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.

30 thoughts on “A cathedral and property rights

  1. Umm.. “In 100 years – short in the history of the church – perhaps an even *final* Cathedral” … well yes, I agree that if the Church is still around in 100 years and builds a new Cathedral then it will likely be final… but given the sentiment of the paragraph I suspect you meant finer 🙂


  2. Yes, the continued controversy is very unfortunate – and so little credit has been given to the church hierarchy for the interim initiative that is the Cardboard Cathedral. A lovely, inspirational place of worship to my mind – unique to NZ in its conception and design, unlike the original Cathedral, a copycat from colonial roots. Funny thing for me, the ‘old’ Cathedral feels/felt a symbol of dominance and repression (all those negative thoughts about colonisation), as opposed to warmth and inspiration. The spire was to my mind always out of proportion to the rest of the building. I think I toured too many cathedrals in Europe in my youth 🙂 – beautiful as they were, they always had this sort of spookiness about them for me.

    But these comments just go to show how different in opinion about how architecture makes us all ‘feel’ can be. But I do agree with you, Michael, this is a matters for parishioners and Anglicans more generally to make. It is their faith and their vision for their future in their place of worship. I think it very sad that they have been put through this as a congregation.


  3. The problem we have Michael is that more than six years after the first earthquake “The Church’ appears to be no nearer to making a decision about the future of the Cathedral. Because it is the focal point of the inner city its derelict state is having not only a negative impact on the central city but also i suspect is having a major affect on the healing of the spirit of the city.

    The majority of us Cantabrians I suspect, would ultimately support any decision made by the Cathedral Trustees if only they would make a decision and get on with it. Because of the lack of leadership shown by the Church, the sentiment locally is that if they do not get their act together soon they should give up the ‘right’ to prevaricate further.


    • Fair comment, but I think the church was more or less ready to move ahead several years ago, and the Burdon/Anderton and then govt intervention slowed things down.

      Now, the church is a democracy (in many respects) and handing the decision to Synod doesn’t seem unreasonable. After all, the CPT would usually only act on the preferences of an individual parish (while imposing rules/constraints etc). And for all the talk of “we can’t wait any longer”, it will be June next week ,and Sept is only three months away.

      When I was down in Chch a couple of weeks ago, the (white elephant) project the govt can directly control – the convention centre – seemed not to be being built yet, leaving another lingering scar around the Square.


      • The government is in the same position that the church is in. Lack of funding to get on and get the jobs completed. This really boils down to the failure of the RBNZ in failing to activate a QE. In a time of emergency action was needed, Instead we got a dumb round of interest rate increases. No one in their right mind would have considered a disaster recovery a reason to increase interest rates but Lo and behold, it was and still is considered by many economists as one of the pillars of NZ so called rockstar economy.

        Once too many years passes, a project uncompleted falls out of an emergency and into day to day which means there is no emergency fund any longer. You are now back to drawing from your operational surplus. Hearts and minds change from” let’s all get together to get this fixed” to ” it’s not my problem fix it yourself, I have my own problems”. The credit agencies would have been a lot easier in times of crises but at this late stage, try and do a QE and they will whack you with a credit downgrade and a collapse of the NZD.


    • The decision was made years ago for a new building but stopped through court action; see the time-line in the Press, CPT or the Church did not hold up making a decision. Insinuating ‘the lack of leadership shown by the Church’ is mis-leading, at every point they have been blocked from progressing. Now again, they have committed to making a decision at Synod, we wait to see if others will again attempt to block or delay the implementation of the outcome.

      Liked by 1 person

    • The church made its decision years ago. The old cathedral was wrecked. The church got some money from the insurance company. The church decided to spend that money replacing the old building with whatever the insurance money would pay for, which would be a new building and not a rebuilding of the old one. All fairly straight forward I would have thought.

      The issue has been people with fairly tentative connections to the Anglican Church, or none at all have intervened and forced the church to stop its proposed course of action. What is proposed by those who have stopped the action is that the Anglican Diocese of Christchurch somehow acquire about 60 million dollars which they don’t have in order to build a structure they don’t want so that those who never intend to step inside the building can have the Christchurch skyline they fancy.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Just a thought…if Wellington is our capital of secularism, is Auckland our capital of hedonism?

