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The wound of mutual flourishing

28 June 2019

St Thomas Aquinas’s theology of friendship might bring healing, says Gabrielle Thomas


A stained-glass window depicting St Thomas Aquinas in the RC St Rumbold’s Cathedral, Mechelen, Belgium

A stained-glass window depicting St Thomas Aquinas in the RC St Rumbold’s Cathedral, Mechelen, Belgium

THE Five Guiding Principles that paved the way for women to be consecrated bishops refer to the concept of “mutual flourishing”. While this aims for a high degree of communion, evidence demonstrates that it is causing a “wound” in the Church of England. Some wounds do not heal alone, and can fester if left untreated. Surprisingly, St Thomas Aquinas’s theology of friendship might help heal this particular wound.

Since October 2017, five focus groups gathered in England. These consisted of women working within diverse Christian traditions — among them Roman Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Orthodox, Assemblies of God, and independent Pentecostal. They met to explore together the “gifts” and “wounds” in their respective traditions. In every single group, an Anglican priest raised “mutual flourishing” as a live “wound” in the Church of England. Only three of the 22 Anglican priests participating in the groups thought that, as one put it, “things are working fine”.

Two women reported receiving “hate mail”, and another said: “I’d given out my ember cards at college . . . and the next day I found two of them torn into little pieces and put back into my pigeon hole.”

Remarks such as these came thick and fast: “Mutual flourishing means women are expected to be grateful and to keep quiet”; “We are all in our little separate groups, and it’s far too easy to avoid one another”; “Mutual flourishing can function in practice as a euphemism for independent flourishing”; “It is not at all clear what is actually meant by mutual flourishing, and precisely what kind of theology underpins it.”

The study guide from the Faith and Order Commission provides one response to this by drawing on Ephesians 4.13 to suggest that flourishing entails “growing up to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ”.

I BELIEVE that Aquinas can help us reflect further, and that his approach to human flourishing serves as a “diagnostic gaze” on the wound.

In Aquinas’s thought, human flourishing could be summed up as “friendship with God”; it is theocentric and cosmically oriented. He argues that the incarnation provides a way for humans to respond freely to God as God’s friends. It renders possible the equality and commonality required for humans to be friends with God, and, through God, friends with one another. Aquinas de-sentimentalises friendship by locating it in the broader economy of God’s grace, which, in turn, paves a way for the possibility of being friends with those who hold differing beliefs.

Simply put, “mutual flourishing” is friendship with God. It does not imply that everyone needs to have the same opinion on ordaining women priests. Mutuality is located, first, in our shared friendship with God, and then, through God, friendship with one another.

That said, friendship with those who send hate mail does not mean that those on the receiving end should simply “turn the other cheek”. Aquinas makes clear that to “correct” the brother or sister who sins against a person is an act of friendship. Malicious behaviour should be called to account.

Aquinas’s treatment of friendship incorporates, by necessity, movement towards God which is dependent entirely on grace. Through the Holy Spirit, the soul is infused with the grace of friendship, which renders movement towards God possible. Movement is key here: movement towards God, and movement towards others.

THIS calls into question current practices in the C of E that create a “buffer” for those with differing beliefs. We hold separate ordination services, separate chrism eucharists, and, as in the recent report on Wakefield Cathedral (News 8 March), there are questions about the public naming of priests who celebrate the eucharist. Through these practices, we are disengaging with one another.

If we are to take Aquinas’s model of friendship, movement towards and engagement with one another is necessary. This necessitates a choice. As Aquinas writes, “Friendship is a kind of virtue inasmuch as it is a habit of choice” (Eth. VIII. 1 [1538]). We will need to choose to cross boundaries and risk an “unbuffered” stance by moving into one another’s spaces. It would be possible to share together, even if only at certain occasions, in daily Offices, and to pray with and for one another.

For friendship, as Aquinas has identified, is not possible simply by human effort but needs divine help.

On a practical level, this means that we need to explore “considered risks”. For example, we might want to re-evaluate holding separate chrism eucharists, and explore how, even though it might be uncomfortable at first, we share this special space.

Dioceses could host occasions at which prayer and conversation between those of differing positions on the matter come together intentionally. In short, we need to make changes within the limitations of time and resources.

By re-envisioning mutual flourishing in the light of Aquinas’s theology of grace-infused friendship, we could begin to create a culture in the Church of England in which it is unacceptable to send hate-mail and rip up another’s ember cards, or worse.

Instead, inspired by Aquinas, energy might be better spent on cultivating practices of holy friendship, since, as Aquinas says, “the one who possesses the more charity, will see God more perfectly, and will be more beatified” (ST I.12.6).

The Revd Dr Gabrielle Thomas is a post-doctoral research associate in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. The full report can be found here.

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