Reorganizing Religion by David Mills

Reorganizing Religion

Why the Church Bureaucracies Have to Go

by David Mills

A few years ago, a high official in the Church of England announced that the new prayer books would cost the parishes millions of pounds but the Church of England would make a small profit. It was a slip, of course, but one that revealed how deeply those at the center of the Western churches identify their central structures with the churches themselves.

This is a very bad mistake, because these structures have an unfair advantage over the local and personal, from which the most effective, and generally the most orthodox, ministry come. They take from them more than they give, and misdirect their resources and energies even when acting quite sincerely and with the best of intentions. They are the sort of friend who “for your own good,” weeds your library, changes the settings on your computer, replaces your furniture, and rearranges your finances—and then charges you a large fee for doing so because “we’re all in this together.”

Abandon It

Any revival in these churches will require not the reform but the abandonment of the many layers of bureaucracy they have built up over the last few decades, giving the local bodies the authority to act as they think best and forcing the center to be as close as possible to the local bodies, in particular guiding, aiding, and inspiring them far less by law—giving requirements, for example—than by personal authority, and to rely for its support on the voluntary giving of the flocks it serves.

I am not criticizing bureaucracy as such, because it is natural and inevitable. A bishop begins a diocesan bureaucracy as soon as he hires a secretary or convenes a small group to help him with the finances. But some subtle line is crossed, and crossed quickly, when these people and their work become authorities in their own right and work more by rule and process than personal relation.

It is crossed, for example, when the bishop appoints someone because he has to satisfy some political need—to satisfy powerful people in the diocese, for example—not because the man is godly, wise, and discerning. It is generally being crossed when a bishop thinks he is being shrewd.

Bureaucracy is simply one way of getting things done, and the questions to be asked of it are whether it does them well and whether it does other things than it is supposed to do. I want only to suggest that it is not the best form of organization for modern church life. The resources and energy these bureaucracies consume (not only from those who work in them but from those who must spend time and money to oppose them) and the ends to which they direct their work make it harder for the churches to bring the gospel to the people who need to hear it, and make it much harder for the churches to say the clear word the culture needs to hear from it.

Centralized structures can do many things much faster and with less effort than individuals can. Yet they are complex machines far more likely to break down and needing far more energy to run, and require such an investment that no one wants to junk them when they stop working. Even when they are working well, they tend to develop a mind of their own and sometimes to go where even their handlers do not (consciously) intend.

And individuals matter: The most complex bureaucracy run by St. Francis of Assisi will express in its life more of the gospel than the most personal system led by Machiavelli. A committee may be a fellowship helping others or a bureaucracy insisting on its own way, depending on the man who appointed its members and the people he appoints.

My observations and examples will reflect the experience of the Episcopal Church, which as an activist I observed for almost twenty years, but examples could easily be taken from any other Western church. I will use the diocese as the example and the ordination and deployment of clergy as a test case, though what I say of diocesan bureaucracies applies even more to national bureaucracies because they are even less directly accountable to the members of the church and all the more likely to give themselves the sort of general, abstract projects that require a bureaucracy to pursue.

The Problem

The problem is not so much what the bureaucracies say. Who remembers 99 percent of the vast numbers of reports issued by the churches’ many boards, commissions, committees (standing and ad hoc), consultations, conventions, and councils?

If the bureaucracies only put out statements, no one would mind them much, other than lamenting the waste of paper. The problem is mainly what they do. Even at their best, they devour resources and energy that could be better put to local uses, and set the churches’ corporate witness and public agenda to reflect the bureaucratic consensus, which means a general and minimalist statement too indefinite to inspire and guide action. At their worst, they actively distort the churches’ witness and work by demanding too much of their resources and proclaiming an alien gospel.

A Harmful Change

This centralization harms the work of the Church more than it helps. I know this is a generalization, but it is based on a discernible pattern in the churches I have observed and a tendency in human institutions. There will be exceptions, when a problem is avoided or a ministry advanced through the structures. They do sometimes work, as when a man with subtle emotional problems not obvious to a priest or bishop is weeded out of the ordination process because it includes people trained to see them.