    No, wait, that’s probably Queenstown.


  5. As an Anglican in Christchurch, I find your post a breath of fresh air!

    Most pertinent is the point about the upcoming schism, which will probably see the a sizeable chunk of Anglicans in Christchurch depart – conservative evangelicals are much stronger here than elsewhere. So if the Anglican church were forced to spend an outrageous amount on a stone building, it would then have to find the upkeep with vastly diminished resources.

    All up, this is most definitely a choice for the Anglican church it is their property, their money, their purposes. The bishop and CPT have been very consistent for several years now that they prefer a modern (and cheaper) but still inspirational cathedral. Burdon, Anderton, van Beynen et al need to raise this.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Van Beynen is no scholar of the law or has never purchased a property. An asset like a building that is attached to the land is ‘land’ in the legal sense – on the basis that the two cannot be easily separated… its not for nothing that the German word for real estate is immobilien.

    So to say that the church owns the land but ‘we the people’ own the building is arrant nonsense. he might like to think there is some form of ownership in the sense that it is an icon of the city etc etc… but that does not extend to legal ownership.

    Would the city council of New York have any similar rights if the owners of the Empire State Building decided to pull it down? After all it is around 80 years old… BTW it is owned by a listed real estate investment trust… Do the so called rights of the city trump the rights of the shareholders who bear the risks of ownership. I think not…

    Van Beynen is a bully and should be called out as such.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Doctrine of eminent domain means that all lands ultimately is owned by the crown. The public works act allows compulsory acquisition in the public interest. Also those emergency powers enacted during the Christchurch Earthquake would still give the government the rights to acquire red zoned properties in the public interest.


  7. Thank you Michael for taking on such a vicious column!
    At risk of second guessing the Synod’s collective will (I am a member of it), I am convinced that on simple monetary terms, with no external threats such as litigation against demolition, the Synod would vote near unianimously or even unanimously in favour of a new cathedral (within max $42m budget) and against fundraising for a minimum $26m or $56m maximum.
    But there are external threats and the decision is not quite so simple, thus it is bizarre hearing a range of people who should know better calling for a decision, any decision when what they mean is the decision to reinstate with money that no one guarantees will be raised.
    If govt and council are serious about the historical and iconic importance of the present building they would sit down with the Diocese and say, We want reinstatement, we think it reasonable for you as owners to participate in the cost of reinstatement but we recognise you do not wish to be saddled with future debt and unreasonable maintenance costs (of a stone faced building), to say nothing of $365k insurance p.a., so let’s work on a reasonable arrangement.
    But I do not think govt and council are particularly serious in their commitment to this particular heritage item because they are not matching their words with enough dollars.
    Lancaster Park used to be a Chch icon but, hey, everyone’s ok with contemplating a new fit for purpose covered stadium!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I am probably not going to get ever around to writing anything useful on this elsewhere so I appreciate a chance to reply a little too here in these comments – as an interested resident of Christchurch.

    First off, I do feel for the church facing a tough situation -an angry Heritage lobby is difficult to deal with at the best of times, particularly if the options they demand seem to be nothing less than full restoration of a church building to must then be paid for and used by a church that feels it’s come a long way from its past and that it doesn’t want to be forced use its limited finances to restore a colonial relic when it could use these precious, scarce resources to meet the real needs of communities now and into the future.

    But can I try and put another perspective and can I say thanks too as I have benefitted from the article and comments above which have helped me get some more insight into some of the thinking of the Anglican community.

    First a comment about limited resources – which is actually never a good place to start from as lots of research shows talking about money makes us start thinking in narrower terms- we immediately withdraw from listening to others and stop thinking about what the purpose or need is- but we may as well start with the money as it is a big issue here.

    A fully restored church will cost a lot and it’s not surprising the church is hesitant to fundraiser endlessly for something that won’t meet its modern needs. On the other hand the church was significantly under insured (so was much of the city) so the insurance payout will not be anything close to the amount needed to build a modern building worthy of prime central land. Until Peter C (above) pointed it out ina tweet I confess I had forgotten that for the church having land in the centre of town is a symbol of the gospel of Christ in the of a community (yeah I know a pretty big issue) yet for the rest of the community – those of us of many different faiths or none, the Anglicans also have a real ability if they hold this land to contribute a reasonable amount of additional funding to any building of any design- they have benefitted from a certain elite status being in the centre of the city (inland acquired in a process of colonisation ). And under insurance is not an excuse for underfunding a future rebuild responsibility – to place a thoughtful beautiful building on a prime site will take more than just the under-insured payout – contributing something additional would be a sign of goodwill – it doesn’t have to be 50M obviously but something sognicant would seem if I can be blunt, less mean spirited.

