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Only chaos can redeem the Church God save our parishes from people with MBAs

A protester stands beneath the dome inside St Paul's Cathedral in London, on October 28, 2011. AFP PHOTO/LEON NEAL (Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

A protester stands beneath the dome inside St Paul's Cathedral in London, on October 28, 2011. AFP PHOTO/LEON NEAL (Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP via Getty Images)


September 16, 2021   5 mins

A few days before Ori Brafman flew over to Virginia at the invitation of the US Army, he was sitting on a lawn in northern California, soaking up the vibe, wearing not much more than a fluffy pink fur throw. A vegan, and a peace studies major at that bastion of progressive values, Berkeley University, Brafman wondered what he would have in common with the man he was about to meet – a man who, a few years later, was to become the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Obama, and one of the central guiding figures of the war on terror, General Martin Dempsey. What on earth could the General want with someone like Brafman?

Back in 2006, Brafman had co-authored a popular book on organisational structures, The Starfish and the Spider, in which he compared the difference between biological organisms like the spider, which have a small head that controls its body, and the much stranger organisms, like the starfish, that don’t have a centralised structure but whose limbs can regenerate, even when severed from the main body. Chop off the spider’s head and the spider is dead. But the starfish doesn’t have a head and many of its functions have been decentralised, allowing it to keep going even when a major part of it has been cut off.

It turns out that the US Army was much taken with the spider and the starfish as metaphors for different organisational structures, mainly because of the trouble they were having with ISIS. The Army was a spider, with a strong command and control structure, while many terrorist organisations were radically decentralised, specifically designed to avoid infiltration or decapitation. And it worked – they were proving extremely difficult to destroy.

Writing a thesis at the US Military Academy at West Point a few years later, Major Luciano Picco explained why the US Army was having such trouble dealing with the starfish way of doing things.

“Due to a long history of success by embracing the hierarchical structure,” he wrote: “indications are that as a whole, the Army has a hard time conceptualising the decentralised ideas presented by Mission Command and inculcating those notions throughout the Army.”

But it wasn’t just the Army that was getting interested in Brafman’s ideas. Ten years ago this month the Occupy movement first arrived at Zuccotti Park in New York’s financial district, proclaiming the slogan “We are the 99%”.

But it wasn’t just the message that was radical, it was also the way they organised themselves — the fact that there didn’t seem to be anyone “in charge”. Despite the need of the media to isolate leaders around whom to tell the story of a movement, Occupy operated on starfish principles. It was held together not by some central leadership group, but by a shared sense of conviction. Policies would not be handed down from a central committee, but would emerge from assemblies of the faithful.

This was a real headache for those tasked with negotiating with the protesters. When I was involved with the dispute between Occupy and St Paul’s Cathedral, it was clear that the City of London authorities, the Police and the Cathedral couldn’t quite understand what they were up against.

Their instinct was to approach Occupy with the familiar request “take me to your leader” — after which they would negotiate with them and perhaps strike some sort of deal. But there wasn’t a leader, and because of this the authorities had little idea what to do. From the Occupy perspective this meant there was no one who could sell them out, no central figure(s) who could be discredited or strong-armed into compromise. The spider had no idea how to deal with the starfish.

The police eventually cleared the Occupy camp at St Paul’s in February 2012, evicting the protestors. But that was not the last that the police saw of these faces. Over the years, many of the same people who were there went on to help set up Extinction Rebellion and were also influential in other protest movements like Black Lives Matter.

The aims morphed and adapted, and new limbs to the protest movement were grown – ideas were “emergent”, to use the organisational jargon. You cannot evict an idea. And this model is not just a feature of the Left. The Tea Party movement was just as horizontally organised. After all, who was its leader? It’s hard to say. Does it even matter?

