Tuesday, 9 March 2010

the churches: a distributed network

I have been re-reading an old book on the origins of the internet. It is called ‘where wizards stay up late’ and is fascinating glimpse into how things happened from the beginning. When I first read it I was struck by several similarities with the efficiency of the net which paralleled the early churches. What? you say, the internet? Yes, let me explain. One of the tragedies of the church history is the way in which the simple and flexible pattern of the Acts’ years so quickly ossified into monarchical bishops and the Roman catholic church. The developed organisation of the churches was a control feature implemented by the leaders in the early years of the 2nd century. To compare the earlier networking of the churches with the structures or polity of the church in the 2nd century is deeply distressing. By the time Ignatius of Antioch is writing letters, just 30 years or so after John, he is strongly advocating a single monarchical bishop who rules over a territory and controls who is ‘in’ or ‘out’. ‘the bishop is as Christ’ says Ignatius. ‘Do nothing without the bishop’ says Ignatius. No baptisms, breaking of bread, are to take place without the bishop. Often those ‘controls’ were with the intention of keeping the flocks safe, but they created a hierarchical dependence which ruined the simple pattern of the earlier churches.

The churches became what the early internet people would have called a ‘decentralised network’ and finally became a ‘centralised network’ in the Roman Catholic structure. Let me see if I can explain. In a centralised network we would have a central hub and from that hub would spread out clusters of other points. Yet, each of those points would be organically connected to the centre hub rather than to each other. In this way the central hub would control all the satellites but a disaster at the hub would wipe out the whole thing. It is an extremely vulnerable set up although one perfectly designed to control all the satellites. So the Vatican would control all the other churches and all the other churches would be dependent upon the church at the centre of the hub. All authority is derived from the central hub which controls all the parts.

Now imagine a situation in which that central hub spawns other hubs which in turn have their own satellites. If one of these hubs goes down all its own satellites will go down but the rest of the network would survive but in pockets. They will have lost their overall communication but each little hub will still be able to control its own satellites. The result will be that we now have scattered clusters which are no longer connected to other scattered clusters. The system where the central hub spawns other central hubs is called a ‘decentralised network’ and is effectively what happens in a denomination. Each little group is self contained and like finches on a island are likely to develop their own unique features...or idiosyncrasies. Effectively each little cluster has become its own ‘centralised network’ and lost the input from all the other centres.

Now imagine something which looks like a piece of a fisherman’s net. There are no special hubs or centres but each knot, or unit, is connected to several others. No one church is ‘more important’ that another has has no hierarchical authority over another. If one of the knots is destroyed communication can flow around it and access the other knots. In other words what you have is inter-dependence with no levels of authority to dictate the patterns. No knot is absolutely dependent upon another knot.

The earliest forms of the internet were designed to produce a ‘distributed network’. There were no official ways of doing anything because there were no ‘officials’. The system provided was is known as ‘high redundancy’ meaning that if any part of the net went missing the information could still find its way home by another route. F F Bruce once wrote that ‘the early church was organised for catastrophe’. He meant that there was a high level of ‘redundancy’ built into its patterns. If catastrophe came it would have its local consequence but the networking of the churches would not be destroyed although it might be damaged. God’s design accommodated the possibility of disaster and ensured that the whole family remained in touch.

Within a couple of generations men had organised the churches into a shape which could not cope with such a catastrophe. The churches would have to depend more and more upon the central authority and the central authority would take more and more power to itself. It is a pattern that can arise in any generation and in any mission field. It is much more efficient... apparently but ultimately it can only degenerate into absolute control. There is a special wisdom in the apparent ‘disorganisation’ of the early churches. As long as God was in their midst they would flourish, without him they would quickly fade and die. The danger of the centralised network and the decentralised network is that they can work without God at their centre.


KingJimmy said...

It is interesting to note, because of the original design of the church, that heresies in the early church were mostly regional in nature, because of this relational based NET-work structure. A theological error could only travel as far as the people who held it could physically travel. But when you have a centralized structure, heresy is able to spread rapidly. All it has to do is infect the central hub, and convince those who are in charge.

Ron Bailey said...

Just so!