For Christians in the Middle Ages when these feasts emerged and were at their height, the successive days for All Saints and All Souls covered off two kinds of relationships within that great Communion.
On All Saints Day, Christians celebrated those who were in heaven, enjoying the blessed vision of God's presence; and they also sought their support through prayer, believing it was legitimate to hope for the prayers of these departed but blessed ones, just as it was to seek the prayerful support of their friends living on earth.
On All Souls Day, the relationships of dependence and advocacy were reversed; on this day the Church on earth remembered the much larger number of the departed who were being prepared for the blessed state of the saints, but who were in need of our prayers while they waited for purgation, recipients rather than donors in this spiritual economy.
Although today we live in an age which professes itself sceptical about matters religious, there is still widespread belief in some form of afterlife or persistence of the identity of the soul. In fact the National Church Life Survey reports that quite a few more Australians believe in their own afterlife than believe in a personal God to give it to them.
This oddity may serve to remind us of the difference between the specifically Christian idea of the communion of saints and the general notion of life after death. To believe that we drift on somehow after we die is not really a sign of religious faith, but of wishful thinking. It seems many of us can conceive of a world without God, but not a world without ourselves.
The men and women who first heard the Church’s news about Jesus two millenia ago were not sceptics in the modern sense; their world was full of mystery and miracle, and the reality of gods and spirits and of eternity was widely accepted. Yet the message of the Gospel presented a challenge to them; not about the mere possibility of eternal life or about the reality of God, which were widely assumed, but about the form eternal life took, and the nature of the God of Jesus Christ.
The heart of this Christian message, and ultimately of the communion of saints, is the resurrection. Christianity does not teach first and foremost the immortality of the soul, but the dependence of our fragile and very mortal reality upon God. The God who raised Jesus from the dead, confounding rather than reinforcing common sense, loves us beyond the extent of our own hope, and offers us life beyond the extent of our own capacity.
The protestant reformers dispensed with these days in their original form and particularly with the observance of All Souls, concerned that our dependence on the grace of God was lost in this complexity of transactions between living and departed Christians. The reformers thus succeeded in reasserting one element of what it is to believe in the communion of saints, arguably the most important; that our hope for ourselves and those whom we love is grounded in God’s grace rather than in anything we ourselves do, or simply in vague expectations of eternal existence.
A second element of the communion of saints however was perhaps not as well served by the Reformation; for Christianity has since been more prone to the idea that individual salvation, mediated by the subjectivity of faith as much as by grace, is the heart of the Gospel.
The communion of saints, however, is just not about me, or even me and God; it is about me in relation to the company of all those servants and friends of God whose work and witness has contributed to my being here, and will contribute to my future, just as my own life contributes, however imperfectly and falteringly, to those of others. The communion of saints binds us across time and space with many whom we like and agree with and many more whom we might not, if we knew them well enough.
The Church as we know it is a sort of trial run, whose best features may be a foretaste of heaven and whose worst features are indeed purgatorial. This is why we call the unlikely collection of Anglicans around the world and through time a “communion” and why it is such a travesty to divide and manipulate it on the basis of whether we agree with some others. To substitute a sort of "Fellowship" for this is a mistake; for "fellowship" may be a means to achieve various things, perhaps good things, but is not communion.