Unfortunately, the Church of England learned very little from its encounter with Occupy. Just this week it was unveiling a new plan for its future organisational structure, and it is a doubling down on the whole centralising tendency that has been going on for the last 30 or so years. Just as protest movements were out there “taking the knee”, Church leaders were poring over their spread-sheets and flow charts.

Organisationally, the Church of England is a mess of overlapping and competing powers — bishops, synods, councils, pension boards, parliament, parishes — which is a real irritation to the pathologically tidy-minded. Formed as a shotgun marriage between two very different, perhaps incommensurable, approaches to religious authority — the Catholic and the Protestant — it’s little wonder the Church of England is an organisational hotchpotch.

Calling for greater “clarity”, this new plan announces that there is a “considerable confusion… about decision-making authority, a lack of understanding about which decisions different bodies are empowered to make and how those decisions are reached.”

So this review proposes a new body to take over most of the central functions of the Church. And inevitably it has an organisational flow chart and an acronym CENS – the Church of England National Services. Now there’s a rallying point to stir the blood and drop the faithful to their knees in wonder!

It’s as if the Church has decided to invest in Blockbuster Videos just as everyone else is switching to Netflix. All over the world, decentralised systems are on the ascendency. The Taliban have seen off the US Army. Blockchain technology has allowed radically decentralised crypto currencies like Bitcoin to flourish. eBay may have a CEO, but its real power lies in the millions on mini-encounters between buyers and sellers.

As Brafman observes in a more recent book, The Chaos Imperative, it is often from the edge of human networks that the serendipitous encounters driving innovation and creativity take place. In Church terms, these edges are called parishes — often small, semi-independent pockets of half-organised goodness, spreading out into their communities rhizomatically.

On this traditional model, the bishop is not primarily a leader or a manager. He or she is concerned with the promulgation of doctrine, renewing the core message with inspiration, and the care of the clergy — a vicar to the vicars. These days, unfortunately, we have too often dulled their spirit by locking them in committees and chaining them to laptops to write bloodless reports. And the parishes are becoming sucked into this whole top-down managerialism led by bishops who go on leadership courses and do half-baked MBAs. God save us from people with MBAs.

What Brafman maintains is that the crucial thing keeping inherently messy organisations together is a belief in the cause. They don’t even need better management flow charts, they don’t need more command and control – often less of it – they need better preachers. And the Holy Spirit has no need of acronyms.

The Church is becoming more spider-like just as everyone else is learning the power of being more like a starfish.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

In Church terms, these edges are called parishes — often small, semi-independent pockets of half-organised goodness,
Good old Giles Fraser. Of all the voices here on Unherd, I’d say his is the most…unherd.
There are still many, many people of goodwill left in the world, despite all the division. Some participate in organized religion, although the self-appointed ‘elite’ might sneer at them. I suspect these “pockets of half-organized goodness”, whether religious parishes or secular organizations, will be the foundation that stabilizes our fractured society. And long may Mr. Fraser be the voice of the humble parish in the face of encroaching bureaucracy.

William Cameron
William Cameron
2 years ago

There are more people worshipping in mosques than in churches. Like it or not the mosque message is clear and quite attractive if you are looking for robust clear policies.
The Church is full of drips . A large number of parishes have a pretty invisible vicar(ess) . It closed during the pandemic- the one time it was needed.
We need a church that preaches Christianity. A Church that preaches morality. A church that preaches that christianity is the faith. Not a faith. We are done with being wet.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago

And Islam is a wonderful example of a starfish structure. Something for the CofE to model itself on; and doctrinally maybe too? A return to the fundamentals of the Christian faith instead of Christianity put through a socialist sieve. Great article Giles, as always

GA Woolley
GA Woolley
2 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Islam is not a starfish, but a hotchpotch of self-serving fiefdoms, with each little emperor jealously guarding his powerbase, making allowances with, or fighting against, the others according to what profits him at the time.

