again at issues of human gender and sexuality, and many dread it because we cannot see a way through without pain and fracture, yet this book opens up the thinking on the subject without being dismissive either of traditional scriptural thinking or of the needs of those who suffer pain and rejection because of their minority orientation.
Is it even possible to reconcile such diversity of views within a single institution? Many think not, but we do declare that with Christ, all things are possible, and exploring a liturgy for Companionship may be part of the process by which we edge towards the seemingly impossible.
How we approach these issues obliquely without polarising the discussions immediately is, of course, the underlying question facing our Archbishops as they engage with the diversity of Primates from across the Communion in the coming days. It will also arise during the term of office of members of the newly elected General Synod.
Robert Song was a University tutor of Archbishop Justin. One suspects that the theological subtlety and integrity of “Covenant and Calling” will have informed the preparations for the meeting of Primates. Certainly the openness of our Archbishops in not setting an agenda of their devising, but rather inviting the attenders to prayerfully construct their own, is entirely congruent with the exploratory spirit of Robert Song’s writing.
In the last General Synod there was significant support for two Members motions; neither was debated whilst we awaited the outcome of the “shared conversations”. One motion affirmed that marriage was between a man and woman, the other seeking to open it to gay people.
In a time when some are prepared to espouse the cause of “gender fluidity” it was interesting that there was not a motion to take us beyond thinking soley in binary terms.
Is this all we have to offer?
Will moving the needle of opinion from 49% /51% one way to 51%/49% the other way do anyone any good all – least of all the institutional Church?
Robert Song may help us to approach the subject from a very different angle.
Not all gay people want to get “married”. Indeed some share entirely the traditionalist view that ” we cannot be married – we are not male and female”. That cannot be the entirety of the discussion, unless we see early fracture of the Communion as a desirable outcome.
One only has to listen to the pain expressed by those who have tried to live lives of fidelity to traditional models of gender, and “failed” to reconfigure their orientation, to understand the peace we could confer upon them by celebrating “Companionship-Covenant Relationships” even without conceding the entire surrender to the redefinition of marriage.
Let us not ignore those in deep non-sexual relationships for whom such a liturgy might also be a blessing. A rite that was serious in intent, low key and inclusive might offer a useful contrast to the razzmatazz of some of the wedding parties we see using our Churches as a backdrop.
At the conclusion of the book, which is a prolonged invitation to think about these issues deeply and seriously, Robert Song writes as follows
“..we might make a start by pondering observations such as the following; people will be drawn to the good by beauty rather than forced to it by the law; romantic and erotic desire point us towards God rather than away from God: it is better to make goodness possible rather than condemn where it is absent; marriages and committed relationships exist for goods beyond themselves, not just for the mutual satisfaction of the parties, and so on.”
Earlier, reflecting upon how we “seek emotional survival and retain a degree of persona integrity” he suggests
..part of this is looking for guidance and reassurance from sources of authority that make sense.. not those that lay oppressive burdens of moral rectitude, but those that manage to evoke in people some sense of personal meaningfulness and hope of a way forward’.
That sense of the discussion opening the way forward, to re-examine the importance of relationships – of all characters of seriousness and meaningfulness- seems to Brother Ivo to be important.
If Synod were to consider developing a liturgy celebrating companionship, a celebration of ” all this is, and all it may please God for it to be” it would be a “good” not only in and of itself, but also as a prelude to the discussion of what marriage is, whether we retain it in its traditional form or bow to the zeitgeist.
Brother Ivo has always been a defender of traditional marriage for a variety of reasons which he may re-state another time. Yet the contemplation of a liturgy which blesses companionship, for the Davids and the Jonathans, and many others, does not seem to him to be Biblically offensive.
Prioritising the debate of such a liturgy may even be profoundly beneficial to the restoration of marriage as “an Honourable Estate”, from which it has frankly slipped under the weight of secular redefinition.
That is not a reference to the re-definition of “marriage” for gay people, but rather by its morphing into a rather vulgar consumer fest of which this is but the latest rather gross example.
Such lavish extravagance poses the question, which is the greater affront to the Institution of Matrimony; which treats it with more serious and God centred respect, the performance art of the celebrity bash, or the request for extended affirmation of the companionship of those who love God and seek to serve his Church within their calling?
“Covenant and Calling” does not take us to the promised land where all will be well; if we were to explore a liturgy to celebrate companionship, we will still have to touch upon issues of difference , but we would be doing so in a context in which the world can see that we are open to explore and celebrate goodness with a seriousness that often slips from the debate when it is is conducted in unsophisticated terms.