Is this ChristChurch’s Christopher Wren moment?

I’ve been visiting Christchurch for over 20 years, and love it’s iconic cathedral which dominates the horizon is such a prominent feature of the Cathedral Square. Or was. Until the first earthquake, a magnitude 7.1, on 4 September 2010; which caused enough superficial damage for the cathedral to close for three weeks; and then the supposedly smaller but much more devastating 6.3 one on 22 February 2011 which toppled the spire, and the 6.4 one on 13 June 2011, that took out the main Rose Window on the west wall, and made most of the rest of the building so unsafe.

Christchurch Cathedral - Before & After
Christchurch Cathedral – Before & After

This was not the first major earthquake damage the cathedral had suffered – quakes in 1881, 1888, 1901, and  1922 all resulted in damage – the spire falling twice. When I visited the area this week, there were only about 6 tall buildings left in the CBD, all unsafe, one due to come down this week. The shocks still continue. There was another one this week measuring a mere 5.2, but enough to get the whole restricted area completely evacuated again.

Part of the reason for our visit to the area was to see a number of friends, and be with them, and to see and feel at least a little of what they were going through. We met our former neighbours, with their 9-year-old who for 6 months only felt safe enough to sleep if he was under a table;  and Christian support/counselling workers wearied to beyond stress levels themselves, at hospitals and Salvation Army centres – close friends all.

The heart of Christchurch is munted – that’s the local kiwi for wrecked. One minute, everything’s fine. Nek minnut, everything has changed. And the heart of it’s people is munted. They are tired, and frightened. There have been thousands of smaller aftershocks, and over 40 more than magnitude 5.0 quakes since September 2010 (see the #eqnz stream on twitter). Each one rattles not just buildings, but personal confidence, and self security.

There has been much discussion about whether it is possible to repair the cathedral, or just replace it with something new. Sure, there is a heart-swell wish to see the old cathedral again – me too! But most locals are afraid of going in to any large building at the moment – observe the way people park on the streets instead of multi-storeys, and rush in then out of some of the larger shopping malls rather than hang around as they used to. The last thing they want is a cathedral that they don’t feel safe in – and this one is seriously munted.

That hasn’t prevented a serious group of campaigners with plans to Restore the Cathedral, with their own FB page and petition. Or the similar The People’s Steeple. One of the issues about these rather vocal and media-present groups/pages/petitions is how many people from outside Christchurch seem to be pushing, and even bankrolling, this line. The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority and over 70 local church leaders (I met a Pentecostal pastor who supported and signed the letter) are agreed the cathedral is in all practical senses damaged beyond repair, and support the building of a new cathedral. Whilst this is tragic for one of New Zealand’s most English of cathedrals in its most English of cities, I wonder if Christchurch may also learn from two other iconic English cathedrals. (Other global examples also exist…)

This very week Coventry Cathedral has been celebrating it’s Golden Jubilee, from it’s Consecration of the new cathedral in 1962, by ‘Celebrating the past, Embracing the future’ with the Archbishop of Canterbury preaching. The ruins of the old Coventry Cathedral, remains of the building destroyed during bombing raids in the war, are a contrast to the new building, where for 15 years German-born kiwi Paul Oestreicher worked with Coventry Cathedral’s Centre for International Reconciliation.

Coventry Cathedral
Coventry Cathedrals – Old & New

And then there’s London. St Paul’s Cathedral. An icon on the cities horizon (still, just, amongst the rising skyscrapers…). However, let’s not forget that what we think of as St. Paul’s is the 5th cathedral built on this site (and see the excellent pictorial history on the Mexichino site by ), and the way it looks now is radically different to its previous incarnation, damaged during and after the Great Fire of London.

Old St Paul's
Old St Paul’s Cathedral
St Paul's Cathedral
St Paul’s as most of us know it

Is this ChristChurch’s Christopher Wren moment? It wasn’t all easy for Wren though – indeed he was dismissed from his post before St Paul’s was finished. That’s what happens when you are a focus of all the attention I guess. Ask Bishop Victoria Matthews (as I did). She has been in the eye of the storm for some considerable time, as the spokesperson and leader in the diocese. Yet often, I imagine, her role has been that of listening, and helping the community she has come to serve to reach the best decisions: financially, emotionally, architecturally, historically, as well as spiritually. But she has come under huge pressures. Well, she’s from Canada you know. And she’s a woman. (Like those things should affect her discernment and leadership?!) For those who are interested in architecture and would like to study, the drawing tablet for architects are the kind of technology that just makes sense. For years, they have been a niche product mainly used by a small group of digital illustrators, but new products have cropped up that cater to architects and other designers.

The old, much beloved ChristChurch Cathedral is broken and dangerous, and no longer needs not to be patched up with braces and safety wires, but to be completely replaced. I would hope for something not trying to be trendy for its own sake, a modern attempt that will look dated in 50 years – but I pray the people of the churches & city of Christchurch will have the courage to aim for something that is much more visionary, of quality, classic and lasting. A symbol of life after death, of the resurrection the Christian faith speaks of. Perhaps more clearly drawing strands of Pakeha and Maori and others tikangas together, in a 21 century NZ symbol that may be more appropriate than the old English-style cathedral of the past (St Faith’s Galilee chapel is just one place that might spark ideas).

Kia Kaha ChristChurch – Be strong. And may your people be strong. May you find hope in the words of the prophet: I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt. And the land that was desolate shall be tilled… And the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited… You shall know that I am the Lord; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it. – from Ezekiel 36:33ff

When Wren died, his gravestone in St Paul’s Cathedral included an inscription which translates as: ‘If you seek his memorial, look about you.’ May the people of Christchurch have the hope and strength to build a future and a cathedral that says something similar – If you seek to see the aspiration of our faith in God and in life, and the ground of our hope, look around you.

Kia Kaha Christchurch
Kia Kaha Christchurch