On the other hand, even in this case these people will at least as often reject a perfectly sane orthodox man because he is orthodox, though this is never the reason they give. They take his settled belief in the Creed as “rigidity” or “legalism” or intellectual immaturity, perhaps hiding deep insecurity if not something worse. If he shows any passion in his care for truth, he will be judged to be “angry” or to have “authority issues” or to be “unable to work with others.”

If he holds to the tradition on sex and ordination, he will almost have to castrate himself to prove he is not a misogynist. If he offends anyone on the commission, which he can do in any one of several hundred possible ways—using a generic “he,” for example, or criticizing a pop theologian some member of the commission likes—he will be said to be “pastorally insensitive.” Youthful clumsiness will be held against an orthodox man that would be praised as “youthful enthusiasm” in a liberal.

If he tries to defend himself against any of these charges, no matter how gently he speaks, he will be accused of “defensiveness” and an inability to listen to others, and probably also of the ever-useful “issues with authority.” (I have heard, with some bemusement, men and women who proudly rejected most Christian doctrines, including the ones the authorities of their churches insisted they hold, cluck with annoyance at someone who had “issues with authority” because he disagreed with some diocesan resolution which had no actual authority whatever.)

Any of these are enough to get a very good man turned down, even in a conservative diocese. Not, I suggest, only because they signal a theology some on the commission do not want represented among the clergy, but because they signal someone who is not adequately conformed to the process. In any case, they will tell him that he does not have “gifts for ministry,” though if they like him they may suggest he is better suited for an academic career.

Why Centralization Harms

So: on the whole and over time, the centralization of the churches and the expansion of their bureaucracies impairs and inhibits their work, for several reasons.

First, it tends to define the mission of the church as the continuing life and success of the institution as it is, which means, putting it simply, that its processes continue to process. The machine has been designed to run a certain way and produce a certain product, and cannot be changed, any more than a coal-burning power plant can be turned into a nuclear reactor.

Bureaucratic processes prefer “process people,” people who by personality and usually conviction fit into the system and will not work outside it. Commissions on ministry, for example, will be thought to work well if they run the needed number of people through the ordination process, even if the strong leaders and entrepreneurs the churches now need desperately (evangelists and church planters, for example) are weeded out because they are impatient with such processes and will not be socialized by them. The surest way to be rejected by the guardians of a process is to question their process.

These commissions will define “gifts for ordination” as the skills and personality needed to maintain the system more or less as it is. In other words, they judge people’s vocation by whether they will be good parish pastors who will maintain the parishes, which in practice often means inoffensive therapeutic types with a suitably elastic theology and a commitment to “be a part of the diocesan team,” which means, among other things, being happy to transfer a good part of the parish’s wealth to the diocese. Jesus would not have made it through the usual ordination process, nor would any of the apostles save Judas. I am not joking, though this may be unfair to Judas.

Second, to the extent that a bureaucracy does define a mission, it tends to define it as a moderated form of liberalism. Orthodox Christianity requires a set doctrine, but liberalism in its initial stages requires only the agreement to treat the doctrine as open for discussion.

This means that commissions on ministry will tend to favor centrist conservative and moderately liberal candidates. Even in conservative dioceses, they will have an articulate and often aggressive liberal or two, who will be able to obstruct if not defeat an unapologetically conservative candidate, and therefore can extract from him at least a rhetorical nod to “moderation” or “centrism.” The candidate will not be expected to speak as a liberal, but in a “nuanced,” “sensitive,” “pastoral” way—in other words, as a “moderate,” which is to say a tame conservative.

Even the conservative members of the commission will expect this, because it will show that he can “function in the diocese” and “minister to a diverse congregation,” and because they naturally come to like their liberal colleagues and come (“grow,” they will say) to appreciate the value of their point of view. And always, they do not want to be blamed for approving a man who will later do something seriously upsetting to the diocese, such as demanding more separation from the national body than the authorities want.

In my observation, conservative priests will always coach conservative candidates to speak tamely, and think they are being shrewd. The effect, however, is to teach these men to tell what are effectively lies, and to train them to lie in the same way, or worse ways, for the rest of their ministry. It teaches them to save their honest speech for a time that will probably never come, to make honesty a matter of strategy rather than character.