Emre Emre
Emre Emre
2 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Islam (Sunnis) had a Caliph until about 100 years ago who was the equivalent of the Pope. The Caliph is also, normally, the political leader of the Islamic world – which is more centralised than the Christian organisation that only centralises the religion aspect. Shia today (the other smaller half of Islam) have a similar supreme religious leader who has the ultimate say in political decisions. All in all, Islam was, and may become once again quite a centralised religion.

Fennie Strange
Fennie Strange
2 years ago

There are plenty of churches faithfully preaching the Gospel, William, anyone who really searches for a lively church in England won’t have to look very far.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Fennie Strange

I agree and for those looking for a starfish organisation a presbyterian church would fit the bill!

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

Bureaucracy – the opium of the managers.
It dulls the senses and eventually needs bigger and bigger doses to achieve a sense of fulfilment.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

Clearly, for US eyes, the Church here refers to an organisation called The Church of England and not to Christianity in general.

The C of E as an organisation is about too many people in a hierarchy doing nothing for Christianity. At a grassroots level it does fantastic pseudo-charitable work.

Peter Francis
Peter Francis
2 years ago

Thought-provoking, as always: thanks, Giles! We have similar trends in the Church of Scotland (“The Kirk”), despite a bishop-less structure . We have all heard of “growing pains”, but “shrinking pains” are worse. At one time, The Kirk was responsible for much non-mission work overseas and (for good or ill) was hugely important in Scottish civic life. Although it has shrunk, and is still shrinking, it finds itself incapable of scrapping its heavily-centralised structures. They still have committees that, in ages past, a politician would ignore at his peril, but these days are completely ignored.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago

The Church of England no longer believes in God or the teachings of the Bible. The Pope is also much the same. They have made themselves pointless.

Peter Shaw
Peter Shaw
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

As a Catholic I have to agree the current Pope appears to be a mean spirited individual who, like Welby, would be better suited to political life.

David Tomlinson
David Tomlinson
2 years ago

A really interesting article, though the use of the word parish is confusing. A parish is a geographical area ecclesiastically defined and served by a parish church. When Giles uses the term parish I think he means the church serving the parish. These churches are under threat because hardly anyone attends them anymore. Funerals, weddings, baptisms have been in steep decline for decades. Diocese have lost up to 60% of their congregations over the last 30 years through death or infirmity. For most people living the parish the church is irrelevant, invisible or both. Despite this it remains the largest provider of foodbanks, runs job clubs, debt advice and much more which is to be celebrated. I would argue that locally the starfish model is common,the vicar leaves but the foodbank continues etc. Nationally the church has always been both hierarchical and defferential , Bishops have historically been roles shaped by privilege and power not humility and service. It needs rethinking and reshaping and shock horror the golden age of the past is a myth. I love the starfish model, it would be wonderful to see a faith movement engaged with such thinking locally yes, nationally unlikely.

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
2 years ago

I can’t speak to what the Church of England should do, other than not what it currently does, but it’s worth remembering that Occupy didn’t achieve anything.

Whilst the authorities may have been confused without a leadership to negotiate with, the activists themselves were just as clueless about what they were trying to achieve. Or, perhaps, it’s more accurate to say they each thought they were reaching for something different.

I know a couple of chaps who spent a few days with Occupy in London, mainly out of curiosity and a sense it might be fun. They said that the meetings could last for hours, discussing whether the fella who taught juggling should really be called a ‘teacher’ or a ‘facilitator’ – they didn’t like the hierarchy implicit in the notion that some people could juggle, whilst others couldn’t. Not once were any aims or demands mentioned.

