by Ruth Gee.
On 3 October 2022, Boris Johnson was appointed President of the Conservative Friends of Ukraine. President Zelensky has described Mr Johnson as a “big friend” of his country because he offered support to Ukraine. The model of friendship seen here is that of a relationship developed in response to need in the context of a threat to both parties and complicated by power dynamics.
Why hast thou cast our lot
In the same age and place,
And why together brought
To see each other’s face,
To join with loving sympathy
And mix our friendly souls in thee?[i]
The lot of Mr Zelensky and Mr Johnson is cast in the same age and place, but the relationship described by Charles Wesley is more profound that their power laden friendship.
Charles Wesley is describing Christian friendship, grounded in a relationship with the God of truth and love. Such friendship is not transient, it is costly, formative and enables each to grow in understanding of themselves, the other and God. I suggest such friendship is the most fruitful basis for ecumenism and that it works well as apologetic for ecumenism within the ethos of British Methodism.
Here is an outline of some supporting points.
- The biblical basis for an understanding of friendship between followers of Jesus as rooted and grounded in the relationship with the God of truth and love is found in the fourth gospel and particularly in John’s gospel, chapters 15:1-17 and 21:15-19.
Jesus calls his disciples friends. They are servants no longer, servants merely obey, friends share a common purpose and understanding. They are Jesus’ friends invited into a relationship with him that enables them to participate in the relationship of Jesus with the Father. Here is a common vision, a binding of hearts, friendship within which the greatest love can be expressed in the laying down of life. In the context of such friendship agape and philia, often distinguished as self-giving love and friendship, are so subtly distinct as to become interchangeable.
In his recently published commentary on the fourth gospel, David Ford argues that the use of two Greek words for “love” in chapter 21 is a deliberate device to point the reader back to the identity of the followers of Jesus as friends abiding in love.[ii]
2. The nature of friendship has been explored in a number of ancient texts. Gabrielle Thomas has paid particular attention to Aquinas in an article published in “Ecclesiology.”[iii] Aquinas agrees with Aristotle that friendship must include benevolence and reciprocity which is only possible where there is some kind of equality. Human friendship with God is only possible through God’s love, Jesus calls his disciples friends so through the incarnation we are drawn into friendship with God. We offer friendship grounded in the love of God to one another. Crucially this is how we can offer friendship to those with whom we disagree, because God’s love is for all.
3. Friendship that is gracious and reciprocal necessitates an openness to learning from one another. There is vulnerability in friendship as we accept that we are not perfect and may need to change as we receive from the other.
4. Friendship is a motif that is embedded in British Methodism, for example in our understanding of connexionalism.
“Relationship is at the heart of connexionalism. Methodist structures and practice seek to express and witness to “a mutuality and interdependence which derive from the participation of all Christians through Christ in the very life of God” (Called to Love and Praise, §4.6.1).”[iv]
The connexion is diverse, at its best Methodism seeks to learn from the experience and insights of others.
David Chapman has written about friendship as ecumenical method in Methodism in his essay in The Oxford Handbook of Ecumenical Studies.[v] The way in which this method has been worked out has varied over the years as the emphasis in ecumenism has changed.
These points are neither fully explored nor exclusive but I suggest that the call to friendship, a call rooted in the command of Jesus and the love of God, cannot be denied. Friendship is life enhancing and life changing, it brings joy and challenge and it is the beginning and the goal, the source and the summit of ecumenism.
Through our ecumenical relationships we offer and receive friendship, and model the depth of Christian friendship possible for those who accept the friendship of Jesus. Such friendship is of a different quality from politically expedient and power laden friendships however genuinely they are offered.
[i] Singing The Faith 620
[ii] David F Ford , The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, Baker Academic (2021) 426
[iii] Thomas G, ‘Mutual Flourishing’ in the Church of England: Learning from St Thomas Aquinas, Ecclesiology 15 (2019) 302-321
[iv] and this is expressed in the Conference report, The Gift of Connexionalism (2017).
[v] Chapman David M, The Oxford Handbook of Ecumenical Studies, OUP (2020), 101-120