More on the Episcopal Church Budget debate–What is subsidiarity, why the appeal to it, and should we be worried?

The proposed triennial budget of the Episcopal received considerable attention and criticism when it was first published last month (more here, here, and here). After that initial flurry of interest, there was something of a lull in the conversation. But things have picked up again.

Building the Continuum is collecting a number of voices that are responding to the budget (and mission priorities it reflects. Susan Snook’s blog is a must read. Here’s one post:

Benedict Varnum weighs in. The heart of his piece is:

I have extensive thoughts as to what’s being cut to accomplish that streamlining, but they boil down to 1) some things mustbe cut to meet giving realities and 2) my background in formation as a youth, college student, parish seminarian working with youth, campus ministry intern, diocesan consultant for youth ministries, consultant for summer camp, and participant in national youth event planning through an Episcopal Relief and Development program show me very little that would be lost by acknowledging that the national office does very little youth or young adult ministry.

(The programs that likely will be lost with a much smaller national-level youth budget – Gather, EYE, annual conferences for campus ministers – are good programs; this falls under “1” above, though we might well have a conversation on what the network of diocesan youth coordinators who volunteer their time to these events would need to keep the programs running)

Add to that 3) the incredibly successful Young Adult Service Corps is (appropriately) being given additional funds to continue developing its work, and the budget reads to me the way it was presented in its brief explanatory document: an acknowledgment that different ministries are done more effectively on different levels, that the Episcopal Church does not – despite stereotypes – have all the money in the world, and that our funding is therefore being shifted to be used effectively.

But he also points out how the internet could be used to foster conversation and generate organized response (some of which is already happening, albeit haphazardly).

He also alludes to the principle of “subsidiarity” which is something Mark Harris has called into question:

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.

It’s this matter–“subisidiarity”–on which I would like to focus more attention. As Harris points out, on the surface the notion that “things which should best be dealt with on a local level” are left on the local level, and things which should be dealt with universally, or nationally, or denominationally, should be dealt with there, seems eminently reasonable, even democratic.

But I’m a naive, fairly narrowly-educated guy, so I decided to do a little research on where this notion of “subsidiarity” came from. It certainly appeared in no theological, ethical, political or philosophical work I had read (carefully, I’ll qualify) from the pre-modern period that I’ve read. Wikipedia is occasionally helpful, and its definition of subsidiarity points to its origins in the late 19th century in Catholic social teaching:

The principle of subsidiarity was first formally developed in the encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, as an attempt to articulate a middle course between laissez-fairecapitalism on the one hand and the various forms of communism, which subordinate the individual to the state, on the other.

What this definition doesn’t provide in terms of context is another development in Roman Catholic (papalist) thought, which led to the definition of the doctrine of papal infallibility at Vatican I in 1871; a long-term development that saw increasing centralization of power in the church beginning with the Council of Trent, but gaining steam as popes gained increasing control over the appointment of bishops. In addition, that centralization meant uniformity in liturgy as local variation was subsumed under the uniform liturgy.

What does this mean for the Episcopal Church and for Anglicanism? The invocation of “subsidiarity” cuts two ways. On the one hand, it seems to leave to the local level those matters that are unimportant to the central organs of power, but as those central organs of power gain more power, there are fewer matters on the local level that are unimportant (take for example the regulatory power of the European Union and its effects on local traditions of food production).

By its very nature, “subsidiarity” seems to suggest that the central organ decides for itself what matters are irrelevant to it and therefore may be left to local control and initiative.

There’s something else to point out. Given the historical context in which the notion of subsidiarity arose (a papacy making ever more grandiose claims to universality at the same time that its power was being challenged by the development of nation states, especially Italy and Germany) can it be an effective idea by which to determine the relative power of the central organs of power and local communities or individuals?

Is it possible to conceive of a conversation in which the various groups competing for attention, money, and power can be treated as equal participants, when one element in that group asserts the right to determine what is decided locally, what is decided nationally or globally? It seems to me that was at the heart of the debate over the Anglican Covenant, and may be at the heart of the response to the ham-handed use of “subsidiarity” in the Episcopal Church budget.

2 thoughts on “More on the Episcopal Church Budget debate–What is subsidiarity, why the appeal to it, and should we be worried?

  1. Thanks, Jonathan; I continued the conversation at Episcopal Cafe in the interests of keeping it visible to those tracking these conversations there. I spend more time there articulating my sense of how subsidiarity plays out in the current budget debate, but I think the major challenge I’d raise to your concerns here is that subsidiarity as a structure for organizing our levels of governance is no more likely to import Papal Infallibility onto our presiding bishop than keeping a Catholic worship structure of liturgy of word and table is going to cause us to import the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.

    It’s also worth saying that subsidiarity is something that describes what we do naturally, not an arcane adopted policy; large parishes do not make appointments with the rector to determine the color and arrangement of the flowers each week; that’s left to the altar guild. But when there’s a capitol campaign for building expansion, you involve full levels of governance, including the staff and vestry and occasionally diocesan officers who have experience or resources for such things (hence, “competence” — subsidiarity argues for decisions being made at the lowest competent organizational level).



    • My point about papal infallibility was not that subsidiarity leads inevitably in that direction, but rather that the idea arose in a particular historical context in response to a particular set of concerns and that it has come to be deployed in other ways and contexts without attention to those earlier issues. There’s no need, for example, to use it to describe the differing areas of expertise and authority of rectors and altar guilds, but when one does so, it introduces its own set of concerns and tensions. Simply put, my question is this: Given that it has arisen relatively recently in the history of Christianity, are there other ways of thinking about authority and organization that are more authentic to the Christian tradition in all of its historical and geographical diversity?

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