And bureaucracies tend to define their church’s mission as a form of liberalism for another reason: They are easily taken over by politically organized groups, both because such people tend to join them to advance their cause and because an organized group can easily be given a place in the process. Liberals are politically more active and better organized, in part because traditional believers are working on their sermons or running soup kitchens or raising their children or helping their neighbors.

In fact, if a group is dissident enough, it will give the bureaucracy something more to do, which tempts bureaucrats greatly. By challenging the church at some point, a dissident group poses a problem, and addressing problems is the reason such bureaucracies exist. Problems require meetings, and more meetings, and more members, and more money, and more time to address the diocesan convention. That the answer to a problem may be “This is ungodly” is not allowed to be said, because answering it would then require only one meeting and give no chance to propose new actions and ask for more money.

Power & Authority

Third, bureaucracies must operate by rules objectively and impersonally applied, rather than personal discernment sensitive to individual differences and gifts. In most churches, dioceses are so big and so diverse that bishops cannot know everyone well enough to discern whether they are in fact called to priesthood, nor can bishops guide them personally, form their reading and study, and teach them to pray.

For the testing of vocations and the formation of future priests, the bishop has to rely on a committee and its processes, to whom and to which he has to give up much of his authority. He cannot easily or safely refuse someone they approve or approve someone they reject, whatever he thinks of the candidate. The commission’s decisions, bishops will insist, are only “advisory,” but the political cost of rejecting their advice is almost always too high to pay.

Fourth, in a bureaucracy personal responsibility is diffused while power is concentrated. Or rather, the structure diffuses responsibility for those problems for which no one wants to be responsible, such as making statements on bitterly disputed moral questions, and it concentrates the power that people at the center want, such as the power to select and ordain clergy and increasingly (in the mainline churches) to appoint them to parishes even over the objections of the parishes themselves. The extent and complexity of the processes allow those in the center to hide when they do not want to be seen.

Fifth, the bureaucracies’ decisions, even the least important, demand more time and energy than they are worth, time and energy that would otherwise be given to local projects. To justify their existence, bureaucratic workers must keep producing reports, proposals, projects, resolutions. Because these come from an official body, they will be given priority in any meeting of the whole diocese.

No matter what real needs the people should be considering, an official report will be discussed earnestly, t’s crossed and uncrossed, i’s dotted and dotted again, a modified version passed in the end or the whole thing referred back to the committee for more study, and everyone will go home feeling they had “done some good work today,” without having done very much at all.

Distorting Decisions

A sixth reason bureaucracies inhibit the work of the churches is that they make decisions on matters best left to local parishes, and worse, the process itself distorts the decisions. Because they represent such a diversity, a diocesan committee needs to exclude or deny much that they should affirm, and that a local parish acting on its own would affirm.

A diocesan missions committee compiling a list of mission agencies worth supporting would be unlikely to include a group evangelizing Jewish people, despite its explicitly New Testament ministry, because evangelizing Jewish people is too controversial. Even if everyone on the committee approves of it—itself unlikely, as even a conservative bishop will almost certainly have appointed a token liberal or two, to cover himself while assuring himself that they can’t do any harm—the inevitability of angry protest from some influential people is usually enough to cause them to leave it out.

Even in conservative dioceses, such a ministry will become a “non-person,” like a Soviet dissident sent to the Gulag, about whom it is not safe to talk in public. And every diocese will include a large number of critics of any conservative venture, and in conservative or “moderate” dioceses some of them will feel a semi-divine calling to defend liberalism against the narrowness and intolerance of the fundamentalists. (And they will always find conservatives to help them do this.) As liberal clerics often have very small parishes, or parishes with big endowments to pay for large staffs, they have more time to organize and agitate than their orthodox brethren.

Seventh, as I’ve suggested already, bureaucracies encourage the growth of liberalism in their members and in the churches’ corporate life. The liberalism they encourage may be overt, as when an ideologically committed group captures a central structure and uses it to proclaim its peculiar innovation, or it may be implicit, as when it slights or relativizes Christian doctrine by treating it as an open matter.

Bureaucracies tend, even in conservative dioceses, to encourage a reticence and even timidity in pressing the Christian claims too far or drawing out their harder and less popular implications. When a significant and vocal minority argues for an innovation (doctrinal, moral, or liturgical), the bureaucracy’s instinct is to suspend the traditional teaching because it has become divisive, and to treat it as a matter for “dialogue” because (this unconsciously) any such exchange increases the importance of the bureaucracy by making it a necessary mediator and “facilitator.”

