The Charta Oecumenica has never really made its way in the United Kingdom. Churches in continental Europe became excited by it, not because there was anything particularly revolutionary or even new in it, but rather simply because it was there. There was a need for ecumenical guidelines, and after several years the Charta was published. Churches across the continent studied it and revised it, until a final draft was approved in 2001.
However, in Great Britain, ecumenical energy seems to have waned in recent years. The enthusiasm of the seventies and eighties, when the British Council of Churches was actively promoting Areas of Ecumenical Experiment, produced dozens of local schemes in which some church rules were relaxed in order to allow for experimentation and fresh thinking. Sponsoring Bodies were set up with representatives of the denominations to keep an eye on things, and the mood was one of optimism and excitement. As in previous years, ecumenical schemes were much in evidence in the New Towns, and there are several places where denominations worked closely to provide one local multi-functional ecumenical church centre.
The eighties saw a recession hit the U.K., and by the nineties the economics of church life were beginning to tell on local churches; the struggle simply to stay afloat was beginning to sap the energy of many congregations. Enthusiasm gave way to despondency, and ecumenism began to be seen as an optional extra, "something we'll get round to when we've weathered the storm". The ecumenical adventure was no longer a priority.
The long-awaited Anglican-Methodist Covenant was hailed as an important step in the right direction when it was signed in 2003. It had been many years in the making after its first rejection back in the sixties, but after the first fanfare, it could be said that little has been heard of it. Certainly many churches up and down the country have grown closer, and some local successes must not be dismissed. But the Covenant has not really percolated down to local congregations.
Something very important is coming out of all this. The aim of ecumenism in the past has been seen to be the uniting of churches together, usually referred to as Full Visible Unity. This phrase calls to mind the urgency for the Churches to be seen as one, united in fulfilling the mission of Christ. The scandal of disunity is clear to all, and the reference to John's gospel chapter 17, "may they be one,..so that the world may believe.." is the obvious text to be quoted. The vision of this that is held by many people is that in time there should be one single church, uniting all Christians of whatever tradition. Even though every Church seems to face a range of domestic differences, this notion of full visible unity hangs on - maybe the myth of the unreachable goal.
Let's face this matter head-on. Many people dream of the time when we shall all be able to meet together around the Lord's Table, reflecting the unity that binds us together. I believe that this is putting cart before horse. Surely, if we really believe that underneath all the denominational differences, and despite our many tensions and difficulties, we are actually one body in Christ, then we ought to be able now to sit round that table as one body in Christ. That is the one place where we should now all be meeting. If we insist on crossing all the t's and dotting all the i's before we can sit together, we shall be waiting till doomsday! We should demonstrate our unity by meeting one another in love and charity around the Lord's table, share together in the sacred meal that God invites us to, and then we shall be ready to discuss our differences and rejoice in our similarities.
Many people believe now that it is no bad thing for a variety of expressions of Christian faith and worship to be available. If unity is to mean anything at all in this present age, it certainly does not mean uniformity, where everything looks and feels identical. It is far more important, and sends out a stronger message, that even though one church may think and worship in a different way from another, the sense of friendship and trust, and convictions about our common mission, are so strong that the differences lose their ability to divide. "We celebrate our differences and rejoice in our similarities." Of course there are deep differences in faith and practice, and long-held traditions which form the backbone of faith for many people; yet at the same time, it is being realised that these differences and difficulties need not stand in the way of growing relationships of trust and community.
Maybe to move forward in this way will mean that the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (read its history here) may take on new life, a true celebration of the "unity-in-diversity" that already exists between Christians, and doesn't need rules or regulations to give it permission.