For the future of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, Subsidiarity is a bad idea.

Subsidiarity has been touted as a principle in the Windsor Report, by which matters that can be dealt with on a "local" level should be dealt with there, and matters that implicate the whole of a church and or all the churches in the Anglican Communion require a different level of engagement. 

Subsidiarity sounds vaguely democratic, allowing congregational and diocesan latitude on matters that don't require regulation to provide uniformity in faith and practice. And, on first read it all sounds very very Anglican. In all things not understood as essential to the faith there can be local difference.

But there is a real problem with subsidiarity. It can and often does assume precisely the hierarchy that other church governance systems assume - the hierarchy that places church - wide decisions in church-wide officers and Communion wide decisions in the hands of communion wide officers and more rarely in legislative bodies or committees.  

So subsidiarity works just fine in a system where lay people collect around a priest, priests and deacons around a bishop, bishops around a primate, and so on. On each "level" decisions get made by reference to the body that surrounds them, which is why lay people get left out of so much - they are only there as constituents, as part of the networking community, in the first instance - the parish. It also explains why bishops are so often mentioned in the Proposed Anglican Covenant: bishops (including archbishops) 13 times, priest 1, deacon 1, lay persons 3.  

The Covenant concerns the upper end of the subsidiarity scale, and the upper end of the hierarchical ladder.

Subsidiarity as an idea has also found its way into the thinking of the Episcopal Church about budget priorities. 

When used in budget projections for the next years in The Episcopal Church it shows up as a principle that acts as a filter in developing a church wide budget. Readers of the proposed budget for The Episcopal Church 2013-15 will note the following:

What does the notation, "section reduced based in subsidiarity principle to emphasize local ministry" mean?  It seems to imply that the reduction is a positive decision to return both the work and its funding to a more "local" level. 

I wonder.

Had there not been the need for budgetary cutbacks, this subsidiarity principle would not have been invoked. Still, the notion that work and funding ought to be energized at a local level appears on the surface to be a good idea. 

There are problems of course. The inverse of subsidiarity is an assumption of organizational hierarchy - in which there are some decisions, actions, funding, support, control, etc, that must be exercised on a "higher" level.  So subsidiarity assumes a limitation on local action, with higher levels of authority exercising regulatory responsibilities. And, in a perverse dynamic of such systems, the signal is that if local work does not require hierarchical regulation it is not of church wide importance.

Thus in the budget cuts some who are involved in profoundly important ministries on a local level - youth ministry, higher education ministry, christian education - perceive that they are devalued by a hierarchical system that no longer believes it has to regulate, organize or co-ordinate that work. And the proof, if needed, is that these ministries indeed seem to drop from the scope of those at the higher end of the subsidiarity system.

The whole subsidiarity idea is in for a surprise. At its core is a notion of "levels" in the organization of the church. And along with that there is the naive notion that networking on a local level poses no real threat to the hierarchical system itself. 

Well, dear friends, when various ministries are invited to do their work on a local ministry level it will not be long before these local ministers begin to network and organize for common support and a place in the sun. And in a network world that is no longer "hubbed" - with networking happening through some central clearing house (think main-frame computer with workstations) - but neural, three-dimensional, global, the hierarchy assumed in the notion of subsidiarity will fail. The network will look more like this, the map of the internet:

And then a new engine might be loosed on the ecclesial land.  If the "local" organizes for support and encouragement not only horizontally but more three dimensionally, drawing in lay and clergy support from all levels, and networking in this more global way, church organization will profoundly change.

We may well still have orders - lay people, bishops, priests, deacons. We may still look to particular offices or people for guidance and wisdom, but we will look wider as well, and "local" will mean not "lower" but "present." 

Suppose, for example, campus ministry organized, not with a central church officer at the hub, but with students, teachers, campus ministers, various bishops, the odd primate, perhaps some members of Executive Council, and on and on, representing a global collection of concerned people in the church.  If those gathered around this work all affirmed their engagement - were present - then indeed the engine would be greater than any church wide office could provide. 

And no one would talk of subsidiarity again.



  1. Is this an anti-hierarchy argument and does it extend to 815 litigation? I fear many of these things are package deals and not easy to disentangle -- though many have noted the oddity of defending the need for lawsuits from 815 (which requires hierarchy) by those who otherwise are fans of a 'House of Deputies' horizontalism.

    The budget reality may end up being a 'Rod of Assyrian Fury'...


  2. I totally don't understad Msgr. Oh well.

    Subsidiarity: Cutting diocesan financial support for mission with and for Spanish speaking Episcopalians for the second budget year in a row=Spanish speaking clergy joining together to try to work things out themselves whilst receiving the message that, when the financial going gets rough, the least get left behind to figure it out for themselves. And when we do, where will be the connection with the diocese? Subsidiarity=affiliated groups going it for themselves.

  3. I have to agree with Lois Keen about the messages this budget sends. I'm especially concerned about the cuts to Christian Formation, esp. youth and young adults. On one hand, you make a good point about networked strategies as opposed to hierarchical or hub-and-spoke ones. However, is cutting off funding the best way to bring this about? I can understand the need for budget cuts and creative responses, but in this case we're talking about close to a 90% cut. Where do you expect the resources to come from to build and network ministries? To use a brain metaphor, neural networks aren't going to form if they're starved of food and oxygen. To build and maintain computer networks, one has to invest in servers, routers, hubs, wiring, software, network managers, etc. You can't defund the IT department and then say, "Oh, people will figure out a way to make it work."

    As for the message sent, every person I've talked to who's seen the budget numbers, whether they're directly involved with Christian formation ministries or not, and I mean EVERY person, sees only one message: The Episcopal Church does not care about young people. Then when they hear about the large increase for the Office of Governmental Relations, they get even more incensed. I hear lots of talk about how we value young people, but budgets often more accurately reflect the real values held. The message this budget seems to send is that we value lobbying the halls of power more than forming children, youth, and young adults in the faith.

    -- Kevin

  4. Kevin...yes, you are exactly right. If subsidiarity is the guiding principle, then the inference is that things unfunded are under valued because not central to the upper end of the subsidiarity scale.

    Now. what to do about that? I hope there will be real push back. At the very least there needs to be ways to acquire the skills to meet a more neural network future.

  5. In a way, those working in Christian education and formation (at all age levels) in the Episcopal Church have already been working in a network model. The problem has been the lack of resources for effective infrastructure development.

  6. Mark,
    Thanks for helping the conversation move beyond outrage to constructively considering models for ministry w/o DFMS funding. Please know that I write from the perspective of serving as a full-time chaplain in a campus ministry in the bible-belt, with property and program funding from my diocese. We're tightening our belts and can endure this proposed strangulation from DFMS but much of TEC needs help to fund more programming and to provide more leadership because most mission locations and most dioceses are NOT like mine.
    It is also worth it to consider that Campus Ministry is not like any of the other formation ministries under the DFMS axe. For instance, if a parish takes on this work - as subsidiarity suggests - they are not ministering to their own children and often cannot minister using their own facilities. That in many cases has a profound effect on how these efforts are able to garner support and funding at the "local level."
    In order for the church to have this budget conversation especially if it relies on subsidiarity as it's informing principle we must be careful to keep these many defunded ministries distinct in our descriptions and comparisons, all the while being just as careful not to force them to compete with each other.
    Chaplain Dann Brown


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.