05 March 2012

The Christchurch Cathedral Quandary

by Dr Mark Keown

While it would be fool-hardly for me in distant Auckland to express an opinion on the recently announced demolition of the Christchurch Cathedral, it has got me wondering. I feel deeply and will continue to pray for all involved in this situation – it is a tough question, one of many such questions in Christchurch.

On the church’s side, there is the vexed question of how on earth they could pay for a rebuilt cathedral, and maintain insurance payments. I am more familiar with the insurance issue in the Presbyterian Church and the truth is that the cost of insuring buildings has exploded. One wonders what the final cost would be for a rebuilt Cathedral; not just the initial build, but on-going costs of maintenance and insurance. Then there is the question of social justice. At what point is money for church buildings too much money in a world of need? Would the money be better spent elsewhere alleviating human need? Then again, there is the question of safety – would a rebuilt Cathedral be truly safe if another earthquake strikes? Isn’t this the priority?

Then there is the question of the role of the church-building for the city. The reaction this decision is causing shows that for many Christchurch people, the Cathedral is a symbol of hope. I heard one counsellor with the same surname as yours truly (probably a distant relation) stating that he knows atheists who want the Cathedral rebuilt. He has stated he will chain himself to it to stop its destruction. One has to admire his passion. This shows that church buildings, while often paid for by the church, do not belong to the church alone. They belong to its community and bring a measure of hope even outside of the church. The response indicates that there is faith in the wider community outside the church. The Cathedral and all church buildings function as a ‘sign’ of God’s presence and the values the lie deep in the hearts of New Zealanders, despite most of them deserting such buildings. This all raises the question of whether the Cathedral should be rebuilt despite its cost, for the sake of God’s mission.

While I once bemoaned expensive church buildings as wasteful, an oppression of the poor – I am now not so certain. I wonder if I sounded a bit like Judas as Mary anointed Jesus’ head with lavish praise and generosity when I stood in judgment over them. There is a place for lavish generosity and creativity as an act of worship. Jesus certainly celebrated it.

I learnt of the power of buildings as signs on trips to Europe. I remember seeing for the first time the beautiful buildings of Cambridge and the many magnificent churches and buildings of Europe like St Peters in Rome. St Peters was especially powerful, with some of the material used for it taken from the Colosseum which was itself built with material from the Jerusalem Temple destroyed in AD 70. Buildings tell our story. They are symbols and have meaning. After World War 2 the rebuilding of bombed ruins was a powerful statement of human resilience and a determination to overcome. For many, a rebuild of the Christchurch Cathedral would be the same.

My beloved Dad who rarely graces the steps of a church tells me he wept when he saw the cathedrals of Europe (and the Grand Canyon). Something stirred within him – there is power in buildings to remind us. This Cathedral tells our story. In a young nation, with so few such buildings, it is worth preserving the ones that really count, for they are our story. They remind the people of Christchurch of their name, Christ-Church.

This all makes me wonder whether, despite the cost and great challenges, the Anglican Church should call for the City and world’s help and rebuild it and maintain it because it is so important to mission. Is this one of those situations where there is more at stake than simply money and safety? I am not going to make a call, but I pray for those who have do – but I do wonder. What do you think?

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