Fr Stephen Langridge recently wrote an excellent article in the Irish News about preparing for a post-lockdown Church. One of the points he makes is about looking at a possible reshaping of our ecclesial structures. Fr Langridge writes:

Pope Francis acknowledges "there are ecclesial structures which can hamper efforts at evangelisation" (EG26). Often an overly bureaucratic culture within dioceses will discourage rather than facilitate innovation.

Many priests are reluctant to try new things if the message from central office focuses on risk aversion and pitfalls rather than the advantages of adopting new methodologies.

This prompted me to think more deeply about the tension between centralisation and subsidiarity in the Church and the impact on mission. In many Dioceses there has been an increased centralisation in recent years. There are a number of factors that have been at work in driving this. An increase in the level and complexity of legal and regulatory requirements faced by the Church has prompted the employment of professionals at Diocesan level to manage these. The fallout from the horrors of child sexual abuse has highlighted the need for greater oversight and the need for robust structures to ensure a safe environment. 


Centralisation clearly has many advantages. It can bring a competence and expertise that parishes on their own cannot achieve. It is more likely to bring successful compliance with the requirements of the law and of insurers. Centralisation of certain services can lead to greater efficiencies. At the same time, there are a number of negative consequences. In any organisation, greater centralisation tends to lead to stagnation and a lack of innovation.


Fr Langridge makes an important point about the likelihood of a focus on ‘risk aversion and pitfalls’. Centralisation can lead to our being driven by what Pope Francis calls the ‘technocratic paradigm’. Last year I attended the international meeting organised by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation looking at Evangelii Gaudium. One of the papers was given by Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP. Fr Radcliffe described this ‘technocratic paradigm’ as the dominant philosophy of our time, in which everything is administered, measured and controlled. He pointed out that discipleship is an inherently risky business in which we lose control, while we live in a society that is afraid of risk. In describing the evangelisation of Asia five hundred years ago, he suggested that many of the young people sent on mission knew that they wouldn’t even arrive or would be martyred and asked if we would dare to do this today.


Centralisation can also lead to our mission and focus being in the wrong place. Although our stated values and priorities may be different, the reality is often that our agenda tends to be primarily shaped by the demands of our insurers rather than those of the Gospel. Our time, energy and resources tend to be taken up much more by an inward looking ‘maintenance model’ rather than by an outward looking call to mission.


Fr James Mallon in his book Divine Renovation describes ‘values as being what our actions profess rather than what our published statements say’. He invites us to a brutally honest self-reflection about what our schedules and investment of time and money say about our priorities. 


The demands placed on parish clergy, staff and volunteers by centralised administration can absorb huge amounts of time and energy that might otherwise be spent on mission. For some of our volunteers the increased demands placed on them prove too much and we find it much harder to find people to fulfil roles.


The financial cost of centralisation tends to be largely borne by parishes. Canon Law grants a Diocesan Bishop the right to impose a ‘moderate tax’ on parishes for the needs of the Diocese (CIC 1263). As central costs increase, this tax on parishes has been increased by many Dioceses and tends to stretch the definition of ‘moderate’. In my own diocese this is set at 47.5% of our income.


Alongside the increases in Diocesan tax, centralisation can also tend to drive spending towards risk avoidance and building maintenance. Our Diocese, for example, now requires fire risk assessments to be carried out by external professionals rather than in-house using templates. This is an understandable and reasonable approach by the Diocese, but one that costs the parish several hundred pounds for each assessment.


Increased centralisation can often unintentionally prevent our engagement in mission. A couple of years ago, our Diocese had a ‘Year of Mission’ as part of our Bishop’s three year vision. Together with a group of other priests and parishes based in and around Bristol, we sought to respond to this vision of the Bishop and Diocese by creating a joint evangelisation project. We thought this was an ideal opportunity to come together as parishes and increase our focus on mission. In order to bring this project to birth we wanted to employ someone on a 12 month contract to coordinate it. They would bring the expertise and energy to make the project happen but also to provide formation and build confidence in our parishes to help us live out our mission to evangelise. There was real excitement and energy in the priests and pastoral teams engaged in this project. The finance committees of the various parishes agreed the funding for it. The final hurdle was to obtain permission from the Diocesan HR committee for the creation of the role. We invested a substantial amount of time providing all the documentation and information required by the committee for the role to be considered. Unfortunately, the request was then turned down. Although the committee was supportive of the project, they required further information from us and asked us to resubmit the application for consideration at the next meeting. Although this was a challenging setback, we were fortunate in having a young woman who had recently completed a Masters in Communications offer to volunteer full time in working on the project while we resubmitted the application. She put together a wonderful communications campaign and put an excellent framework in place ready for the official launch of the project once the recruitment of our project coordinator had been completed. At the next HR committee meeting, the request was considered again (although this was now for a six month contract, given that the Year of Mission was now well underway) with the information we had submitted in response to the questions asked of us at the previous meeting. Unfortunately, the request was again turned down. While the committee continued to be supportive of the project, they wanted further information, unrelated to the questions asked at the previous meeting and asked us again to resubmit the application. By this stage, with the Year of Mission drawing to a close, we reluctantly decided not to continue with the project. Although the Bishop and Diocesan administration had all been very supportive, ultimately the time and energy required for us to gain the permission to engage in this mission prevented this from getting off the ground.


Clearly the balance between centralisation and subsidiarity is a very difficult one to strike. I wonder whether the current pandemic might shift this away from the previous trend towards centralisation. If so, we might find some interesting fruits as well as new challenges. Dr Judith Champ in her book The Secular Priesthood in England and Wales: History, Mission and Identity speaks of the role of the priest in different historical contexts, orientated at times more towards mission and at others towards maintenance. She invites us to find fresh vision for the future in the experience of the Post-Reformation Church in this country, with its missionary zeal and depth of relationship and sense of shared mission between priests and lay people. She posits that “thoughout our history, growth and new life have not come from elaborate structural plans but from individual courage and insight, and from local initiatives.” I wonder if the current pandemic might bring about a similar dynamism in our parishes as the failure of maintenance models drives us into mission, accompanied by a greater shift towards subsidiarity.

Centralisation vs subsidiarity