Restructuring and Subsidiarity

The Episcopal Church is undergoing some major rethinking about how it is going to do business in the future.  This is probably an exceptionally good thing, and long overdue.  However, it is unlikely to work well if it adheres to the ideas outlined in the letter issued to Episcopalians earlier this month.  Tom Ehrich is, I think, correct that more attention has to be given to the local expressions of the church, and less to the national structures.

But both Erich, and the central offices of the Episcopal Church, miss something very important.  In a hierarchical church such as this, there are a lot of intermediate structures that need addressing.  The local congregation, with its often too-inward, too isolated focus, is rarely adequate for the tasks of making God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven, even in its own local context.  The national offices are too far removed to have an active role in concrete congregations.  I agree that the impetus for church vitality is likely to come from smaller subsets of the church–bottom-up rather than top-down.  But from what’s crossed my line of sight, the analysis seems to be that of a very black-and-white mindset:  either national or the individual congregation.

Why not do some serious thinking about the role of the diocese?  Not just the bishop, but the diocesan structures.

We have insisted for almost the entire history of Christianity on hanging onto the notion of diocesan structures, even though they really aren’t theologically mandated.  They have their origins in ancient Roman civil government, and have proven their value to the church as an administrative convenience.

We have no real theology of “diocese”.  We do have some theology of bishops, and we put bishops in charge of dioceses, but the two are not the same.  A diocese continues without a bishop:  when a bishop retires, is translated, dies, or resigns, there is a vacancy-in-see, but the diocese is not in such a case dissolved in such cases and reconstructed upon the installation of a new bishop.  We spend a fair amount of money and time in the process of finding a new bishop (in many cases, comparable to the resources invested in finding a CEO to a mid-size for profit corporation), and in the liturgical celebrations that mark the person’s start of episcopal ministry (whether consecration as an entirely new bishop, or installation in a new place of a bishop who has served elsewhere in an episcopal capacity). We conflate the idea of episcopal ministry and diocese in an unreflective way.

Perhaps, with the discussions around restructuring, it is time to have a serious talk about what a diocese means to the life of the church–both administratively and theologically (because it should really be very difficult to tease the two apart).  Some thoughts about what might be helpful are:

1.  Discussion of the principle (found in Roman Catholic social teaching) of subsidiarity. The TREC letter and Ehrich’s commentary assume that there are only two levels of church life:  the national (exemplified by the activities at the Church Center in Manhattan, General Convention, the House of Bishops, and a few committees which meet regularly), and the individual congregation.  Looking at restructuring through a lens of subsidiarity might require us to look at our varied intermediate stages–dioceses as the most obvious geographic affiliations, but also deaneries, archdeaconries, and provinces within the Episcopal Church.  Doing so might mean that individual congregations can do more in partnership with others, but not have to travel so far up the ecclesiastical food chain.  There would also be much better response to local needs, and information sharing.

2.  An adequate ecclesiology of “diocese”.  In a church with a threefold ordained ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons along with laity, a starting point is to say that the diocese is the smallest unit to contain the church on earth in its fullness. (Local congregations do not have a bishop, and many do not have a deacon.) It would also be necessary to think through our theologies of ordained ministry, and periodically review our practices in light of our theologies.

3. A rethinking of the relationship between congregation and diocese.  Too often, diocesan strategic plans treat congregations like business units, and if they are “underperforming”, the solution is to find ways and reasons to close those congregations. The pressure to measure all value in the church by money and membership is misguided at best and unholy if one wishes to speak more honestly.

All of this might involve some serious thought and research as to diocesan workings–both within the individual dioceses, and as a whole throughout the Episcopal Church.  But it is at these intermediate structures, not (as the TREC letter says) the national level nor (as Ehrich claims) the level of the congregation, where the most important and worthwhile change is likely to happen.

I’m surprised we do not hear a lot more about what has to happen in these in-between levels than we do.

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