The bureaucrat sets up dialogues in which the question is treated as open, at which point, to assert the biblical teaching is taken as “short-circuiting the process” or refusing to listen to one’s brothers and sisters. Most conservatives, hoping to avoid conflict, convince themselves that it is only a discussion, and of course the truth will win in the end, if only they are faithful to the process and do not leave it to the liberals. The system, alas, is stacked against them. If they do not join in, the official results will inevitably favor the innovation, but if they do join, the official results will almost inevitably favor the equivalence of the tradition and the innovation.

The energies of the church are then consumed in trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, in dialogues that rarely change anyone’s mind, though they weaken many people’s faith by saying with the church’s authority that the question is open. (No one, after all, proposes a dialogue with racists or child-molesters.) This in itself advances the innovation.

This process effectively promotes a general skepticism about traditional Christian teaching, but sometimes a bureaucracy actively rejects that teaching. Bureaucracies do so not only as people with a cause take control of them, but also because their status depends upon their specialized expertise and their superiority to their clients, and superiority is most easily established by doing something radical. (As many people have noted about liturgical revisers.)

If a bureaucracy only affirms what has been done already or believed since the beginning, someone is likely to ask why it is needed at all, a question the bureaucrat does not want asked. Intensifying this tendency is the common self-identification of bureaucrats as “change agents,” who believe themselves called to do things that will upset the average Christian, who has not their expertise and insight.1

But Centralization Works

That centralization so harms Christian ministry does not mean that it does not work. It works very well, but it works on its own terms. Its processes process as they are supposed to do.

In the case of the ordination process, good pastors will make their way through it and some people who do not have a vocation will fail. The people inside the process will be satisfied with it, while admitting that it can always be improved, while the outsider will have trouble criticizing it effectively because its failures are hidden or visible only to a few.

No one will see the church that is not planted and the souls not brought into the Kingdom through that church, because the process will have weeded out the entrepreneur or discouraged the evangelist from applying, or will have made his life so difficult that he gave up. (I have heard smug clerics claim that no one with a real vocation would give up, as an excuse for doing to men they opposed anything they pleased.)

When a good man is turned down, only his friends and pastor and perhaps his parish will know, and they will usually get over it. In my observation, the pastor will get over it with unseemly speed and not learn from his parishioner’s experience anything about the structures in which he himself almost certainly has a part he does not want to give up.

To everyone else, the system appears to be working marvelously. The problems with such a system will only be seen in times of crisis, and then only by certain critical outsiders. When radical change is needed, the bureaucracy will be almost completely blind to it, and unless radically threatened (by a loss of funding, usually) will not easily be brought to see it. To change will mean to give up what they are doing, which very few of those in the center can easily accept.

What Must Be Done

The centralized, impersonal, and bureaucratic structures of modern churches exist. They serve a purpose. The people in them want them to continue, and the people outside them do not know much about them or do not care. Yet if it is true that, on the whole and over time, they deform and hinder Christian ministry, what should be done?

I am not proposing anything very radical here. Very few if any of the serious studies of the future of the Church in America give a role to the central structures. Even the Baptist sociologist Tony Campolo, in his much too optimistic Can the Mainline Denominations Make a Comeback?, calls for reducing the central bureaucracies and nearly eliminating their programs. Princeton’s Robert Wuthnow believes that denominations already function mainly as a source of identity, but not of programs or ministry.

Simply put, the Western churches must radically change the way they work. They must reorganize their lives, by exchanging a centralized system run by processes with impersonal rules and directed towards centrally chosen ends, for a decentralized system allowed to work and grow organically towards ends individuals within it discern and test in local practice.

The center will have to give up much or most of its power and lead by example and persuasion. It will have to demand very little from the parishes but offer them whatever unique help a centralized body can offer. And, institutional life being what it is, the churches must change their structures, in a way not easily revoked or evaded.

Changing the structures will not of itself bring revival, but it will make revival easier. It will certainly make the need for revival more urgent, by removing the structures the Western churches now use to avoid seeing and admitting their problems.