    The second problem from a wider perspective is what kind of building and who decides? Here again it must be hard for a church who feels a lay community is now dictating designs- and yet by being in the central city location the church is in explicitly and physically in a partnership with that lay community and communities of many faiths- and a design could be developed in a way that is inclusive of wider views – The way in which demolition was rushed felt like such an assault on the people of Christchurch at the time. It was like a clerical version of the government’s schools closures – no one doubted that the site need to be made safe but rushing the demolition and the design was very tough on the community.

    Any new modern design has been presented in a very ‘take it or leave it way’ ie here is ‘our’ modern inspirational church.

    But the design for many has no echo of history not even use of some of the old stones, it seems to many to be a placeless poor echo of what went before but not new or inspirational. (I am so sorry to the designers ).

    And finally a comment on leadership. I am so grateful to the writer of a comment above that talked about the growing evangelical energy in the community of the Anglican Church in Christchurch because of true this explains a lot – to many of us watching helpless and frustrated from the side it seems unusual that people professing to care for the community should not be seen to be listening to and engaging with the community- but sometimes assurance in our own faith is an enormous barrier to compromise and connection to wider community- and that is what it can feel like when the church appears to withdraw and appears to (angrily?) tell everyone else: it’s our money, our land, we can do what we like and our God is on our side. I know this is not of course what the clergy mean to say but this is how it sounds to others sometimes. Especially now

    My last forlorn plea down here in the comments is to the Bishop. It is rare that the political parties join up and they have done so – in an era of new political leadership and much empathy it would be great if the church joined In and did not pull away from the community- no mater how understandable it may be to do so- we can be better together 🙂


    • Hi Bronwyn, a very gracious comment.

      Unfortunately the Cathedral was not under-insured, just that the insurance company only agreed to pay-out a certain amount after the earthquakes for all of the properties covered by the Diocese. I think it is around 238 Anglican Churches/Vicarages that were damaged or destroyed in earthquakes, so as you can imagine, those dollars have a wide-spread to cover. This too makes it hard for the Church to promise to cover or raise additional money for the Cathedral, with most Parishes having to do the same to cover their costs as well. It is also a policy of the church not to be in debt; that a church may not be consecrated or used while money is still being owed on it. An ethical approach.

      As for the design, your point of some way of incorporating the old and new even re re-using bricks or integrating some aspects I can appreciate. And I think that sort of decision would come after the first do we restore or build new one is made.

      It may seem as though the Church from on high is calling the shots and dis-engaged from community but I am unsure if that perception is gained from reality or how things are presented in the media. The Church (not only Anglican) was very actively engaged with the community post-earthquakes, providing refuge for families, helping at centres for people who were home-less – the Bishop herself participated in this. And it didn’t end there many church members became involved in the community response team as well. It was only within the last year that the admin centre for the Diocese moved out of their container offices into more permanent premises. You will also find that many of the churches congregation members are present within a varied cross-section of the Christchurch community.

      Ultimately you can appeal to the Bishop but as much as it is contrary to what is reported she doesn’t have the final say in the matter, the church as a whole votes, even when the decision lay with CPT she abstained from voting. However, I do think you can trust that a vote by over 200 people from varied backgrounds and positions on the Cathedral will be representative of all the views out there. I doubt you will get a building other than a Christian Church for this is what the place of worship is, however, as with the original Cathedral all are welcome to attend.



  9. Embarsssingly I accidentally posted that comment above before editing! Hopefully any kind person reading through that long comment can make sense of it- thanks again for the blog and comments, Bronwyn


  10. Thank you, Bronwyn, for considered comments and helpful reminders!
    I hope your plea for collaboration in design (if that is where we head) is heeded by the Synod.


