Fractal Church

Tobias Haller and I have been having a conversation on the HoB/D email list. (I was reelected to General Convention from a new diocese this weekend, and I’m feeling like I have the right to participate in the discussions again.)

In the course of the notes back and forth, Tobias described a quality of our polity which he saw as fractal in nature:

“We are at a point where the integrity of Anglicanism as a specific form of polity is in danger. I put this in the framework of the equilibrium of systems: the ‘equilibrium point’ of Anglicanism (as opposed to that in other systems of church government) has been, from the at least the time of recognized ecclesiastical independence of Scotland and the US, to reside at the provincial level. We have never had a higher governing body to oversee the relationships of the various provinces. Anglicanism’s global identity has been that of a communion, a fellowship of autonomous provincial churches — neither a ‘world church’ like the Roman Catholic Church, nor a federation like the Reformed Churches.

At the levels of polity below the international, Anglicanism (at least in the US and England, as well as a number of other provinces) has a fractal quality. Fractal structures, for those not familiar with them, are structures that replicate certain features at various scales. This gives them a certain organic robustness and resiliency. The Episcopal Church has such a structure — from parish to diocese to province — which has not yet been effectively mirrored to the communion level. That is, at every level we Episcopalians have governance by clergy and laity together — but then the interprovincial level gives us things like Lambeth and the Primates. Now, this is in part because — while The Episcopal Church has preserved lay involvement, inherited from England, at all levels (in part via Bishop White’s familiarity with the US Congress), and the Church of England continued its lay involvement (originally through the Crown, then King-in-Parliament, and later in the Synod) — not all of the other provinces in the Anglican Communion share in this particular aspect at either local, diocesan, or provincial levels. Generally speaking, the churches of the Communion that related most directly to England or the US (as opposed to churches arising out of the ventures of missionary societies) tended to preserve this kind of involvement by the whole People of God.

And that is, I firmly believe, part of the problem for many of those provinces in understanding how either The Episcopal Church and the Church of England function. Churches in which bishops are elected only by other bishops, or in which the Archbishop has ultimate veto power, will not well fit into a larger entity at a level of scale resembling that in the provinces in which the laity and clergy are more intimately involved in provincial government.

Rather, these churches are accustomed to their own more clericalized fractal hierarchy: the parish priest who sits in the diocesan house of clergy; the diocesan bishop who sits in the house of bishops; the primate who sits in the Primates meeting — it all seems very logical, but it leaves out that intrinsic element so vital to Anglicanism in its founding expression: the involvement of the whole People of God in the government of the church.”

Do read the whole post, which talks more about the present state of the Communion. As soon as I get a chance to develop my thoughts about the good points Tobias is making here, I’ll post some ideas that might spark some interesting discussion.

Read the rest: States of Things

Author: Nicholas Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

3 thoughts on “Fractal Church”

  1. Another layer that could be mentioned are deaneries. Was there ever a time when they were important? Have they largely been eclipsed be modern means of communication?
    Remember, also, that parishes used to have assigned geographic territories. But that became untenable with the advent of the automobile. Do we have any regrets that that happened?
    To open a taboo subject, have we reached a time when dioceses will fragment? They may have at one time when geographic dioceses were organic/natural/fractal. Some say the world is flat – meaning dioceses defined by geography are simply untenable. Will that be regretable, and how so?

  2. I am surprised that no one pointed out that the behavior of fractals is to replicate patterns from larger to smaller, because a fractal pattern is produced by iteration. Thus the analogy breaks down when Haller proposes the possibility of reproducing the structure of smaller Churches at the level of the entire Anglican Communion. That is, having lay and clergy governance as TEC does. Not that that would not be a good thing!

  3. I am surprised that no one pointed out that the behavior of fractals is to replicate patterns from larger to smaller, because a fractal pattern is produced by iteration. Thus the analogy breaks down when Haller proposes the possibility of reproducing the structure of smaller Churches at the level of the entire Anglican Communion. That is, having lay and clergy governance as TEC does. Not that that would not be a good thing!

Comments are closed.