Reforming a church’s structure to one more appropriate to Christian ministry will require several changes, which can be summarized as adopting a patristic style of leadership and church life. (For our purposes, leadership may be individual, as with episcopally governed churches—including those who do not call their bishops bishops—or corporate.)

Patristic Style

What does “a patristic style of episcopacy and church life” mean?

First, it means that the relationships between the bishop and his clergy and people should be primarily personal, in that the bishop leads by persuasion and example and allows the parishes and people to respond as (and if) they will. Such bureaucracy as is necessary, for bureaucracies there will be, should be as small, as short-lived, and as limited in power as possible. To institutionalize this change, dioceses should ask parishes for support, not force them to give through assessments and quotas.

This is not a new idea, though the power of the churches’ central bodies has grown so great that people forget the mainline churches were once mostly local and personal bodies, who gave their national bodies what powers and money they had, and who were tied together by a common faith and ministry. Their authorities were in the same position in dealing with them as St. Paul was in dealing with the Corinthians or the Galatians: having to appeal to personal authority and the faith they shared, not to the law, canonical and civil, and their ability to take from dissidents their property.

The great models of this, of course, are to be found in the New Testament, in Jesus’ relationship with his disciples and St. Paul’s with Timothy, and in the life of the early Church. The early Christians shared what they had not because they were forced to but because the apostles had showed them how to live sacrificially and created both a general expectation that they would do so and a community that helped them to do it.

Second, such reform will usually require smaller dioceses, in which personal relationships can be nurtured, which happens only when the bishops and their clergy and people spend much time together, most of it spent in conversation, ministry, and prayer, not in satisfying an agenda. Their friendship will bear fruit, because disciples are more effective ministers—more committed, more sacrificial, clearer about their goals and work—than employees.

Such bureaucracies as inevitably and rightly arise should be created in response to real needs and from real commitment, the members chosen as much as can be because God has brought them, and the whole given but a short time to live. The bishop who feels a call to evangelism should call evangelists and give them a task and the authority to carry it out, rather than waiting until the annual diocesan convention to ask that a committee be appointed representing the diversity of the diocese, which will bring back a report to the next convention, including a study of the budgetary implications for its proposals and a coordinated multi-step phased-in implementation plan.

This would seem a simple thing to do, but surprisingly few bishops would ever act so boldly if they had the option of safely referring such a choice to a committee, or of creating a committee, which they may stock with orthodox people while putting in a few token liberals, whose effect will inevitably be far greater than their number should allow. To act so boldly would be to risk failure.

Structural Reform

Third, reform will require a less programmatic and more “spiritual” understanding of ministry and parish life, a renunciation of the rationalist mind that believes centralized bodies will work better than a decentralized system, a giving up of our belief in our own final powers of design and purpose. People will have to care more for faithfulness to the biblical standards than for visible results (so easily faked or misinterpreted) and thereby understand that the fruits of ministry are often invisible, or indirect, or to come.

The necessarily radical structural reform will, in other words, require a greater trust in the Holy Spirit and in his people. And considerably more difficult, a trust that the people are listening to the Holy Spirit. Only those confident in the Holy Spirit’s leading can do without bureaucratic structures and allow their fellow workers in the vineyard the freedom to act.

The temptation to direct and control by centralizing the process, or to hedge and qualify by submitting the ministry to a bureaucracy, is far too great—and not unreasonably, given the dangers—to risk without a real belief in the work of the Holy Spirit through his people. One is not going to “let go and let God” if one is not very sure God knows what he is doing and will do it.

And finally, for most dioceses in the Western churches, to so deeply trust in the Holy Spirit will require a revival and renewal, such as will bring bishop, priests, and people to a deeper unity in the Faith, a unity so deep that they act instinctively and in unity, without crippling disagreements or negotiations or the temptation to create a committee to do the work for them. I do not mean the faith as it has come to be defined in religiously pluralistic churches, which affirm a range of models and images and paradigms but favor none, but the Faith in the God who has revealed himself in the Scriptures and the consensus of Christians through the ages.

Not to put too fine a point on it, a revival will require the rejection of what is usually called liberalism, or better, the conversion of liberals to a fuller and more exactingly biblical faith. Without it, they will resist such radical reform of the system because liberalism needs elaborate structures, because it defines the faith as the accomplishment of this-worldly ends, and because it fails in the market and can only succeed by manipulating a system.