As for ISIS, they weren’t a starfish organisation, they had a leader – Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. They actually got their Caliphate instantiated, though not embedded enough to last.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
2 years ago

“When I was involved with the dispute between Occupy and St Paul’s Cathedral, it was clear that the City of London authorities, the Police and the Cathedral couldn’t quite understand what they were up against.
Their instinct was to approach Occupy with the familiar request “take me to your leader” — after which they would negotiate with them and perhaps strike some sort of deal. But there wasn’t a leader, and because of this the authorities had little idea what to do.”
Whilst I might agree with your critique of the “top-down managerialism” within the current CofE I really cannot understand your belief in the efficacy of – or support for – leaderless movements. What I think you’re trying to get to is the idea of centralised power granting greater autonomy down through its structures – all well and good. But conflating that with leaderless movements misses the mark completely.
Occupy, XR, BLM and Antifa have noisy activists, but no leaders. To my mind that demonstrates pretty conclusively that they are not committed to a noble end-goal – that the “fight” is more important than actually achieving progress.
I’ve heard these activists proudly boast of having no leaders.
Great. Let’s say you’re the PM, you’ve seen the protests, you’re persuaded that a change in policy is worth discussing and so you agree to a meeting – but who do you meet?
Do you step out onto the balcony and try and address the throng below? Do you agree to “Welease Woger” only to have the crowd taunt you?
Movements need leaders. They need someone who can hone and deliver the message, they need someone who can negotiate, they need someone behind whom the crowd can coalesce.
A movement without a leader is just a rabble. If a movement doesn’t have a leader then the rabble will get a rabble-rouser, someone who fires up the more volatile elements among the crowd and then, before you know it, windows are broken, cars are on fire and any legitimate concerns of the movement are lost in a cloud of tear gas.
Leaderless movements have no chance of actually reaching a successful outcome 
. they can only lead to mob action – or pointless demonstrations that achieve nothing beyond alienating members of the public.
An activist movement that boasts of having no leaders just shows they’re not about achieving results. I support the right to demonstrate, if that has a purpose, but if all you want is a performative day out with some placards and a drum-circle and then go and do it somewhere else.
If you support that you are merely a nihilist. A rebel without a clue, and without a chance of bringing about whatever change your protest was ostensibly hoping to achieve.

Kenneth Brownell
Kenneth Brownell
2 years ago

Welcome to Protestant Nonconformity. But not the ironically conformist Nonconformity of Methodism or the United Reformed Church but that of independent churches that are scattered all over the country. On some things they voluntarily cooperate but largely they get on being church in rather contrarian ways. We may not always like the results but Christ will build his church in spite of the C of E and it’s managerial leadership.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Well my long post all about ‘The Rainbow of Living Light’ has been removed.

They are a Hippy group I have had many dealings with and I wrote several paragraphs and links describing their political style as they exemplify this starfish better than any other –

The reason is I was going to come back and use this, and they are the most perfect example of a very strong movement with over 50 years of existence, and I was then going to use them to explain the Most-Modernist lack of direct leadership also uses this model to capture so very much of education and MSM….but UNHERD Censors are at work.

Giles took this concept but ran NO where with it, yet it is the same political style is being used to change the world for the worst by the Woke Neo-Marxists…

Unherd – the new Facebook – or youtube, our way or the highway….. FO

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a net, which, cast into the sea, gathered every kind. When it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away.
Which is to say . . . a broad gathering that is ultimately completed with a later divine separation.

Bruce Haycock
Bruce Haycock
2 years ago
Reply to  LCarey Rowland

It could be that the divine separation you refer to is some of the gathered ones separating themselves, by distance, not by place. once they see in full face, the kingdom’s king, and finding that light too much to bear.

