A cathedral and property rights

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.

I have little sympathy when people buy an existing heritage building, and then have to fall into line with the pre-existing restrictions on what they can do with the building.  They bought it knowing the rules, and the purchase price will have been lower than otherwise to reflect the opportunities that the new owner can’t pursue.   But that simply isn’t the case here.   The old cathedral was always owned by the Anglican church in Christchurch.  The building’s purpose was, as it has always been, as the seat of the bishop, the chief church of the diocese, and as a centre for Christian worship.That makes it very different from the other “heritage buildings” (in public ownership anyway) that are being restored in Christchurch, the Arts Centre and the Provincial Council buildings.  The latter lost their original purpose in 1876, and the former –  originally the university –  in the 1970s.    They are monuments, put (at least in the case of the Arts Centre) to some modern use.
Van Beynen seems to want to appropriate the Anglican cathedral as another monument.  It isn’t clear what he would do with it once he got hold of it.  Another concert venue I suppose.   But the Christchurch ratepayer is already spending vast amounts of money restoring the severely damaged Christchurch Town Hall and associated concert facilities.In truth, van Beynen clearly has no time for churches generally.  He is really just interested in monuments, and perhaps reshaping Cathedral Square.  He compares the Anglican cathedral in Christchurch –  home to a living breathing (if depleted) community, both the local congregation and the diocese –  to the Parthenon, a building not used for the cult for which it was erected (that of the goddess Athena) for around 1500 years now.  Does the difference mean nothing to van Beynen?
I might have some sympathy for van Beynen’s perspective had the diocese proposed to demolish an undamaged Cathedral.  Less suited as the building might be to today’s concepts of worship than it was when first built, it nonetheless seems unlikely that scenario would ever have occurred.  Churches exist amid communities –  even if, in biblical terms, as aliens and stranger to the non-believing communities surrounding them.     But this is a building that has already largely been destroyed by nature, in a city where so many buildings –  beautiful and ugly –  have also been destroyed.  For the Anglicans. it is an oppportunity to start again, and on a realistic footing that takes account of the limited financial resources of the Anglican church (and Cathedral parishoners) to meet not just construction costs –  the figures often bandied around –  but the ongoing heavy maintenance costs that a reconstructed traditional stone building would entail.  And which takes account of modern Anglican conceptions of worship spaces and ministry.
Again, perhaps the views of people like van Beynen might warrant more weight if Christchurch was teeming with Anglicans, and the church was growing stronger and larger by the year.  It isn’t.  For the time being at least –  Christians long for and pray for revival –  Christian congregations in the West, and in New Zealand, are in decline.  And although there are thriving Anglican congregations in Christchurch, overall the Anglican denomination is in decline.    And –  never mentioned in any of these debates –  it is a denomination that could yet tear itself apart in the next few years over theological differences that manifest in issues like disputes over same-sex “marriage”.  How responsible would be it for the diocese to take on a massive restoration project, for which it doesn’t have the money –  either to build the building, or to maintain it in future?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.

UPDATE: I have a few more ecclesiastical/theological perspectives, prompted by reading the bishop’s Press column and listening to her radio interview, on my other blog here.