    • I thought about a Coventry-like memorial initially but now that Chch and NZ have the Canterbury EQ National Memorial, I prefer it as the place of remembrance. I think the Oi Manawa site is a wonderful space – a hallmark of collaborative effort with the wider community and the families of those who lost loved ones. When you think about the death toll, taking the numbers from the CCTV out – then it was the stone and masonry buildings that took the majority of lives. It is a bit of a miracle really that no died at the Cathedral site. So in the Chch Cathedral ruins there is no sense of compassion for loss and relief in victory, as is the case at Coventry. But then again, as I said earlier, how architecture and the built environment makes us ‘feel’ is very different for everyone.


  11. Martin van Beynen is usually one of the Press’s saner columnists, but I agree he seems to have lost the plot on this one. Yes the Bishop’s column was pretty asinine, but the bottom line is that the Cathedral is the Anglican Church’s property, and it should be left alone to cut its cloth as it best sees fit. If the we-know-what’s-good-for-you busybodies want to take on a cause, let it be Lancaster Park — that was far more an icon to most of Chch than the cathedral ever was.


  12. I am not a Cantabrian. I am not an Anglican.

    But … I have been in and through Christchurch 5 or 6 times in the past 4 years

    That said, and having followed the Christchurch Rebuild and being only vaguely aware of the Cathedral contoversy of which you speak of above, let me say this … I am saddened and disappointed by what I have seen of what has not been done

    I was living in Melbourne at the time of the GFC of 2008 and during the Black Saturday Bushfires of February 2009 whence 173 people lost their lives, 400 people were injured, and over 2000 homes destroyed. Many people living in the bushclad areas were treechangers living a simple lifestyle and many of whom were not insured

    The Victorian State Government stepped in and backstopped everybody. Grollo Corporation, a large Victorian construction company cleared all building sites and removed the rubble free of charge. The dust settled. The tragedy is almost forgotten. People have moved on, their lives re-established.

    I am certain that if St Pauls Cathedral in Melbourne CBD had been destroyed the State and Federal Governments would have rebuilt it. And it would have been rebuilt by now. No question


  13. But perhaps the rather large difference – from your uninsured homeowner example – is that most Anglicans in Chch don’t seem to want the original building (not exactly an Ely or Salisbury or Lincoln, whatever the sentimental attachment many had to it) back again (see Peter’s comment on how most of his fellow synod members would be likely to vote, if their choice were free).


    • Acknowledged … the thought I was trying to convey was the overall differences between the two events and the responses. The Christchurch episode seems to have descended into negativity, petty carping, insurance disputes, the recovery dragging on and on and on, EQC and insurance companies exercising their size and power, citizens being left more or less high and dry. Now that’s a summation of what I have gathered from the news. I might be totally wrong in that.

      However we are now seeing a similar scene unfolding in Edgecumbe Whakatane. Failure of a river stopbank which was the responsibility of the local authorities wiping out a number of residents and those same authorities walking away from their residents and leaving it up to the locals to fend for themselves with the aid of charities and good samaritans etc

      Seems to be a standard modus operandi


      • Yes, i agree that overall rebuild process hasn’t been handled that well. Some of that was perhaps inevitable – replacement insurance policies work v well when there is an individual loss, and much less well when there is a city wide one, and perhaps EQC should always only have been about land? I’m sceptical of a more active role for government though – arguably it has contributed to the problem in a number of areas, including keeping central city land prices artificially high, and the desire to build a large (never economic) convention centre. What to do about people who didn’t have insurance is hard – moral hazard is real – but i find it hard not to believe that more progress would have been made (perhaps in a less orderly fashion) if ministers had been more willing to stay out of the way.

        Liked by 1 person

  14. Every person has the right to manifest that person’s religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, either individually or in community with others, and either in public or in private. This is the statement in the NZ Bill of Rights. That right to manifest will include building in which to worship. No government institution has the right to decide otherwise. It is a Christian duty to be good stewards of any money we have. The practice of Christians is to spread the gospel, look after the poor and needy, proclaim Christ and practice His ways. These are in jeopardy when a large debt and high insurance premiums cripple the finances of the church. No Christian would ever think that Christ would have wanted to cathedral rebuilt. For those outside to demand it be so restricts the right to “manifest that persons religion or belief in practice and teaching.”


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