Christchurch earthquake: act of God?

Aerial shot of the Catholic Catedral on Barbadoes St.
Aerial shot of the Catholic Catedral on Barbadoes St.

That looks like tagging on the stone walls of St Peter's Anglican Church in Upper Riccarton. Really, who would dare? But when you get closer, you realise that the spray- painted words actually read "danger" and "stay clear".

There is hurricane fencing around much of this 110-year-old church, even enclosing some of its historic graves. There are fallen stones on the ground. There is a notice on the door that no-one is allowed inside.

This is a depressingly familiar sight in this city of ruined or partly ruined churches. Since the February 22 earthquake, the neighbouring St Peter's church hall has been the impromptu headquarters of Anglicanism in Christchurch.

The Knox Church on the corner of Victoria St and Bealey Ave.
The Knox Church on the corner of Victoria St and Bealey Ave.

Bishop Victoria Matthews has set up a small office at the back of the hall, as the Anglican Centre on Hereford St is in the red zone, behind the cordon. She says the beautiful, wooden bishop's house, on Bishop St off Bealey Ave, is still standing but unsafe to live in for the time being.

Christ Church Cathedral's theologian in residence, The Rev Lynda Patterson, is working out of St Barnabas in Fendalton. She and Cathedral Dean Peter Beck have been running Sunday services on the grounds of Fendalton Open-air School.

Makeshift services and mobile congregations have become the norm in Christchurch, in some cases since September.

The Baptist Church on Kilmore Ave.
The Baptist Church on Kilmore Ave.

People talk of church groups meeting in parks or on beaches, at least while the weather holds.

For Patterson, the first Fendalton Open-air School service was a reminder that "the church is an awful lot more than the buildings". "For the cathedral community to come together again was immensely powerful," she says. "There was huge emotion. The buildings may be down but the church is not out." The post-quake greeting in Christchurch is "Where were you?". And you learn that people are also keen to tell their stories.

Matthews was in the Bicycle Thief restaurant on Latimer Square when the February 22 quake hit; she quickly got under the table amidst a sea of broken glass. Across the road, the Christchurch Club was severely damaged. By the time she saw that everyone had safely got out of the Anglican Centre, Christ Church Cathedral had been cordoned.

Dean of the Christ Church Cathedral, Peter Beck.
Dean of the Christ Church Cathedral, Peter Beck.

Patterson was inside the cathedral. Books shook off walls; computers came down. Staff held on to each other in doorways. She listened for the bells in the tower; in other shakes, the bells had rung. This time there was "just a long slow rumble" and she assumed the tower had fallen by then. "Outside it was like a fog."

Staff and visitors had been ushered out. But for nearly two weeks, there was an arduous wait as everyone suspected or assumed that not all visitors had got out. The good news - there were no bodies inside the cathedral - came to Peter Beck at 1am. Awake and emotional, he rang the others.

Patterson had been expecting a call to help say prayers over the dead. Instead, here was Beck on the phone, weeping tears of relief.

The ruined Christchurch Cathedral.
The ruined Christchurch Cathedral.

"In a really bleak week that was something of a ray of hope for us," she says.

In the preceding days, media had waited and hoped for someone to be pulled out alive from the wreckage of the CTV building - waited for "a miracle", some reporters said. No miracle came at that site.

As for whether the news about the cathedral can be considered a miracle, Matthews has given that some thought. "I believe in miracles - let me be very clear about that - but would I use the word miracle?" she says. "No, I think it's a sheer gift."

She believes that the earthquake strengthening of the cathedral may have held the tower up long enough for tourists to get out, although she is aware that it seems to contradict Patterson's impression. Either way, the small piece of good news came at just the right time. "It came at a point when my exhaustion was at a peak," Matthews says.

She was so exhausted that she slept through Peter Beck's 1am phone call.

But what attitude should the Anglican Church take to its own buildings? Besides the cathedral, there has been major damage to St Luke's on Kilmore St, St John's on Latimer Square, Holy Trinity in Avonside, Holy Trinity in Lyttelton, St John's in Okains Bay and St Cuthbert's in Governor's Bay. There has also been damage to suburban churches in Merivale, Riccarton, Shirley, Opawa, Mt Pleasant, New Brighton and Redcliffs. Minor damage to churches in Woolston, Linwood and Aranui means that they should be repaired reasonably soon.

