Faith & Reason: In the Tory quest for unity can you hear the music of the spheres?

It is easy to be cynical about the tactics politicians employ, but some political clichés point us to truths that lie deep within the human psyche
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The Independent Online

On Tuesday they were standing close enough to throw their arms round each other and dance the can-can. Michael Howard, Theresa May, Michael Ancram and Oliver Letwin were practically hugging their then leader Iain Duncan Smith and his wife Betsy as they gathered around the microphones outside Conservative Central Office. The message was in the body language - "We are united."

Barely more than 24 hours later, we knew what had really been going on. Even as they stood together, the campaign for Howard had already started. David Davis had made his approach to Howard and been given a good talking to. And Oliver Letwin was to leap into a press conference with other potential contenders, Liam Fox and Stephen Dorrell, with such speed that it was impossible not to suspect it had been planned in advance.

For the Conservative Party, unity had become the holy grail. Cynics might suggest that it was merely unity of the photo-shoot variety and that the party was united only in prioritising unity. How long-lasting is the urge to suppress disagreement in pursuit of electoral success remains to be seen.

The Tories would be well advised not to look to the Anglican Church for inspiration. Tomorrow the gay priest Canon Gene Robinson is due to be consecrated as the US Bishop of New Hampshire in a move which is tearing conservatives from radicals, South from North, the sexually straight from the queer.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, is desperately trying to hold the Church together and this week set up a commission to tackle the crisis. He has put conservatives such as the Primate of the West Indies, Archbishop Drexel Gomez, alongside liberals such as the Primate of Wales, Archbishop Barry Morgan, and given them nine months to come up with a plan.

In working so hard for unity, the Archbishop has paid an enormously high price. He has hurt people. He has deserted earlier allegiances. He has lost the warm respect with which he was welcomed as a figure in British public life. All that for the sake of unity - why does it matter so much?

I think there is a clue to the answer to that question in the feast which the Church celebrates today: All Saints Day. Today is a high point in the Church's year, particularly in Latin America, where Christians put on their glad rags, get out their trumpets and party through the streets.

This day is essentially about unity, the unity of the living with the dead. The ancient church had a wonderful vision of all the saints streaming through the pearly gates wearing golden crowns. Some define saints to mean only those who have been canonised by the Church, but others say it is about all who have died. I think it includes those who have yet to be born as well.

On All Saints Day we remember that the saints are involved in the lives of those of us still on earth. The hymnwriter Walsham How suggests that if we listen when we're weary we can even hear them singing, a conceit that reminds me of the music of the spheres.

The imagery of All Saints Day is lush. It's all white robes and heavenly multitudes and trumpet sounds. It's sensuous, heroic and triumphant. The mood I find easy to grasp. What I find harder is knowing what to do with it. Are we really being asked to believe that we put on golden crowns when we die? Will we literally see each other face to face? Do I go and find my mum and dad amongst the multitude and give them a hug and a kiss? If so, how old would they look? How can we continue to be individuals if we do not have bodies? And how can we have bodies when we know our bodies either rot in the earth or turn into ash? If, as Christianity suggests, I have another sort of body when I die, then in what sense is it still me? Could I still be me if "I" existed in another form?

Christianity does not answer those questions. Nor does Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism or Sikhism. I don't think atheists have got it quite right either. The most we can say is that the mystery of death is something we have not yet cracked.

All this stuff about saints streaming through pearly gates wearing golden crowns is the best image Christianity has found to express that unity. Other faiths have other expressions. But what does seem to be a common motif in all the world's religions is the idea that the living and the dead are connected - and that after death we continue to be part of the whole. It all suggests we have a primal need to feel we belong to God and to each other. It might even be a primal need because it is a primal truth.

It's easy to be cynical about the plotting, the scheming and the backbiting of the Conservative Party. It's hard not to despair at the bigotry and the impasse of the Anglican Church. But both institutions, for all their shortcomings, are fumbling towards an important goal.

At its best All Saints Day, in all its glorious imagery, reminds us that not even death can separate us. To celebrate this day is to work for unity. And during those times when it all seems overwhelming and far too difficult to achieve, you never know - if you listen carefully you might just be able to hear the saints singing.