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When I was a student – I admit in the Dark Ages – I met a young man from India  and fell into a conversation about dating. After he described the process of his arranged engagement and I attempted to wax romantic about falling in love, about which I knew little,  he said to me “But surely it is easier for friends to fall in love than for lovers to fall into friendship.” I thought his remark medieval. And yet in the late 1950’s I was not too far away in time from a culture in which marriages were arranged or at least supervised.  As we now have birth control methods, live much longer and can divorce easily, our culture has placed all its eggs, so to speak, in the romantic love basket. We speak of “attraction” as a civil right, the utterly necessary component of “true love”. Our youngsters spend an enormous amount of time and money worrying about whether they are attractive enough. Sexual desire and the ability to “lure” have become obsessions. Media makes a fortune pandering to our obsession with romance.

And what then tends to happen when  inevitably what remains is no longer largely passion and one discovers that one’s friends at work and play are more interesting than one’s partner, leaving aside sexual attraction, or that one would much rather be alone?  What then happens when having fun with a friend turns sexual and we take on board self-deception and guilt, to be expunged by our friendly and expensive therapist?

One of the problems we face in the debate on sexuality is that in practice the church has surrendered to the notion of romance as it has developed in Western culture over the past century or so and therefore is obliged to champion “Falling in love” as the acid test of valid marital relationship. In the process the church says little about the vocation to friendship, let alone a mutual commitment to provide a stable and safe home for children, homes in which what it is to be masculine and what feminine are seen to be different but complimentary, something biologically obvious as well as psychologically wholesome. Now this is not to say that persons of the same-sex can’t bring up children. Literature is not without reference to orphaned children brought up by aunts, although I can’t think of uncles, there must be some.

We still get a little emotional when we meet two older people who have been married for long years and are inseparable, good friends through thick and thin. We can manage and even exalt such a state, while perhaps shyly thinking that Viagra must be such a blessing to them. What we can’t manage is the thought of an ideal of marriage in which sexual attraction and desire plays a lesser role in inception. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we can’t engage the “Global non-West” in constructive conversation about marriage and who may or may not be married. We blithely believe we are progressive when it comes to love and they regressive. We fill our minds with Romeo and Juliet plots and horrid visions of forced marriages of which there must be many in other cultures just as the worst fears our interlocutors have about Western ideals of “love” are played out in divorce court and sit com.

And yet as the next advertisement for a dating service appears on our TV screens, peopled by young, attractive, in shape men and women and our teen daughter demands to be pierced in the most extraordinary places or our sons tattooed all over, and as we hear that Joe, bored with his wife is seeing Mary who thinks Bob is a bore, we may wonder whether we need, as Christians to examine what we mean by love and marriage before we open the institution even wider and define its essence even more loosely. A good place to start would be a revival of a robust theology of friendship..

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