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Subsidiarity in state and church.

THE history of language is fascinating. There are words that are so new that it is difficult to find them even in the best dictionaries, but which--almost overnight--seem to acquire so much importance that one is driven to wonder how we managed so long without them. Such a word is subsidiarity, a word of growing importance in both the political and ecclesiastical worlds but still unknown perhaps to most people.

The word and the concept which is defines were first articulated in Germany between the two world wars and given expression for the first time in a formal and authoritative document by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical of 1931 on social questions, Quadragesimo anno. It is held to be a principle of natural law and was first called into service to defend the rights of the human person, the family and other smaller and local communities in the face of the absolute claims of Fascist and Marxist totalitarian states. It presupposes some kind of structured ordering of society, but, in order to counter the natural tendency of the larger unit to centralize all authority and power and so to deprive the smaller unit of any real autonomy, it posits the principle that just as smaller units exist to provide help (subsidium) to the human person in his search for self-realization, so the higher levels of authority exist to provide help and support for the smaller in their search for self-realization.

The |distribution of competencies' within the social and political reality must therefore begin with a |presumption of competency' accorded to the smaller unit; it is intervention at a higher level that has always to justify itself. It requires positively that all communities encourage individuals to exercise their own self-responsibility and that larger communities do the same for smaller ones; it requires negatively that communities must not deprive individuals or smaller communities of their right to self-responsibility.(1)

It is easy to see how important this principle is as the key to the distribution of competencies between individuals and communities and between smaller and larger communities in the political sphere and how it is increasingly being used by people like Jacques Delors (himself a practising Roman Catholic, deeply influenced by Catholic social thinking) as the ideological tool for the regulation of the European Community. It has important--increasingly important--implications for the working out of relationships within federal states and within new Commonwealths--for example in Yugoslavia and in the former Soviet Union. It has implications also for the current debate about devolution in the United Kingdom.

In the Roman Catholic Church the principle of subsidiarity first enunciated by Pius XI was further championed as a key principle of civil society by his successors; the first indication that it also applies within the Church was given by Pius XII in 1946. It was more widely invoked at the time of the Second Vatican Council both with regard to the rights of the laity and with regard to the role of bishops in the government of their dioceses and in the newly emerging Episcopal Conferences. At this time it began to be realized more clearly that the Church would face a severe credibility problem if it failed to apply to its own structures a principle it was so insistently urging upon civil society. It is still very much a live issue in the Roman Catholic Church with regard to the continuing controversy about the authority of Episcopal Conferences (under attack both from the Curia and from some individual bishops) and about the right of particular dioceses, particularly those which had managed to hold on to the right of capitular election.

It could be argued that in the Church of England the principle of subsidiarity, although nowhere formally acknowledged, is implicitly assumed in the ordering of synodical government, with the guaranteed rights of parochial church councils and deanery and diocesan synods acting as a restraint on the authority of General Synod and with the authority of the Bishop in his diocese subject also to similar restraints. It might also be concluded after a rather superficial acquaintance with the concept that Anglicans have an exemplary record in honouring the principle -- whether they know that they are doing so or (as is more likely) not!

It must be remembered however that the principle of subsidiarity works in two directions. Historically speaking, both in the political and ecclesial spheres, it has been called into service as a necessary amber light to warn centralized autocracies not to intervene in matters which can properly be resolved at a lower rung of the hierarchical ladder. But it can and should sometimes be called into service as a no less necessary amber light to warn local communities not to make authoritative decisions which affect the well-being of the wider community and could threaten the ability of such local communities to continue to live together harmoniously in a wider community. Catholic minded Anglicans in England should welcome the growing authority of the European Community and its courts if for no other reason than that it effectively gives the lie to the heresy of absolute national sovereignty claimed by Henry VIII in the triumphalist language of the Act for the Restraint of Appeals of 1533. If a supranational authority now begins to make itself felt in secular affairs, should it not also do so in the affairs of the Church? It the Queen's |supreme governorship' of the State is no longer exempt |from the intermeddling of any exterior person or persons', what about her |supreme governorship' of the Church?

