The world of churchly discourse is a place of grand ideas stated grandly. In the past twenty years or so Anglican ecclesiologists have appropriated the notion of subsidiarity, which has come to include the idea that (i) what can be decided locally should be decided locally and (ii) what concerns all must be decided by all. So, for example, the particulars of hymn choice can be made locally, but a creedal statement must be determined at the highest level of communion in which all are somehow present in persons deputized to speak for everyone. While the Windsor Report certainly makes use of this, it is a much older idea.
But there are many problems with such an idea. Here are a few:
(i) in many cases the decision on something affecting all, made by “all,” comes as a result of local decision to go ahead and make the changes on a local level, and a grass roots movement grows to the point where the heads of communion, state, etc, can only follow.
(ii) it is unclear just how much actual sense of deputized or delegated (and they are different) authority the real “all” (namely the whole body of the people of the church) have given those who represent them in the higher level decision making.
(iii) The Holy Spirit, Angles, messengers, etc, are given to speaking to individuals not at all authorized, and to initiate with them things that affect everyone.
There have been unfortunate references in the past to the notion that subsidiarity leaves only indifferent matters to be decided locally, and that important matters are decided by important people. Subsidiarity becomes, in such cases, a hierarchical diminution of the power of the lowly and seemingly powerless. It is hard not to read such distinctions into the overwhelmingly bishop led efforts to unity in Anglicanism.
So, at Christmas time it is of some interest to remember that perhaps the clearest counter example to subsidiarity is Mary and her many leveled decision to accept the role given her by God. What happens in the birth of Our Lord into the world affects all, and it is decided by God, the source of all authority (who is All in All, but is not the “all” referred to in the notion of subsidiarity), and by Mary, who has seemingly no authority at all. Further more great matters clearly not indifferent to the religious life are treated as indifferent in this context, by individuals “on the ground” and by God.
The whole notion of subsidiarity falls apart in the face of the presence of God and God’s informing Spirit and messengers.
Well, we don’t get a chance to work within this context too often, where the work of one young woman and one man, both of little account, ends up involving decisions that affect all.
I remember a line from Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”: “Ask yourself: Will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child? Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth?”
Suppose we held to the notion that “What concerns all must satisfy the child bearer, and protect the the sleep of One about to birth,” and thus thought that Mary and God were more important than prelates and deputies and delegates in determining the future of faithfulness, although the one is to lowly to be an authority and the other to great to be encountered except in awe? It would give us a different picture. Obviously it is not the solution to all our problems, but it is a partial way out of the tangled web of fearfulness which seems so much to describe the moment.