THIS book, by a retired consultant neonatologist, is, first of all, about the revered Evangelical leader John Stott and the importance of friendships in his life. John Wyatt himself was a close friend, one to whom Stott was able to reveal his vulnerabilities, but the book includes testimonies from a range of other people, many from overseas. Stott wrote to such friends regularly and encouragingly, and, as a single man, he was himself sustained by them.
Wyatt is rightly aware, however, that much has changed since that model of friendship held sway. He traces the emergence of the modern mind, with its individualism and emphasis on personal fulfilment, especially sexual fulfilment. He examines the hermeneutic of suspicion in which all relationships are looked at from the point of view of their balance of power, the desire for sex, and their tendency to abuse. And he notes the terrible scandals that have come to light in all branches of the Church in recent years.
One chapter is entitled “How friendships go wrong”, and here Wyatt writes about how spiritual abuse works and what it leads to, often sexual abuse as well as intimidation.
While bearing all this in mind, he argues for the recovery of a biblically based understanding of friendship, and uses the relationship of Paul and Timothy, in particular, to spell out what this involves. This is a friendship rooted in our relationship with Christ, who called us friends, and who helps us to grow in Christ-like love. It is expressed in regular prayer for our friends and their true and lasting good. He argues that gospel-shaped friendships should be an important part of the Christian life, and that these can exist without exploitation or abuse.
In these friendships, there are clear boundaries, so that they do not slip into sexual or romantic relationships; but they can and do include hugs and physical gestures. For examples of this, he looks not just to Stott, but to Evangelicals round Charles Simeon (1759-1836), including people such as William Wilberforce and John Newton the ex-slave trader.
The title of the book, Transforming Friendship, is meant to indicate two kinds of transformation: first, the way in which such friendships can change our lives, halving our troubles and doubling our joys, as J. C. Ryle put it; and, second, the way in which our whole understanding of friendship in the modern world needs to be transformed. There can be such a thing as a healthy intimate friendship in which two people reveal to each other their deepest hopes and fears, and which is neither abusive nor potentially predatory.
The model used in the book is very much that of male to male, especially an older male to a younger one. It would have benefited from a female perspective on friendships between women, as well male-female ones and ones involving two married couples or groups of friends.
It would also have benefited from the inclusion of the two most famous Christian writers on friendship, St Anselm and St Aelred, as well as the Anglican priests in the Catholic tradition for whom friendship was the basis of their ministry, such as Forbes Robinson (1867-1904) and more recently Eric Abbott and Eric James.
James was less shy than Wyatt in acknowledging that, in friendships, we are often attracted to the whole person, not just their mind or spirit. I once said to James: “Isn’t it difficult when you find yourself attracted to someone?” to which he replied. “No, the difficulty is when I am not.”
That said, this book says many things that need saying today, and that many will find helpful. There is a particularly useful final section under the heading: “But how do I start?”
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London. His latest book is Majesty: Reflections on the life of Christ with Queen Elizabeth II (SPCK, 2023).
Transforming Friendship: Investing in the next generation — Lessons from John Stott and others
Church Times Bookshop £8.99