What do Living Out think about covenantal friendships or celibate partnerships?

Ed Shaw 2 weeks ago
Blog 3 mins
Found in: Family & Friends
‘What do Living Out think about covenantal friendships or celibate partnerships?’

This is a question we’re increasingly asked at events, or in conversation, and because I get all the best gigs, I volunteered (or was volunteered?!) to write our definitive response.

I think I’m now on a third edition. Some friends begged me to publish my first attempt, others begged me not to. Publishing it under a pseudonym was suggested by someone who even took the trouble to suggest a name (Shawn Edwards!). Problem is, I’ve never quite had the courage of my convictions because they’ve changed regularly as I’ve heard different arguments and read of a variety of contrasting experiences. I – and the rest of the Living Out team – have despaired of anything useful ever seeing the light of day, even under a false name.

All of which is why I was delighted to discover that our friends at the Center for Faith, Sexuality & Gender have produced one of their excellent pastoral papers on the subject. Even better it is written by the wonderful Greg Coles whose writings I have so enjoyed.

Much to my relief, my struggle has to some extent, been his:

‘I originally set out to write a paper evaluating the merits of celibate partnerships, offering ethical and pastoral perspectives on the viability of these relationships for Christ-followers.’1

Me too!

‘But as soon as I began talking with people in celibate partnerships and other forms of non-marital committed friendships, I realized that no singular evaluation of “the merits” could do justice to the variety and complexity that exists within these relationships.’2

His careful listening exercise was not something I was able to do, but the ‘variety and complexity’ Greg discovered was something that had stumped me too: it was impossible to write anything helpful in response to so many different expressions of covenantal friendships or celibate partnerships. Some use these sorts of labels to refer to committed friendships that I could find no ethical or pastoral concern to worry about (and instead, much to commend), others seemed to be talking about marriage in every context but the bedroom, in ways that seriously alarmed me.  

Greg, being much more intelligent than me, changed tack and has produced what is most needed to begin to answer questions about this range of relationships. Off the back of numerous interviews with people (both same-sex attracted and not) enjoying covenantal friendships or celibate partnerships he has sought 'simply to listen and understand the variety of experiences and approaches that exists among them.’3 Having done this he has noted ‘fourteen different registers along which celibate partnerships and committed friendships can differ from one another.’4 In doing so he has done us all a favour by demonstrating how incredibly different they can be. No ‘one size fits all’ response is valid when you hear, for instance, of the different numbers of people involved in them and the variety of sexual orientations. If you’ve written these types of relationships off as ‘gay marriage in all but name’, you aren’t accounting for the heterosexual couples with kids who have invited a same-sex attracted man or woman to be part of their nuclear family.

Having identified these fourteen different registers, Greg explores each in turn, letting the voices of his interviewees demonstrate their differing setups. At the end of each section, he helpfully suggests questions that enable his readers to evaluate the merits of what they’ve read from a Christian perspective.

The end result is, rightly, not a clear, definitive position paper. It can’t be – because of the variety. Instead, it is the beginning of more nuanced answers to difficult questions around covenantal friendships or celibate partnerships that actually take account of the different situations and decisions of those involved.

If I ever rashly begin a fourth edition of my article for Living Out, it will be sharing answers that are different on a case-by-case basis and avoiding any attempt at a definitive response. But I might just wait for Greg to take that next step for us too.

You can download Greg's pastoral paper from the website of the Center for Faith, Sexuality & Gender.

  1. Gregory Coles, ‘Understanding celibate partnerships and committed friendships’, Center for Faith, Sexuality & Gender, p.3.
  2. Gregory Coles, ‘Understanding celibate partnerships’, p.3.
  3. Gregory Coles, ‘Understanding celibate partnerships’, p.3.
  4. Gregory Coles, ‘Understanding celibate partnerships’, p.3.