Today is All Souls Day, one of my absolute favourite days of the year because so many souls in purgatory get helped closer to the happy day of their entrance into the fullness of heaven.
Maybe there will be more on that later, but I've had an image in my mind for months and today seems like a good day to share it.
Some months back I attended a weekly ecumenical prayer group. They were all good people and well-seasoned prayer warriors and it was a privilege to get to know them. However the leader and maybe some of the others had a completely different vision for church unity and sometimes only God can fight city hall. The perception (which I fully acknowledge may not have been the reality) was that unity was only possible if you had been judged an insider by your spoken spontaneous prayers and by your bible alone fundamentalist credentials. In other words, a unity based on doctrinal conformity, was their vision for unity.
That's a very different vision to the 'unity in diversity' principle from the Catholic perspective where ecumenical unity is the amazing work of the Holy Spirit and the theologians spend centuries ironing out the details. It is a unity based on relationship, upon love, mutual respect, shared prayer, common service and common witness, and where differences are seen as potential richness to be shared and explored, all the while acknowledging that we are probably going to agree on very little doctrinally.
Jesus used the parable of the mustard seed as an image of His church. It is a tiny seed that grows into a huge shrub. Obviously it is going to have deep roots, a strong trunk, several branches and lots of twigs.
I've been imagining a tree with a much bigger trunk like an oak or cedar, and fewer branches that start quite a long way up the trunk of the tree. The trunk is the Catholic church with a very large high canopy with lots of vertical branches representing dioceses and religious orders. Then there are branches that jut out sideways from the truck: there's a big Orthodox branch, and then there's a Lutheran branch that quickly send out many smaller branches like the Calvinists, the Baptists, the Anglicans and the Methodists and gets prolific with thousands of tiny twigs of denominations and non-denominations.
From the Catholic perspective there's all these twigs that each and every one draws life and growth from the trunk. The New Testament, the Christian canon of Scripture, the doctrine of the Trinity, the Apostle's Creed and Nicene Creed, baptism and so much more come from the trunk. When a member of a twig tells a member of the trunk that the trunk is unworthy of unity, it's all one can do to stop rolling around on the floor in uncontrollable laughter – and all because the trunk doesn't look like a twig!
From the twig's perspective, there are lots of other similar twigs nearby, and they are able to develop gentle relationships with each other. But the trunk has been seen as a backdrop only, sinister because it casts shadows and because it doesn't look like a twig and from the view of the twig it looks rather dead, lifeless and uninteresting because the twig cannot see the canopy but only the bark of the trunk.
O that the twigs might wake up and rediscover that they are unable to fulfill all of God's purpose without the trunk, and vice versa. The more they draw from the trunk the stronger they will become, the less they draw from the trunk the greater risk they run of being separated entirely from the trunk by the storms and winds of the enemy.
All the tree lives on the sunshine of God's love and the water of the Holy Spirit and the roots of the mercy and Cross of Jesus.
We have been promised this epic flood of grace by God, bringing levels of fruitfulness never ever seen before. Do you think this is possible if the twigs, branches, trunk and canopy don't work together? Neither do I!
But it is not enough just to pray for unity, especially if you are only in your hearts of hearts praying for twig unity. Unity has to be on the Holy Spirit's terms, not on ours. It has to be supported by seeking relationships with each other, prayer opportunities with each other, ways to serve with each other and ways to witness to the world with each other. Efforts once or twice a year aren't enough.
Unity does not mean sameness. One quick look out the window at the variety of plant, bird and insect life proves that sameness isn't in God's vocabulary, and yet each part fulfils its purpose in its ecosystem and is utterly necessary for that ecosystem to flourish. Unity means a variety of gifts working in harmony for a common purpose.
So let's get on with it…and if you happen to have a burden on your heart for the cause of church unity make sure you invite (co-opt, conscript, or whatever it takes) a member of the trunk to work with you…and don't drive them away with incessant demands 'to show me where the proof for that is in the bible' and prayers against the evil of religion. Last time I checked, religion was still a virtue, viz "The virtue of religion is the supernatural, infused, moral habit that inclines us to give to God the worship that is due Him as Supreme Being and as Creator and Lord of the universe."