Friendship and Ecumenism

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.

  1. 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

4 thoughts on “Friendship and Ecumenism”

  1. Isn’t FRIENDSHIP a pretty good foundation for any mutually creative relationship? My father told me in my youth ‘marry the person who would be your best friend if there were no such thing as sex.’

    Difficult to untangle when one is young, but I followed my father’s advice.

    I would like the political sphere to be rather more indicative of real disinterested friendship than it is, too! We might then get some peace and harmony.


  2. True friendship gives you the space to be you, loves you for who you are, and does not seek in any way to control or manipulate, certainly not when it comes to your relationship with God, which is unique to each one of us.


  3. I don’t mean to sound patronising (I’m told I sometimes do but it’s not intentional, I just have a simplistic view on things) but I think it’s important that people understand the real meaning of ecumenism. It is not about thrashing out our differences until we find some common ground on which we can all agree and be friends; it’s about learning to live in peace and harmony, and to be able to work and worship together despite our different beliefs and opinions. I know I am as guilty as the next man (or men) for standing my ground and preserving, at all costs, my loving relationship with my Saviour and my Catholic faith, but that does not stop me from worshipping or serving with other denominations. I find that friendship flourishes quite naturally when we accept that we don’t all have to agree on matters of faith. We can agree to disagree, because the one thing that unites us is the love and grace of Jesus Christ. No-one’s opinion is greater than that!
    At every Mass, our Priest says the words ‘look not on our sin, but on the faith of your church, and graciously grant her peace and unity, in accordance with your will ….’
    Thy will be done, Lord.


  4. Thank you for the comments and for highlighting important aspects of friendship as being the ground for good relationships and not being manipulative. I think Yvonne has made an important point that friendship is not about a thrashing out of difference, language that implies a power game between conflicting interests. Friendship is rather an openness to the other, a sharing of common ground and a willingness both to learn from and share with the friend. Receptive ecumenism is a methodology which works in this way and has much to offer.

    Liked by 1 person

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