The fate of Christchurch’s Anglican Cathedral has been hitting the national media this week. It was all over John Campbell’s Checkpoint on Radio New Zealand, and this morning Martin van Beynen’s column on the subject is even run in the Dominion-Post, newspaper of what is surely the New Zealand capital of secularism.
It is an extraordinary column. There is, we are told, only one way ahead. His way. The rights and interests of Christchurch Anglicans are simply irrelevant, and the church should simply “bow to the will of intelligent people”. Like him presumably.
Why am I writing about it here? Partly because it cuts across two of my interests: economics and public policy on the one hand, and Christianity on the other. And also because I’m Christchurch born, most of my family still lives in Christchurch (they lost homes, a business and more). It remains my favourite place (“home” in some sense). Family tradition in fact claims – I’ve never been sure how credibly – that one set of my earliest New Zealand ancestors were offered farm land in or around what is now Cathedral Square, but turned it down on the grounds the land was too swampy. And I’m torn between Anglican and Baptist traditions, which also seems to reflect family history: a document in box of old family papers I have records that one of my 19th century ancestors was a worshipper at the Christchurch’s Anglican cathedral, but one morning was running late for church, so went in to the (closer) Baptist church service instead, was invited home for lunch, and in time met and married another of my ancestors and the rest is history. I’ve worshipped in the Cathedral – the last time was a wonderful, if long, Midnight Service on the last Christmas Eve the building was open.
So I will be a little sad if the old cathedral is no longer there. My own tastes run in the direction of the older style of building. The building was a symbol of the city, and of its English, and Anglican, heritage. Choral worship, of the sort undertaken in cathedrals great and small, has been one of the glories of our English heritage. And great cathedrals have typically cost astonishing amounts of money. A place of great beauty in which to worship is a privilege, and one of ancient lineage in our Judeo-Christian traditions (read the accounts of the temple King Solomon built).
None of this is relevant to van Beynen, who claims
The church might be the registered proprietor of the land but the city owns the building in everything but the documentation.
We need to arrest the fiction the church has any real say in the matter.
In fact, the city doesn’t own the cathedral at all. Unless, as seems to be proposed by van Beynen, and people like the mayor of Christchurch (who says she would favour the Crown seizing the property if the Anglican church doesn’t do what she wants), the church is to be given no say at all in the future of its own property. Built and paid for by the Anglicans of Christchurch. Do property rights mean nothing in van Beynen’s world?
He goes on
we shouldn’t forget the cathedral is a national asset and has a call on national taxpayer funds. It’s not only a Christchurch icon but, like the Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo, a national one.
I imagine the parishoners of the Mackenzie Cooperating Parish might have something to say about that.
It is all very well to talk of fundraising, and even coerced contributions from ratepayers and taxpayers. Perhaps it would even be enough to meet the construction costs. But it is unlikely to meet the ongoing costs, and even if (perchance) central or local government agencies were willing to provide ongoing support, it would most likely involve pressure on the Anglican church not to upset the funders. The Christian gospel, by contrast, is supposed to be a radical counter-culture, standing against sin whereever it is found (including among the powers that be).
Perhaps in the end, the Anglican diocese will decide to take the repair and restoration route. That – or the alternative – should be their choice. If they decided – without coercion – to repair and restore, in some ways I’d be as delighted as anyone, at an act of breathtaking faith. But that is very different from being coerced – whether by mayors threatening to withhold demolition permits, or other grandstanding politicians and advocates many of whom never darken the door of a church between weddings and funerals. It is the Anglican church’s land. It is the Anglican church’s money. It is a building, first and foremost, for the worship and ministry of the Anglican church of Christchurch.
Cities and cityscapes change. Sometimes in tragic ways – and the earthquakes in Christchurch was one of those. But it isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, cityscape to change. Greater cathedral buildings, by far, than that of Christchurch have been destroyed by war, and fire and so on. In time, new buildings, sight lines, and streetscapes that seem jarring and new today will, in some cases, be hallowed features. Will a new Cathedral fit that bill? Who knows. Perhaps not, given the budgetary limitations. Then again, the Anglicans of Christchurch probably hope and pray for a revival of faith and worship. If so, in 100 years – short in the history of the church – perhaps an even finer Cathedral might one day be built, to the glory of God, and as a centrepiece of the city of Christchurch.
In the meantime, we shouldn’t let the Anglicans be coercively deprived of their rights, no matter how much Martin Van Beynen may dislike them and their bishop.