Just saying. Not intending to distract from the article itself

Sean Penley
Sean Penley
2 years ago

I can’t help but find the irony that he’s saying that across the world, decentralized organizations are on the rise. This as the Big Tech companies have the power to decide what can or cannot be said on a level that no Soviet censor ever could have imagined possible. Of national governments putting out restrictions that would have seemed unthinkable a few short years ago. Of heads of state/ prime ministers (whoever holds the actual executive power in your particular government) deciding they can dictate health requirements to business without even going through the legislature to make laws, even if said mandates might violate already-existing laws.
Even if you happen to think all of these are good things, there is no way around it, centralization is increasing right now, not decreasing. Even BLM, which he references, is a very centralized organization. XR and Occupy, probably not, but they are a couple outside examples. Al-Qaeda was indeed designed to be decentralized, but ISIS was very centralized when it had the chance to be (AQI/ISI/ISIS was an offshoot of Al-Qaeda; that was bin Laden’s vision was to create lots of offshoot movements, but AQI/ISI got a bit too independent for his liking), and only returned to being decentralized when its caliphate was torn down. Even the Taliban is a bit iffy. They spent the last twenty years as insurgents, and insurgencies are always “come as you are and when you will” type affairs for the average fighter/supporter, but a great many of them are actually centralized in their higher command structure, and the Taliban is no different. They have their hierarchies, and those they have to take orders from even outside the group (Pakistan hasn’t even been denying it since Musharraf’s time). They didn’t gain control of Afghanistan so quickly just because a bunch of them had the same idea at the same time. That’s why they were able to establish a form of government almost immediately–they already had it set up, just waiting to be able to put it in place. For that matter, they had been running “shadow governments” in the parts of Afghanistan where they had great influence for over a decade, Helmand and Kandahar in particular.
It just seems that he took a couple of decentralized movements, one of them effectively non-existent at this point, and said that is the way the world is going. To some extent, I actually wish that was true. Centralization is far too often a path to give too much power to too few. But the world seems to be going towards that faster than ever, not away from it. I have some hope Stateside, where a number of governors and even some members of Congress are starting to push back against the increasing centralization of power, but the current administration is committed to keeping this course and it’s impossible to say who will come out ahead.

Peta Seel
Peta Seel
2 years ago

This is very interesting because the reason that Macron had such difficulty dealing with the Gilet Jaunes was because they too were a starfish organisation so there was no-one with whom he could negotiate. That is what led to his tour around the country talking to people, except that he talked at them and not to them. Contrary to MSM myth, they originally represented a cross-section of society, albeit drawn largely from the people outside of metropolitan areas. Ultimately, it was the metropolitan “casseurs” who gave them a bad name.
The more recent anti-pass sanitaire demonstrations over the summer have operated in exactly the same way. While in Paris there are central figures around whom they congregate in groups, everywhere else they are very much “starfish” and involve a far wider cross-section of people than the Gilet Jaune movement did.
The Church of England is making exactly the same mistake as Macron did – they are talking at people from behind their power base and not to them.

Alison Wren
Alison Wren
2 years ago

Oh Giles. Spiders don’t have a head. I know the Spider/Starfish is a nice alliteration but spiders have a fused structure called a cephalothorax. Better to have, say, a sawfly or a shield bug…

Alan T
Alan T
2 years ago

Said.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago

Occupy is more like the Presbyterian church than C of E!

Lloyd Byler
Lloyd Byler
2 years ago

Good Lord.
Why don’t we blame Flavius Valerius Constantinus, Constantine I, Constantine The Great, Roman emperor from 306 to 337, the first MBA of the then young church of Christ, who upon becoming transformed by a belief in Christ as his savior, in 333 AD, began to transform the church from a gathering of 2 or 3 (iterated by Christ himself and further necessitated under duress of being martyred), started the traditions of modern day confessional to a human priest (as opposed to Christ being the spiritual high priest) and thus set in stone the hierarchy which is to this day is preventing the believer from having a direct relationship with Christ, who, as the only high priest ordained by God, and, who, after having made all other sacrifices null and void by sacrificing his own body, ascended to the eternal priesthood in the highest place at the throne of God, our creator.

It’s been 1988 years since that sacrifice ripped open the innermost curtain to the previous dispensation of entrance to the holy of holies.

Get.

A.

Grip.

