There is a sound that parents of multiple children know, a sound that filters through the woodwork of a house and echoes through rooms and hallways. It’s a distinct sound that touches a specific nerve in parents—the sound of siblings shifting from happy play to angry fighting—discordant note! Domestic bliss shattered! “He took my book! She hit me! I was sitting there!” We roll our eyes, we sigh, and we put down the coffee and the paper and trudge upstairs to separate the combatants.
I suspect God hears our denominational divisions as that sort of discord, though perhaps without the newspaper since God is all-knowing. I refuse, however, to accept a vision of the Kingdom of God that does not include coffee. Our wrangling over points of doctrine or the means and shape of ministry, these are equal to the bickering of siblings.
I say this not to dismiss the importance of our differences over theology and praxis. I have officiated enough funerals for families riven, entrenched behind old grievances and certain of the self-evident righteousness of their own positions, to know that family division can be a deep and real thing. In fact it’s a truism that we never fight so fiercely as we do with family.
Still, at the heart there is something resonant in the comparison. My wife and I have three children and, like any children, they do their share of fighting. Not physical, at least not yet, thank heavens, but the everyday sort of squabbling that lacks sufficient ration or reason to be called argument. Typical stuff, really, and generally blown over as quickly as it started, but in the moment very real and very painful. Yet, when it is over, no, even as it is storming, they are brothers. Inescapably linked, bound by blood and shared history, united at the cellular level, they are brothers. Maybe they’re brothers who bicker.
Maybe they will grow up as brothers who rarely speak to one another, even, heaven forbid, hold grudges and long feuds with one another. Perhaps their future is one of awkward, stilted Thanksgiving dinners and conversations brokered by spouses. They might even, some day, be the divided family gathering in uneasy truce to arrange their parent’s funeral. I hope not and I pray not, but it might happen. Even if it does, they’ll still be brothers.
This is the heart of Christian ecumenism. Deep and entrenched differences exist, yes. Much pain and anguish is felt over these differences, yes. But beneath them we are brothers and sisters in Christ, bound by blood—His, not ours—and a shared history. If we are following Jesus, if we remain committed to Him, then nothing we do can break that bond. It is indissoluble, not due to our strength or faithfulness—human history should be evidence enough that those are sorely limited—but because Jesus prayed that it might be so: “May they be one, as you and I are one.” When God prays, the prayer becomes reality a la, “Let there be light,” or “This is my body.” We are profoundly One with our sisters and brothers in other denominations. More so that we could ever imagine.
Our ecumenical gestures cannot unify the Church. The Church is already unified. All we can do is uncover and try to live that unity. We do that with special celebrations, such as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, praying not to be united but that we might wake up to the fact that we already are. We do it through shared projects in outreach or formation, in dialogue and fellowship, in joint statements of faith, and even in mutual acknowledgements of how we fail to realize our unity.
Personally, I would learn from the wisdom of parents everywhere who, having put down the coffee and the paper, having trudged upstairs to part the combatants, now sit them down and—calmly as possible—ask what happened. Not to judge or solve or punish, but to let the squabble be seen as it really is. They remind their children to treat one another with kindness, to consider how their own actions affect the other, and then send them back to their game.
Because parents know that once the hurt is addressed, once the tempers calm, the siblings will still be siblings and the sound of squabbling will give way to the sound that every parent loves—the sound of brothers and sisters happily playing, delighting in one another and in the game, in joyful peace born of their inherent unity. This is the sound we hope God hears when we gather in Christian unity.