The Test

The test of the reform is evangelism: whether the bureaucratic or the personal styles of ministry will reach the world most effectively. The extraordinary growth of the churches in Africa and Asia, where bureaucracies are small and bishops and their priests are usually evangelists as well as pastors, suggests the superiority of the personal to the bureaucratic.

When their churches are growing so rapidly, even as they are persecuted for their faith, the West might wisely defer to their wisdom. It can’t claim to have had great success doing things its way. The Western churches might see the beginning of a revival if their bishops filed all the reports and resolutions, dissolved all but the essential committees, and canceled the legislative meetings, and went out into the streets of their sees with a bishop from Africa to tell people about Jesus.


1. My fellow editor James Hitchcock’s Catholicism and Modernity (New York: The Seabury Press, 1979), pp. 96–125, is one of the very few books that analyze the effect of bureaucracy on the modern church. Even such a highly praised study of the mainline churches as Thomas Reeves’s The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity (New York: The Free Press, 1997) does not.

A Disturbing Argument

An argument against church bureaucracies is, I should note, one to which even conservative clerics will react, because they are themselves willing and often eager participants in their Church’s central structures. The value of committees and extra-parochial work is an axiom of modern church life.

For reasons I do not myself understand, many clerics derive some part of their self-image and self-satisfaction from working in such bodies and assume that doing so is part of the pastoral calling. Pascal wrote in the Pensees that the problems of the world would be solved if men learned to stay happily in their rooms, and it does sometimes seem that the problems of the Church would be solved if clerics would learn to stay happily in their parishes.

Many clerics lament the bureaucracy and complain about the time and effort their committees require of them, but complaint is expected, as long as it is formal and not serious. (At the Episcopal Church’s General Convention, I have heard deputy after deputy complain about the work, even though they had worked very hard to get themselves elected. I suppose it makes them feel they are doing something sacrificial rather than self-serving.)

Priests and bishops will complain about their workload, which is so heavy in part because they had insisted on creating and serving on committees their people would have much preferred they avoid. I remember one priest, who upon arriving in his new parish inserted himself into every committee, including some that had worked very well for years as lay committees, and then a year or so later complained that the parish required too many of his evenings. He asked, not to be relieved of some of his meetings, but to be given an assistant to take up his pastoral work. (He is now a bishop.)

One reason for this is that service on diocesan bodies puts one in line for advancement. A saintly, gifted minister who stays in his parish is a minister who stays in his parish for years, while men of fewer gifts rise in rank. The minister who stays in his parish is often the minister who worries about paying for the repairs on his ancient Volvo, while his committee-serving peers are now enjoying a parish-paid sabbatical in the close of an English cathedral.

Despite the formal complaints, to argue for a radical rejection of church bureaucracies will alarm almost everyone involved in church affairs, even conservatives. An earlier version of “Reorganizing Religion” was commissioned for a book on the life and renewal of one of the mainline churches. The editors, who were all clerics involved in their church’s political structures, objected to my thorough rejection of the bureaucracy as the normative form of church life, and wanted me to criticize the way bureaucracies worked while leaving them in place.

They offered a revision that tempered the criticism and made it unclear what the problem was. For example, they changed a sentence noting that bureaucracies use up a notable amount of the church’s resources—not, I would have thought, a controversial observation—with the unhelpful “Even at their [the bureaucracies’] best, they are very often regarded as devouring resources.”

Most of their suggested changes changed my criticism of the bureaucracies themselves to statements of the way some church members perceived them. The conclusion they wanted me to offer was simply, “Bureaucracy needs a reformation” (these were their exact words, believe it or not), while rewriting the essay to avoid the questions of whether it could be reformed and, if so, what we must do to reform it.

I declined to have such hopeless mush published under my name. As it turned out, the editors very much wanted the leader of their church to write the introduction, and he naturally wanted to read the whole manuscript before giving it his imprimatur, which explained their reworking of my thesis. When they asked him to write the preface, the editors gave up the chance to offer any truly useful criticism of the system as it existed in their church. The book appeared, got a few unexcited reviews from the expected journals, and disappeared, because the authors had nothing concretely useful to say.

—David Mills

David Mills has been editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things.

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