Believers.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

From my window I can see a mill originally owned by the diocese before Cromwell. Of course the bishop also had his own church courts where those who tried to avoid using his extortionate mill were tried and fined. Cromwell, of course broke up those monopolies and, as a commoner, wanted to set up a fair relief for the poor. No wonder the catholic Duke of Norfolk and the wealthy gloated over his execution. Distant times but iconic I think. All different now- except for Holy Spirit mumbo jumbo! Church people all have the Holy Spirit talking to them but somehow saying different things. Ah the religio get out clause- the Holy Spirit is infallible but isn’t properly understood by humans. Catch 22- the best Catch there is. Hearing voices- inner voices. Does sound like collective psychosis to me.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

Cromwell may have been technically a “commoner”, in that he sat in the House of Commons, but he came from the upper reaches of the landed gentry and was certainly not a social revolutionary to scare “the rich”. In fact, he believed strongly in existing hierarchies: “A nobleman, a gentleman, a yeoman; the distinction of these: that is a good interest of the nation, and a great one!”

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

Now here’s a nit to pick: Cromwell, I would say, was born a yeoman, though of a landed gentry background.

John Wills
John Wills
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

I think Terence was referring to Thomas Cromwell. You seem to be referring to Oliver

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  John Wills

I was in fact referring to Thomas, though it applies to Oliver as well. But I did not check my histories I admit, which you prompt me to do, and he was the son of a small businessman, principally the owner of a blacksmithery in the then London outer suburb of Putney. So even more humble origins. The social mobility of those times was astonishing.

Sue Sims
Sue Sims
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

Cromwell destroyed the monasteries which had provided relief for the poor in order to line the pockets of the King and his cronies. He did indeed try to introduce poor relief, but it wouldn’t have been necessary before.

Milos Bingles
Milos Bingles
2 years ago

If the “Church” or the Christian faith were true to the teachings of Jesus. If they genuinely believed in his teachings they’d sell off all their assets across the planet and end poverty worldwide. How much money must be tied up in property, gold, art, fancy robes etc. In London alone they must own billions of pounds worth in the property.

Zac Chave-Cox
Zac Chave-Cox
2 years ago
Reply to  Milos Bingles

I think that’s just factually untrue. The church taken as a collective has plenty of money sure, and in my opinion more than they should, but you can’t just fix poverty if structures of enclosure are still in place that cause it. I do agree that the church often loses sight of the way the early church was constructed. If the book of acts is to be believed, all was held in common and distributed according to need (on a local level, not in a gigantic communism). However, whether that means it should sell all it’s assets if those assets could be used is questionable. There’s a difference between the rich individual who should definitely give up their wealth and the community with collective assets intended for sharing. Although I do stress that I agree the church clearly has too much; they shouldn’t be saving for a rainy day, but always helping in the here and now.

Sue Sims
Sue Sims
2 years ago
Reply to  Zac Chave-Cox

The Jerusalem church definitely ‘held all things in common’. That, presumably, was why St Paul was always having to raise money among the churches he established to give to the Jerusalem church: unless the ‘all things in common’ principle is both voluntary and strictly monitored (as in monasteries to this day) it simply doesn’t work.

Fennie Strange
Fennie Strange
2 years ago
Reply to  Zac Chave-Cox

Did you know that the numerically-biggest Anglican Church in the world is in Nigeria? Not many assets to sell there.

Zac Chave-Cox
Zac Chave-Cox
2 years ago
Reply to  Fennie Strange

I did, and very true! I lapsed in conflating different uses of the word church to variably mean church of england/anglican church/total body of believers etc.
It’s something I keep doing, thanks for making it evident to me

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 years ago
Reply to  Milos Bingles

Question: would the money that could be raised by the churches selling off their assets really be enough to ‘end poverty worldwide’?

Hilary LW
Hilary LW
2 years ago
Reply to  Milos Bingles

Read John 12: 1-8. Jesus gave Judas short shrift here, and a lesson in spiritual priorities. The Church is not, and never has been, a social services organisation.