It needs perhaps to be added that the crucial failure of the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops in 1988 lay not in its refusal to give an authoritative ruling on the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate, but in the reason given for that refusal. It could (and should) have appealed to the need for consensus among the Churches and, more particularly, within the universal episcopate of the Church Catholic (not the same thing as the episcopate of the Anglican Communion); instead it left each autonomous Province to resolve the question for itself.

The doctrine of absolute and sovereign |provincial autonomy' formally accepted for the Anglican Communion at the Lambeth Conference of 1988 is in its way as much a threat to the principle of subsidiarity as Vatican |interference' in the life of local churches in the Roman Catholic Church seems to be. The carefully graded relationship worked out for synodical government in the Church of England comes to an abrupt summit in the General Synod (and in the Parliament of the United Kingdom); there is no provision for any supranational authority with any binding force whether within the Anglican Communion or beyond it. To the question |What matters of faith and order must the Church of England declare itself incompetent to resolve unilaterally?' there is no authoritative answer, and so the further question as to where and by whom such matters can be resolved barely arises. The challenging question put so sharply a little while before Lambeth 1988 by the late Canon G. V. Bennett in his Crockford's Preface as to what credibility can be accorded to a communion of churches which possesses no structure of authority strong enough to maintain it in unity and to preserve it from the threat of its own disintegration has still received no answer. Indeed, the most recent proposals in the Anglican Church of Australia (strongly divided on this issue) to avoid further conflict by retreating to a position tantamount to |diocesan autonomy' only further highlight the threat. It is therefore difficult to deny that the failure of the Anglican Communion to act credibly as an ecclesial reality goes a long way in explaining the cool reception given by Rome to the Final Report of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC).

The Final Report of ARCIC-I does not invoke the principle of subsidiarity by name, but in its treatment of the need for both conciliar and primatial authority in the Church at every level -- including the universal --and in its vision of the ministry of the Bishop of Rome in maintaining and safeguarding unity and communion between the local churches at the universal level it is surely acknowledging the principle's validity. It is moreover difficult to deny that a question such as the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate is a matter, which effects vitally the ability of local churches to recognise one another and to recognise one another's sacraments and ordained ministries and so affects unity and communion at the universal level.

Among the bishops of the Church of England no one has shewn a more perceptive awareness of this issue than Mark Santer, Bishop of Birmingham and Co-Chairman of ARCIC-II. He is personally in favour of the ordination of women to the priesthood, but it is difficult to see how he (and any who share his thinking) can vote for Final Approval of the present legislation in General Synod when he can write:

In thinking of the exercise of authority, it is always important to

remember the principle of subsidiarity. If we are concerned with

communion in a diocese, only diocesan authority is involved; if with

communion at a provincial level, only provincial authority. But if

we are talking about those elements in the life of the churches

whereby they are able to recognise one another as sharing one

communion of faith and life, then some joint organs of authority,

recognized by all, are required.(2)

Many of us are accused of lack of candour when we consistently argue that though agnostic or even marginally in favour of the proponents on the strictly theological question as to whether women can become priests, we cannot recognise that any province of the Anglican Communion or indeed even the Anglican Communion as a whole (if it had the will and the authority so to decide) possesses the necessary authority to resolve this question. In fact we are only guilty of holding firmly to a clear and coherent ecclesiological principle, the principle of subsidiarity. The credibility of the appeal of our Church to be a part of the Catholic Church depends upon the recognition of the necessary deference of the part to the whole, as well as the necessary respect of the whole for the part. If for the Church of England |provincial autonomy' means not according full, final, universal and ecumenical authority to any organ of the Anglican Communion, well and good. If it means not recognising any authority at all outside |this realm of England' then in all honesty we should relinquish the claim to catholicity.


(1) J. A. Komonchak: |Subsidiarity in the Church' in The Nature and Future of Episcopal Conferences (The Jurist, XLVIII, Washington, 1988), p. 302.

(2) Mark Santer: |The Way Forward' in Communion and Episcopacy, ed. J. Draper (Cuddesdon, 1988), p.109.

Canon Roger Greenacre is Chancellor of Chichester Cathedral. His article is adapted from one originally written for Ambit, the Newsletter of the Association for Apostolic Ministry (February 1992, No. 9).
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Author:Greenacre, Roger
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jun 1, 1992
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