One of the things I’d like to do more often here at Spiritual Friendship is tell stories of friendship. Theological reflection, of the sort I usually do in my posts, can only go so far. What we need more of—what I need more of—are stories of real life friendships that describe how vital Christian friendship can be.
With that in mind, I’d like to pay tribute to my friend Ron Belgau in this post. Ron and I met initially via email, through a mutual friend. When he expressed appreciation for my first book, Washed and Waiting, I asked him to share further thoughts on it. Then, due to how thoughtful and rich his response was, I decided I couldn’t answer it until I had time to produce an equally thoughtful and rich reply—which meant that I stayed silent for about six months. Ron waited patiently, and then he wrote again, and from there our friendship took off. We wrote, we talked via Skype with him in the U.S. and me in England, and, eventually, we had the chance to meet in person at a speaking gig I had and enjoy a long walk along the Battery in Charleston, South Carolina.
Out of those conversations, we started a private online gathering for gay/lesbian/SSA Christians who wanted to try to live by traditional biblical sexual ethics. The conversations we helped nurture there were among the most significant I’ve been a part of. And, eventually, they became the basis for what Ron and I are trying to do here with SF, the sort of public face of our earlier private effort.
Ron has been a fellow pilgrim with me in thinking and praying through what holiness might look like for Christians who are gay. More than that, he’s been a forerunner. For years before I ever thought about writing Washed and Waiting, when I was still huddled tightly in the closet, Ron was wisely, patiently, charitably publishing articles and speaking to various audiences about the Church’s need for better pastoral approaches to homosexuality. (Many of Ron’s old pieces can be found at his personal website, CityofGod.net.) In this way, I think of Ron as someone who paved the way for the life and ministry I now enjoy.
For my latest column in Christianity Today magazine, I wrote a bit about Ron and how he and I hope that one day, somehow, we may see the moment when we may be able to seal our friendship by receiving the Eucharist together. At present, we can’t do that. Here’s what I wrote:
[The scene] is an Anglican church, where I now worship. Sitting beside me is my Catholic friend Ron. We kneel at the same time and pray in unison. We recite the same creed aloud—“I believe in God, the Father Almighty . . . and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord”—and we make the same prayer of confession.
When it comes time for Communion, I walk forward to the priest and cup my hands to receive the bread. Ron steps to the altar rail beside me. He crosses his arms over his chest to indicate that he won’t receive the bread and the wine, in obedience to his church’s teachings which preclude Catholics from taking Communion with other traditions until theological unity is achieved.
My priest prays a blessing over Ron as I tip the chalice to my lips. Together we walk back to the pew and kneel to pray. Ron is at my elbow, bowing next to me. I think I hear him repeating the words I’m whispering: “Father, I ask for those who believe, that we all may be one.”
… A short time later, Ron invites me to Mass. I say yes, happily. I know most of the liturgy: it follows the same ancient Christian pattern as the Anglican service. Ron opens the red book that contains the prayers and hymns, and points me to the right places. We sing loudly together, making good use of our Baptist childhood hymn-singing prowess. And again, we kneel at the same times and pray with the same words.
Like Ron did at my church, I approach the priest with my arms crossed. The priest prays a blessing over me but doesn’t offer the bread and the wine, since I am not a member of the Catholic Church and haven’t made my confession to a priest. I walk back to the pew knowing that Ron and I have both been baptized in the same Triune name. And I also know that I am sad, newly impressed with the vastness of the gulf that keeps us from eating at the same table.
My column finishes this way:
What do these scenes have in common? Among other things, this: While we wait for God to heal the fractured body of Christ, some of my friends and I are looking for concrete ways to express our confidence that God will one day do just that. The apostle Paul envisions a time when the church will “together . . . with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:6, esv). In small ways that sometimes seem ineffectual, my friends and I are looking to experience some foretaste of that moment. We’re trying to follow the advice of Baptist scholar Steven Harmon:
If you are well-grounded in a denominational tradition and continue to be actively involved in the worship, work, and witness of a specific local church belonging to that tradition, there’s no substitute for learning about another denomination by intentionally and regularly participating in its worship and taking up its practices of personal devotion.
We, as individual believers, can’t solve the problem of how all the baptized believers may come to share the same Lord’s Supper. We can’t assume that occasionally worshiping together will heal real denominational differences and divisions. What we can do is say with our bodies that, in spite of those divisions, we belong together, kneeling side by side, partaking of the gifts the Spirit has distributed to us.
At the end of the day, I would describe my friendship with Ron as an ecumenical friendship of hope. We love each other as brothers in Christ, and we look forward to the day when that brotherhood can be fully visible—when we can share the body and blood of Christ together. And in the meantime, we will go on being friends and seeking to point others, especially our gay and lesbian friends, to the hope we have in the one risen Lord.
In Vita Consecrata, Pope John Paul II wrote,
Sharing of the lectio divina in the search for the truth, a participation in common prayer, in which the Lord assures us of his presence (cf. Mt 18:20), the dialogue of friendship and charity which makes us feel how pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity (cf. Ps 133), cordial hospitality shown to brothers and sisters of the various Christian confessions, mutual knowledge and the exchange of gifts, cooperation in common undertakings of service and of witness: these are among the many forms of ecumenical dialogue.
By that standard, the various ways Ron and I have nurtured our friendship with each other have been truly ecumenical, and I’m grateful for every one of them.