Damage to Christchurch churches in the September 4 earthquake was estimated at $100 million. Ansvar Insurance, which insures many of the city's churches, expects the damage after February 22 to be much greater than that. Damage to the Christ Church Cathedral alone would be in the tens of millions, according to Ansvar Insurance New Zealand manager David Leather.

The likely rebuild of the cathedral is a symbolic act that has received a lot of attention in conversations about damaged buildings, but clearly some hard decisions will have to be made about Christchurch's other Anglican churches.

It might be too soon to have those discussions in public, but both Matthews and Patterson seem uncomfortable with the notion that this disaster could be an opportunity for the Anglican Church to rebuild for the smaller, more mobile congregations of the 21st century. As congregations are declining, do we need as many churches?

Matthews answers with a question: do they have too many churches or not enough people going to them? Patterson says that if you are building for the future, you don't want to build for a worst- case scenario.

Matthews has an anecdote from the Canadian city of Edmonton, where she served as bishop before Christchurch. Movie theatres had been in decline so someone bravely bucked the trend with a mega- cinema, which apparently included a dragon that breathed fire as you walked in: "The most absurd movie theatre you have ever seen. It was out of this world."

So what is the ecclesiastical equivalent of 3-D? Matthews' point is that people want an event.

"Churches, for all their spiritual meaning, have historically been an event. The High Mass, the choral singing, the pageantry. If we start tearing down the beauty and building mean little churches, then we'll be in trouble.

"You want to walk into a church and feel your spirit soar. If we were better humans, we could do that by walking outside and we wouldn't need it. But we need some help and churches help us."

Patterson worries that in pragmatic discussions about rebuilding the city, we could lose sight of the need for beauty - the kind of unusual beauty that the now-damaged stone churches lent the city.

"Beauty embraces us in our suffering," Matthews says.

The Catholic Bishop of Christchurch, Barry Jones, was on his way to Hokitika when the February 22 quake hit. He was out of mobile range until Arthur's Pass, where he turned round and came back. An unreal event: he didn't feel the shake but returned to a blitzed city.

With the heavy concrete dome of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament making the building still too unstable to approach, the diocese office next door on Barbadoes St has also been off- limits.

People are working from home on laptops; no-one can get in to retrieve files and computers. When we spoke, Jones was still waiting to hear if a crane would be able to lift the dome at a distance, allowing engineers to assess the cathedral. "It's so dangerous that no-one can actually get near it," he says. "If there was another earthquake like the one on February 22, the engineers think the dome would actually come down. It's a death trap."

It's tragic and maybe defeatist to use the past tense, but it was a stunning building.

Jones refers those who never got around to going inside - including this reporter - to a 360-degree tour on the diocese website, showing the cathedral's interior in all its splendour. In an ideal world, would Jones want it restored to its previous condition?

"If it was feasible. It's an absolute treasure. But I'm not even beginning to think like that. It's just too soon."

As with the Anglican cathedral, the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament is the high-profile casualty, but many other Catholic churches have also been damaged. A final prayer service has already been held at St Mary's in New Brighton, which is to be demolished. Historic churches in Sumner and Lyttelton have likewise been hit hard.

"I've heard people say that the Lyttelton one is so significant as a heritage building that it will have to be restored," Jones says. "That's not what the church has said but what I've heard heritage people say. But I don't think the Sumner one, Our Lady Star of the Sea, can be restored."

Parishioners who usually go to St Paul's in Dallington, St Joseph's in Papanui and Holy Family in Burwood are also attending Mass elsewhere. Jones seems to be more open than his Anglican counterparts to the idea that the earthquake and subsequent demolitions and closures might give his church a chance to redraw its map of Christchurch.

"Our churches have all been built in communities that wanted churches where they were," he says, but "the point you raise is very interesting".

And the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch is considering these kinds of issues? "We are, absolutely." While the churches have good-sized congregations, "the real issue is whether they are the right places to have churches".

What would be the great symbol of earthquake damage to Christchurch's Presbyterians? Your first answer might be the Knox Church on Bealey Ave, where the wooden frame still stands but the brick skin has largely fallen off. That church is probably repairable, says Presbyterian moderator The Rev Martin Stewart, but the old, grand St Paul's Trinity Pacific on Cashel St, deep inside the cordon, is "gone".

