In the first of two articles, Digby Anderson looks at Christian friendship as a safeguard against loneliness

Practising Christians are an increasingly small minority of the population in England; fully practising Catholics a minority of that minority and Anglican Catholics an even tinier minority. Anglican-Catholicism is a lonely business. ‘Lonely’ means not only being alone but being aware of it. We are not just socially but intellectually and morally lonely. We know that few people believe and practice what we do.

Dangers of isolation

Intellectual loneliness is dangerous. Some people respond to it by giving up their beliefs, unable to persist with something which is so unusual. After all, what is so unusual is abnormal, eccentric, bizarre. Another reaction, the opposite, is to throw up the barricades and have nothing to do with non-believers. It is ironic that minority believers who desperately need more members often pursue a purity of belief that further isolates them. Look at the fissiparous tendencies of Trotskyists or some continuing churches.

More often lonely believers seek a rapprochement with the majority by translating their beliefs into the language of the majority. Thus Christians say they still believe in sin but call it maladjustment. Too late they discover that in translating their ideas they have lost them.

Social scientists would diagnose us as suffering from cognitive dissonance and being in a cognitive minority. But there’s a reason to stick with the less pretentious loneliness! ‘Cognitive minority’ suggests the answer lies in altering the relative numbers of the minority and majority, whereas there is a much simpler answer to loneliness: friendship. If you want to persist in Anglican-Catholicism without going fanatical or barmy, cultivate a friendship with one or two similarly believing people.

Listen to Edmund Burke in his Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol: ‘The only method that has ever been found effectual to preserve any man against the corruption of nature and example, is an habit of life and communication of councils with the most virtuous and public-spirited men.’ It is dangerous to attempt to live the moral and religious life alone. Such a person, Burke says, ‘must be either an angel or a devil.’ ‘Good men [must] cultivate friendships.’

Sharing moral purpose

To be sure the friendship we are called to is not what many modern persons mean by that word. It is not based on Australian lager, shared gossip or flattery. It is classical, high friendship, two persons sharing moral purpose, pursuing the good together. Far from flattery, the friend is one of the few persons who will tell you the truth about yourself.

Friendship is based on honesty, sincerity, loyalty and permanence of character. Jonathan loved David as he loved his own soul! Coleridge wrote of his friendship with Southey, ‘our pursuits were similar, our final aspirations similar …he was a far better man.’ Newman called friendship a special test of our virtue!

There is so much in our tradition on the importance of friendship. Was not St John Our Lord’s ‘bosom friend’? Were not Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial the more shocking because they were the betrayals of friendship? Aristotle thought friendship the best thing in the world.

Euripides thought ‘one loyal friend is worth 10,000 relatives.’ Augustine was devastated by the death of a friend, All that we had done together was now a grim ordeal without him.’

Most eloquent was St Gregory Nazianzan about his friend St Basil: ‘We were all in all to each other, sharing the same roof, the same table, the same sentiments, our eyes fixed on one goal…we seemed to have a single soul animating two bodies.’

Writings of the saints

There’s St Theresa of Avila, St Aelred of Rievaulx and St Ambrose too. St Jerome praised friendship through letter writing. C.S. Lewis wrote of friendship that friends think they have chosen each other – not so: A secret master of ceremonies has been at work. Christ who once said to his disciples, ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you^ can truly say to every group of Christian friends, ‘You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.’ At this feast let us not reckon without our Host.’

The point of so many quotations is not rhetorical. It is that friendship was once considered a great thing by great civilizations and by great saints in the Church. It is now all but forgotten. The Church says little about it and nothing of much worth. Indeed the last Christian writer to take it seriously was C.S. Lewis.

Christians, I’m sure, have friends still, and some of these friends are Christian. A few, perhaps, of the friendships are Christian friendships. But we need to recover the ideal of Christian friendship and have public acknowledgement of its importance in the church. It is an arena for the practice of central Christian virtues, an essential building block of any Christian community and the chief safeguard against apostasy, fanaticism and madness in this otherwise lonely Catholic life.

Digby Andersons book,
Losing Friends,
is published by
The Social Affairs Unit