Tuesday, September 14, 2010

On earthquakes and the Anglican Communion

There is always a danger in getting carried away with metaphors and making too much of points of analogy. Yet as I have reflected on the recent earthquake in our neighbouring region of Canterbury, there are a number of points at which the analogy of earthquakes is an especially appropriate one for the crisis within the Anglican Communion.

Amidst all the commentary and speculation regarding tensions and pressure points in the Anglican Communion over the past decade, there has been one curious—and rarely addressed—question: what does a crisis actually look like? When do we get to the moment when we say “this is it”?

There is no doubt that the enduring image associated with an earthquake is identified not with the quake itself, but with the destruction it causes. Fracture lines across landscapes, fences and rail tracks askew, and cracks through foundations of houses and streets.

It would be a mistake to look for the major impact on the Anglican Communion in the form of structures. Like the impact in Christchurch, structural damage has been erratic, and many of the major structures have proven to be amazingly resilient.

Yet an earthquake has struck the Anglican Communion, with its epicentre in a relative backwater region of New Hampshire in 2003. But the actual quake was much deeper, and the rolling series of aftershocks continue to be experienced. We are now well on the other side of the crisis event, but the enduring damage and realignment of the landscape is still with us.

And it is at this point that I think the earthquake metaphor is especially helpful. With all the scientific authority of a visitor to the Te Papa in Wellington last week (which has an excellent section explaining the dynamics of earthquakes, I might say), the forces generating earthquakes run in a variety of directions.

While the most dramatic is the collision of plates resulting in upward pressure, the reality is more complex. While at one (literal) level it is a question of which plate will prevail and be ascendant, the aftershocks are more by way of an increasing amount of detachment. The collateral damage leads to further fragmentation.

The most dramatic images of the impact of an earthquake are seen from above. Major fissures carving up the landscape, and in most cases the sobering truth is this: such fissures don’t come back together, but will only widen and deepen.

The new movement is to move further adrift (seen most dramatically in the breakup of Gondwanaland).  It seems to me the real impact on the Anglican Communion has been underestimated, with new tectonic directions and an increasing number of segments moving further adrift. On the surface, it is to be seen in the erosion of traditional Anglican adhesive ‘bonds of affection’, and the exhaustion of trust and respect.

But far from such damage essentially repairing itself over time, I suspect Anglicans will invest much time and hopes in building the proverbial bridges to nowhere, while the new drift at deeper levels will have a momentum of its own.