'God is in this, weeping with those who weep'

16:00, Feb 26 2011
Peter Beck
Peter Beck

Thursday morning and The Very Reverend Peter Beck, Dean of ChristChurch Cathedral, is running his fingers over a map of Christchurch, criss-crossed with red and blue lines. It's the latest update from Orion boss Roger Sutton, showing who has electricity and who doesn't.

In the last few minutes Beck has nursed his almost-flat iPhone through a radio interview, set up a slot with a Norwegian TV reporter, given Air New Zealand boss Rob Fyfe a hug, and a passing MP a shoulder-rub. He's doing his job – "caring for the soul of the city".

But when Tuesday's quake toppled his cathedral's spire and crushed as many as 22 people inside, Beck became a symbol of the city. From London to New York, and Tokyo to Wellington, they asked: Will you rebuild the cathedral?

In a pause between the hugs and phone calls, the English-accented priest leans against the art gallery and tells the Star-Times he would rather talk about something more than rubble and steeples.

"This awful bloody earthquake, which is a huge disaster across the city, knocked out the cathedral, a symbol of our city for people all over the world. Obviously people want to talk about it. We need to do that, but not right now."

What's important to him are the social issues. "Jesus was all about engaging with the life of the world, being where the suffering is, where the poor are, challenging the rich." He pauses. "Well, not the rich, but you know, the powerful people."


So the Bob Parkers, Suttons and Fyfes may be getting hugs, but also a watchful eye. "I work with a variety of people who are movers and shakers, and make sure we take care of what it means to be a community. All the people involved [in the recovery of Christchurch] need to be accountable to the people of the city – listening rather than assuming that if you were elected you know best.

"I find myself talking about the people of the city, the emotional side of stuff, and what I think is happening in relation to the welfare of people. I'm helping to oil cogs, trying not to get in the way, but also trying to ensure the voice [of local people] can be heard."

Beck, 62, married with three adult children and an Anglican priest of 38 years, was born in Sheffield in Yorkshire, a place famous for its sharp knives and blunt inhabitants. He has a thatch of white hair, is smiley yet stern, and looks you in the eye, touches you on the arm, and swears more than you'd expect.

He moved to New Zealand in 1981 and his journey to Christchurch began in Auckland, including a stint at St Matthew-in-the-City, where he enjoyed running the "liberal flagship" of Kiwi Anglicanism, but as cathedral dean since 2002 he reins it in. "The cathedral is for everybody, including those who have different theological perspectives from mine."

Yet he has still let rip at consumerism, racism, Treaty injustices, and written left-tinged opinion pieces for The Press. After September's first quake he was invited to be patron of CanCERN, a grassroots organisation devoted to speaking up for quake victims against the authorities meant to be looking after them – the Earthquake Commission, insurance companies, and local and central government. "For a long time after the quake, it felt like the council and everyone else was telling people what to do," he says.

He is clear he isn't trying to "push the Bible down anyone's throat", but look, he says, touching his collar: "I implicate the Church by wearing this wherever I go." Fine, so he – and the Church – are here. Where's God?

"God is in all these people" says Beck, as his sweep takes in Civil Defence people, reporters hunched over laptops, police and army personnel in high-vis vests. God is in the midst of all this. God is weeping with those who weep. God is alongside those who are finding the energy to just keep going. God is in the people who are reaching out and seeking to sustain one another. God is about building community, about empowering people." Yes, but where was God was when offices pancaked and burnt and hundreds died?

"Well," says Beck "we live on a dynamic, creating planet that's doing its thing. For whatever reason, our forebears chose to build this city on this place. They didn't know we were on this faultline. God doesn't make bad things happen to good people. We make our own choices about what we do.

"At the core of my faith is that life is stronger than death, and love is stronger than hate. I bring that sense of belief in life into situations like this, which are dire and awful and deadly. At the moment I don't really need to think theologically. You just do it."

Sunday Star Times