The principle of Subsidiarity is a Trojan Horse.

The Standing Commission on Structure has its report in the Blue Book, the book of reports and resolutions from official bodies of the General Convention to the General Convention meeting in Salt Lake City in June, 2015. 

In its report it proposes resolution A098: "Endorse Principle of Subsidiarity."  On the surface this looks like a reasonable, if not very forceful, resolution.  The first resolves states "Resolved...that the 78th General Convention embrace the principle of "subsidiarity" as embodying a fundamental truth about effective ministry." 

Subsidiarity is defined in the report as meaning "the appropriate balance between the unity of the whole and the roles and responsibility of its parts, all working toward an measured against a sense of the good of the whole."
What's not to like about the principle of subsidiarity?  Who can be against it?

Well, the devil is in the details. 

(i) "Subsidiarity" is elsewhere defined as "(in politics) the principle that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level. [ as modifier ] : the Maastricht Treaty reasserts the rights of member nation states through the subsidiarity principle."   (Online Meriam-Webster Dictionary)

So "subsidiarity" is often touted as the principle that places action at the level where it can first be performed in a satisfactory way, rather than with the central authority. In church terms, at the parish, or diocese, or domestic province, and only at the last at the Church wide level. 

Sounds good, yes? Well yes and no. Who decides which actions ought to take place on which levels?  Well, if there is a constitution that spells out the duties and functions of the highest level of authority, and relegates those not enumerated to a lower level, that would work. (The Constitution of the United States of America does this, more or less.)  Or the agreement can be made by those constituting the membership of an organization - say a General Convention - that certain powers (changing the Book of Common Prayer) rest at the central authority of General Convention, namely those representing the Dioceses in assembly as General Convention. Or the central authority can be variously placed for various reasons - with the General Convention or some other agency, with the Presiding Bishop, with the Dioceses.  But in each case someone makes the decision as to how the principle of subsidiarity ought to be applied.

Look carefully at the Resolution and what it proposes as the gate-keeper for applying the principle.  It suggests that Executive Council be that agent. 

(ii) The resolution is very squishy indeed.  What does it mean to "embrace the principle of subsidiarity"?  To use it, I suppose. Beware resolutions to "embrace." Suppose this thingy, this principle, turns out to be a bear?

(iii) Subsidiarity is about gate-keeping and the principle applies,"know your keeper."

The resolution suggests that General Convention embrace the principle, and Executive Council works to determine where actions (work) should take place. 

The Executive Council takes on the gate-keeper function regarding the application of the principle of Subsidiarity, embraced.

(iv) The principle of subsidiarity LOOKS like a way of spreading roles and responsibilities to the levels where they will be most effective, and is widely used as a way of talking about dispersed responsibilities - everyone doing their part for the whole, etc.  But the measure is always the whole, and the decisions about what best serves the whole is made - guess where - at the center.

So subsidiarity is also about defining what has to be dealt with at the highest level as well as at the lowest. 

Subsidiarity was widely touted in Anglican Communion circles, first as an assurance that Provinces had autonomy to do work as they saw fit, except where their work impacted the work of other provinces, or concerned matters of basic or core understandings of the faith or the Communion itself.  In this scheme, subsidiarity means that when any Province proposed to undertake ministry with innovations that are controversial, it should first have wide consultation in the Communion and not proceed until some measure of consensus had been reached. The decision as to what constitutes a matter requiring Communion wide support lies, as one would expect, with the highest authorities of the Communion - the Primates, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Consultative Council.  So elements of this use of "subsidiarity" finds its way into the proposed (and hopefully defunct) Anglican Communion Covenant.

The principle of subsidiarity is a Trojan Horse. Hidden in its bowels are the same components of controlling machinery that continue to make true shared and dispersed authority impossible.  The gatekeepers make sure the real decisions about the dispersal of "roles and responsibilities" happens at the highest levels. 

The principle of subsidiarity stresses the unity of the whole and the assignment of parts to play. But the script rests with the directors. It is increasingly clear that the directors are not accountable back down to the lowest levels.
Subsidiarity decries the actions taken by those involved in the Philadelphia and Washington ordinations, all those who through the years tried out liturgical innovations that only later would become part of our practice. Subsidiarity decries the ordination of women to the episcopate, the acceptance of LGBT members as full members of the Church, all on the grounds that decisions on these matters requires "the highest level" of consensus and decision making.

So a resolution that seems to be about doing things at the "level" appropriate for the work being done, turns out to be about "levels" - about hierarchy - and about who does what. It turns out that the determination of who does what lies at the highest level.  Surprise, surprise!  

Look at "the principle of subsidiarity" with just a grain of salt.


  1. Thank you, Mark, for calling attention to this ill-considered resolution. Your points are all well-taken. I am particularly concerned about the use of subsidiarity by our detractors in the Anglican Communion. The concept of subsidiarity has already been used to try to pressure The Episcopal Church into not doing or undoing what it thinks is its Gospel responsibility.

    Like the Anglican Covenant itself, Resolution A098 simply gives us something else to argue about. Don’t we have enough issues that divide us already? In no way will this resolution improve church governance. Why should we want to enact it?

  2. I sure hope you are at SLCU when this resolution comes up for debate. You HAVE to be at the microphone to give the deputies some talking points against it.

    Thanks for all you continue to do.

  3. Bruce Garner13/5/15 2:32 PM

    Well said. I have a hunch that most of this work has been reactive rather than proactive. I have rarely, if ever, seen success when we act in a reactionary manner. Identifying and then creating a real plan is the best way to deal with problems. I don't see that at work here.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Jim...who and where ever you are. You are using this blog to slam those you oppose and you have moved over into the list of those whose remarks I sometimes delete. Sorry, but I am not a classical liberal.

  6. I made no comment on this thread and I slammed no one.

    I did respond to the slam of Tobias Haller re: ACI.

  7. Mark,
    I am a bit confused about the recent postings. As to who and where, we have known each other for a number of years, have had lunch in Lewes several times and I live at the northern end of the Diocese of Delaware.
    My pithy remark was intended to support your contention about "Subsidiarity" as a Trojan Horse. Nothing more or less. No slamming anyone. Not sure where Tobias comes into the picture?

  8. Jim Van Dreele.... the Jim I was talking to was not you. And, it turns out he was mostly on another thread. Not you. Sorry for the confusion.


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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.