Unlikely friends

Published October 14, 2014

“Friendship-I am allowing myself to be changed by you, and I trust that the change will be positive” (Sam Wells).

Friendship is personal-our friends are close and trusted. They share our secrets and know our fears and hopes. They have authority in our lives-what they say and do influences us. We allow ourselves to be changed by them, as Sam Wells notes. In fact, some of those closest to us are close precisely because they have had the sort of influence that has brought positive change to our lives.

That’s also why the harm done by a friend weighs so much more and cuts so much deeper than the harm done by a stranger. When we give someone the authority of friendship-when we allow ourselves to be changed by them, we become unguarded and vulnerable.

This friendship, this allowing of myself to be changed by you, is not possible if you are the same as me. What makes friendship work is difference, and sometimes the deepest friendships are those that grow in the soil of the deepest difference. Whatever we are when we don’t run the risk of being changed by the differences between us, we aren’t friends. We’re just kind of mutually convenient.

There is in contemporary life a kind of mutual convenience that comes when we separate into what my friend Martha Tatarnic calls “designer communities.” These are communities in which the like-minded can gather without the discomfort that difference brings.

Some of these designer communities are ideological, some are racial, some are about sustaining a community’s privilege, and some are about sustaining a common sense of grievance. Some of them are armed with physical weapons, while others guard their borders with words, or wealth, or labels. They read the same blogs and watch the same network. Intensely partisan, they take pleasure in the disdain they hold for those whose difference is disturbing.

Most of our communities, including our church communities, have elements of this mutual convenience. But most have elements, also, of the kind of friendship by which we allow ourselves to be changed. And by changed I don’t mean necessarily the kind of change by which one or another of us abandons our convictions to embrace others. It may be that we change our minds, but the kind of change that Wells speaks of is in our hearts, in the breadth of difference across which we can say “we,” instead of “us and them.”

In my life I spend rather a lot of time with people whose understanding of this or that issue is not mine. With some, the absence of the easy agreement of mutual convenience keeps us safely apart. In others, the difference becomes the ground in which friendship can grow, in which we allow the other the authority to change us, and trust that the change will be positive.

I am grateful that our church has a generous and growing capacity to say “we” across great differences. Since it seems unlikely that we will be granted “the easy agreement of mutual convenience,” how delightful and life-giving it is to discover the more unruly gifts of friendship.


  • Michael Thompson

    The Ven. Dr. Michael Thompson was the General Secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada from 2011 to 2020.

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