Who should decide the fate of ChristChurch Cathedral?

by The Listener / 01 June, 2017
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ChristChurch Cathedral. Photo/Alamy

What started as an act of God has degenerated into an unholy display of inaction by mortals.

More than six years after the earthquake that all but destroyed ChristChurch Cathedral, its fate is still, maddeningly, undecided. The delay, as the building kneels in rubble, is the result of complex impasses – most of them involving people who have no standing whatsoever in the decision other than the right to hold a personal opinion. Now, with his recent intercession, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has become another of those officious bystanders.

As leader of a party that may or may not hold sway in the next Government, he has taken it upon himself to insist the cathedral be restored – for $104 million at last estimate – rather than replaced, and has given the Anglican Church the deadline of this year’s election to get cracking.

If the Church isn’t on the job by September 23, any Government Peters is part of will get stuck in, starting September 24, apparently.

This is pure bluster. Peters’ impatience is understandable and widely shared. But unless the Government were to use – or, arguably, abuse – its requisitioning powers to confiscate the site, and back this with $60 million in cash to bully the Church into submission, the cathedral’s future is up to the Church alone. It owns the site and the building and is solely responsible for their costly upkeep.

Although many New Zealanders would be sorry to lose such a historic landmark, there is no clear public appetite for taxpayers to save it. In refusing to bankroll a restoration, the Government is not being stingy, but realistic.

Nor is it entirely fair to accuse the Church of dithering. It indicated its preference early on, given its limited resources, for a new, modern building, but delayed demolition to consult the wider community because so many non-Anglicans felt protective of the building.

Yet like most grand old historic buildings, the cathedral was unrelievedly expensive to maintain and seemed increasingly aloof in its municipal setting. Could any modern Church easily justify recreating a palatial historic place of worship when the money saved building a newly designed structure would allow spending on people in great need?

The Church was compassionate in postponing the wrecking ball, recognising in the tumultuous aftermath of the 2011 quake that Cantabrians were traumatised and the cathedral’s loss would have an emotional impact. It generously agreed to give those who loved it more time to explore restoration options.

For this it has been repaid by badgering, emotional blackmail and legal challenges to its sovereignty. The phrase “interfering busybodies” would scarcely do justice to some plaintiffs. Indeed, the bitter infighting would hardly have surprised Anthony Trollope, whose portrayal of grandees squabbling over a building in his classic ecclesiastical novels still resonates 150 years on.

Fate also delivered our own peculiarly ill-starred combination of personalities and agendas. Gerry Brownlee, the longtime minister for Christchurch regeneration, was all too impatiently pro-bulldozer. For the Church, Bishop Victoria Matthews exhibited an unfortunate public demeanour of martyred chilliness – probably stoked by the bullying she has had to contend with. Ex-politicians such as Philip Burdon and Jim Anderton appointed themselves challengers of the Church’s moral authority over its own property. Self-important stars in the design and academic firmaments dismissed the building as worthless, unoriginal and a symbol of oppression; architects demanded the right to stamp their own superior vision on the site.

This banquet of resentments has prevented the cathedral project from being a coming-together point. Animus and sometimes downright sectional snobbery have clouded discussion both of restoration and alternative ways forward, such as partial facade-retention and alternative uses for the weathered old masonry.

Legally and morally, it remains the Church’s sole right to decide the building’s future, even if would-be preservationists find the money to save it. Their last known pledge was $15 million, but there remains a shortfall last publicly estimated at about $22 million, after the Church’s $42 million insurance payout and the Government’s offer of $25 million (a $10 million grant and $15 million loan).

The Church will vote in September – although not to Peters’ cheeky deadline. Let all those who’ve pushed and pulled central, local and Church government over the past several years consider this the end of the matter and accept the decision.

This article was first published in the June 10, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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