- There are the issues to do with authority. Communion is the foundation liturgical practice of all the churches and it matters. It spills over into all manner of faith and order issues.
- Even closely related traditions have grown apart. This covers what we believe about communion and also how we decide what constitutes right practice.
- There is the matter of ecumenical reception and that is what I intend to focus upon in this post.
In recent posts, I have used the example of the Anglican Methodist Covenant as a kind of case study. Methodists and Anglicans have a lot in common in England. In many neighbourhoods, there is close collaboration, deepening relationships and often a shared liturgical life.
It seems we have two problems:
First, to make an agreement nationally is not the same as a living relationship between the churches. Whilst church leaders discuss the major issues and produce formal written agreements, local churches relate to one another through media such as people, property and finance. This means is that the dialogue needs to be opened up not only between traditions but also within them, and these dialogues need to be aware of the differences between national and local discourses.
Second,we need to understand something from the biology of polymorphisms. A polymorphism is a difference within a species. (The image, by Chris Purrington, is of yellow and purple of violets.) Population genetics studies these and ask how two or more polymorphisms can exist side by side. They find that the boundaries between polymorphisms can be very close. So, black and white butterflies of the same species might exist perhaps only a few yards apart. This arrangement might persist over many years. The boundary might move a little but the polymorphisms persist. Polymorphisms are more distinctive at the boundary than they are away from the boundary. So white butterflies away from the boundary might be pale grey and black ones similarly dark grey away from the boundary.
It's probably true that Sheffielders make more of being northern than Geordies. Geordies are so far north no-one could possibly mistake them for anything else. Sheffielders are forever being accused of being in the East Midlands - so they have to be more Northern at the boundary.
In a single congregation LEP, the boundaries are very close. It would be perfectly natural, for people who want to be together to emphasise their differences. It helps everyone remember who they are and what they bring to the mix. Communion is an excellent place to do this and hence at this point of unity, the differences become really important.
Emphasised differences might in some circumstances therefore be a sign of increasing unity. Some Local Ecumenical Partnerships claim their members no longer see themselves as from distinct traditions, others make a feature of enduring differences. I suspect some will do both.
So, leaders and local churches need to dialogue. If they don't the universal will be lost to the local church (something real in the growth of new churches in recent years) and the formal talks will lose their relevance.