Friday, 10 July 2009


Now there’s a word to make you disinclined to read this! It’s going to be about ecumenism too!

Listening in on other people’s conversations may be considered rude but it is often fun to try and work out what lies behind what they are saying. It was a bit like that when I read a report of the address given by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the USA to its General Convention. In fact, I had to check out what she said on the ECUSA website. It was:
Some of the ecumenists in here will twitch at this word, but we should be in the business of subsidiarity – the church as a whole should not be doing mission work that can be done better at a more local level.

Not knowing the hinterland of her use of the word, I will take it at face value. And it bothers me. Subsidiarity is defined by the online Cambridge Dictionary as:
the principle that decisions should always be taken at the lowest possible level or closest to where they will have their effect, for example in a local area rather than nationally. Not, as another online dictionary does, to be confused with subsidiary.

Why should, as she suggests, ecumenists be bothered be subsidiarity? Only, I think, if ecumenism is simply equated with relations between churches and with the engagement with issues by experts at the national or global levels. Ecumenism is not just about bilateral or multilateral ecclesiological dialogues between Christian traditions or engagement with the World Trade Organisation, the Human Rights Commission and all the other United Nations organisations. If ecumenism is to be anything, it is not as a set of organisations but a movement of people. Its energy, legitimacy and moral authority should come from the commitment of people not by resolutions of church governing bodies. Subsidiarity should be a good word for ecumenists. The churches as national organisations should be playing catch-up with what is happening on the ground. Not the other way around!

Looking at it like this, makes me feel that it is perhaps those who have a vested interest in the church structures who are most afraid of subsidiarity. People deciding and acting locally is probably the last thing they want. People might decide that all that stuff that keeps Christians apart is less important than the demands of the gospel in their context. People might decide that radical new ways of being the church and transforming society should be adopted. Where would we be then!

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