I received the email that a good friend was to be received into the Roman Catholic church around 8pm Sunday evening. I had just finished a dinner in which Vatican II and the evolving understanding of 20th century Catholic tradition, had been in as much common parlance, as the vodka cocktails and Tia Maria coffees. I had been playing defender and critic, depending on the subject; I, the never-going-to-be-Catholic, but the willing sympathiser.
It had me thinking as I washed the last of the dishes and poured a glass of wine to sip while I took up the anonymous scribe of The Cloud of Unknowing. I thought long about this church my friend was entering into. It’s no secret that Roman Catholic tradition holds that the Holy See is the true and full expression of the Church. They comprise the Church universal, they hold the highest of all truths concerning God.
For all my sympathies, I remain a good Protestant. I don’t believe Rome is any closer to God than the Anglican parish I attend now or the Episcopal, Baptist, or Southern Baptist I attended before. Yet I may be a poor Protestant in that I don’t presume that someone aligned with Rome is outright going to hell. There’s a scripture, somewhere, about confessing Christ, believing He is Lord, and this being the essential of salvation. It may be that I know only good Catholics, because they surely do, in the very least, that.
Unity shows up in this conversation a lot. The Catholic church speaks of Jesus’ prayer in John 17, that the disciples may be one, as the touchstone argument for the unity of the church. We are told that what Jesus meant, was that the Church should look exactly like what Rome has conceived. This is unity. In turn, the eastern Orthodox say the same, point to themselves and say, this is unity. Then the smattering of variant Protestants, every tribe and tongue, point to their patch of earth and say, this is unity.
And we all pray, to some extent, that we would all be one. But when we say ‘one’, when we say ‘unity’, we say that we should all be like each other and all believe the same. There is, it seems, only so much truth in the world and only so many people can be right concerning it:
“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in me through their word; that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me.”
This is the line that trips us up, that has us scattered in this fragmented conversation of unity. This idea of oneness. But have we cheated it by making oneness too easy to understand? The oneness Christ speaks of, implicitly, draws us to contemplation of one of the most profound mysteries of our faith: the trinity.
The trinity, which is impossible to explain well, is the oneness Christ speaks of. Unity is like the unity shared between father, son, and holy ghost. A oneness that the desert fathers described as an eternal dance. For the oneness of the trinity is also diversity: the son is the only incarnate, the father, eternal spirit, the holy ghost said to be both within and outside of us. Yet He is one God, who wert, art, and evermore shalt be. Hereafter the language slips and the words fail, too much is already said even in this. It is a mystery unexplainable, yet mere Christians everywhere affirm this one thing.
So what does Trinitarian unity look like?
Is it possible that we have misused these words of Jesus by coming to them from the wrong angle? Instead of saying, ‘We believe this, therefore it is what is right, therefore all should believe the same’, are we to start from a place that says, ‘We believe this, therefore it is the closest we have gotten, others reveal to us parts of Christ we have not yet seen.’
What if unity looks not like a oneness that is sameness, but a oneness that is diversity. What if unity is a dinner table rounded by mere Christians, confessing the essentials of our faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again? What if unity looks like a cosmic dance, turning to our neighbours with joy, disagreeing in love, listening longer than we speak?
Perhaps Christ’s prayer is more realised than we have understood. Perhaps we are already more one than not. Perhaps this, then, is the true Church: God’s various, variant people, huddled together around their tables, joining hands to sing the oldest of hymns, that Christ is Lord. Now and forever. Amen.