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Mending a City’s Broken Heart

Synods don’t usually garner much excitement beyond the church, but the Diocese of Canterbury in New Zealand will be the center of national attention when it meets on Sept. 7-9.

The heart of the diocese, on New Zealand’s south island, is Christchurch, an elegant, orderly 19th-century city. The city’s neo-Gothic Anglican cathedral, constructed between 1864 and 1901, is at the heart of its downtown precinct. A devastating earthquake in February 2011 killed 185 people and severely damaged many inner-city buildings, including the cathedral.

New Zealand sits at the convergence and of two continental plates so is susceptible to quakes, but Christchurch was not considered as much at risk as other cities of the “shaky isles.” Many of its heritage buildings had not been built with earthquakes in mind. Eleven 19th-century churches, seven of them Anglican, were severely damaged and had to be demolished, and others need extensive repairs.

In the wake of the earthquake, the city showed remarkable resilience and determination to rise again. Shipping containers were brought in to be used as shops. A temporary cathedral made of cardboard tubes was opened on a nearby city square, to serve in the interim. It provided the largest meeting place in the city for some time, and has been used by many groups other than the Diocese of Christchurch.

The cathedral was insured, and in 2013 the Diocese of Canterbury’s synod voted to use that money for a new cathedral, costing no more than the insurance coverage of the historic building. Some reject that choice, arguing that the vote was no more than an informal show of hands.

Citizens both within and beyond the church community began to challenge that decision. There have been surveys, plans, and court cases, and many thousands of hours devoted to studying whether the old cathedral can be propped up and brought back or whether it makes sense to start afresh.

Six and a half years after the disaster, the tumbledown building is still fenced off, gathering rats and pigeons, as critics say, an eyesore for the dwindling number of tourists to the central city.

And debate about the cathedral is white hot. “Everybody in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia has an opinion on Christchurch Cathedral, and so does everybody in Christchurch,” said one analyst.

Full restoration has been estimated at $100 million to $200 million, well over the cost of a modern option, at $55 million to $75 million.

One group of city elders desperately wants the cathedral restored to its former glory and Victorian design. They argue that the synod had no right to decide and that the decision rested only with the cathedral’s owners, the Church Property Trustees, of which the Rt. Rev. Victoria Matthews, Bishop of Christchurch, is the chairwoman.

Full restoration would require the insurance payout, a $10 million government grant, a $15 million government loan, a $15 million funding pledge from the Great Christchurch Buildings Trust, and further fundraising. Added to that is an expected annual cost of $360,000, just for insurance.

There is little appetite among New Zealanders to fund the church to any greater extent, and there are ordinary suburban parishes in Christchurch that also need new churches, healing, and support.

And it would seem that the earth has not finished moving under Christchurch. In November last year, a nearby quake registering 7.8 on the Richter scale, set citizens running up the hills again.

Bishop Matthews announced in May that the synod would make the decision.

“As the Christ Church Cathedral is a church building above all else, and a place of worship, the decision on its future should be made by the membership of the synod comprising the gathered clergy and laity of the diocese who will be using the cathedral forever,” Bishop Matthews said.

“To date the view of the church has been that we should proceed with a contemporary cathedral. In 2013 our synod voted for an inspirational cathedral. Recently the standing committee expressed its view that a new cathedral, costing no more than the insurance proceeds received for the cathedral building in the square, is its preferred option.”

The synod is poised to decide on Sept. 9 between an affordable new building, a restoration of the old, or donating the cathedral to the government “as a gift to the people of New Zealand.”

At its heart, the polarized debate about Christchurch is a microcosm of the Church in the West. Do we remain part of the scenery, a trusted and reliable backdrop to Christendom, and respected as a careful steward of the faith handed down through generations? Or do we do something new?

Robyn Douglass


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