A fire did damage first, then two earthquakes. A church in Linwood has also been demolished and one in St Albans will follow. Meanwhile, a New Brighton congregation is the one that has met on the beach. Stewart's own church, St Stephen's in Bryndwr, will be out of action for some time too. His congregation is making do with the church hall next door. All these ruined stones, bricks and steeples.

"We have built the wrong kind of building, with the wrong kind of materials, for this landscape," Stewart says. An English building style was imported with spires responding to an old view of where God was to be found.

"As tragic as it is, with the loss of these buildings, we also have an opportunity to say 'Hang on a minute, what does it mean to be the church?' Not just now but for the next 50 years."

Future church buildings might be spaces that work for worship but are also community resources, he says. But how about as a place of beauty?

Stewart sounds ambivalent: "A very expensive building just used for an hour on Sunday is hard to justify financially. We have to be creative, yet there is something about walking into an old church building, a sense of something bigger."

He agrees that an "interesting challenge" lies ahead, and not just for his church. While some think that if you build a church, people will come, Stewart's view is the reverse: how do you respond to the existing needs and wants of a community? In the short term, that is about getting people and resources into the quake-shattered eastern suburbs.

Stewart has also had the sense that Presbyterians, New Zealand's third-largest Christian denomination, have been left out of coverage of post-quake Christchurch.

And where was Stewart at 12.51pm on February 22?

He was in the dining room of Rochester and Rutherford Hall at Canterbury University, where he does some part-time outreach work. The quake didn't seem quite so dramatic in Ilam, but he has a son at Unlimited Paenga Tawhiti and "his experience in the central city wasn't very nice. Another son who works round the corner went to find him and it took them a few hours to get out of the city."

Stewart runs a weblog as "Mart the Rev" and talks up his fondness for the music of U2 and David Gilmour, meaning that he can seem like the archetypal hip priest: worldly, a little feisty and a little suspicious of the musty baggage of organised religion. He was aghast when he encountered German missionaries in Christchurch who were trying to push a line that the earthquake was a response to sinfulness. "How to kick people when they're down, but also, what kind of God are they talking about?" he says. "How dare they? We know that God is love. You turn God into an ogre when you promulgate the idea that He caused this as a judgment on us."

The idea that this was an act of God - "a shocker" of a phrase, he says - could only come from those with an undeveloped Sunday school faith.

Lynda Patterson heard the same kind of thing. She got emails asking if God was angry about the prostitutes in Latimer Square, the presence of the Wizard or even the floral carpet in the Cathedral.

"You can see people desperately struggling to understand," she says.

"There must be something we did wrong. I want to lose the idea of a God who slaps us with a big stick. We believe in a God who is in among the rubble suffering with us, not at a great distance pulling the strings."

"It's not judgment," Matthews adds. "The very flippant answer I give is, if this is God's judgment, what took Him so long?" If there is a lesson for believers, she says, it is simply that creation is more fragile than we care to admit.

Catholic Bishop Barry Jones says he hasn't heard people asking whether the city's sinfulness brought disaster upon it.

"It's the mystery of evil - it's as old as the world," he says. "We're just reading the book of Job. He's the innocent man and all sorts of disasters happen to him. He says, 'Why is this happening to me when I'm an innocent person?' That's as old as the Bible.

"There is an account in Luke's Gospel of a tower in a place called Siloam falling on people and killing 18 of them. And Jesus talks about that and says, 'Do you imagine they were worse sinners than anybody else'? That's exactly what people imagined at that time.

"Our Lord was really clear about that. Bad things don't happen to people because they're bad people."

In his immaculate Fendalton home, with Catholic reading material by Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and James K Baxter arranged on the coffee table, Jones might seem more removed from the turmoil of daily life than Stewart or even Matthews and Patterson. But he, too, has a friendly, down-to-earth manner.

What does he make of the suggestion that the quake might make us better people? The notion is that we have become, temporarily at least, less materialistic and more considerate of neighbours and strangers.

"We have to say it's an event of evil; it's a natural disaster," Jones says. "But some of the reactions to it have been really healthy and good and admirable. Can it continue? Well, what are the forces that shape our society? Are they communal forces or are they from beyond, from economics and culture and the media? We're part of a global culture and global economic system and those forces seem to me to be really powerful forces that shape how people think and behave."

Martin Stewart believes that any lasting change must come out of the community rather than bureaucracy. He wonders, 'Are there ways to keep up the contact we established with each other in the days after the quake'?

Lynda Patterson was getting at this in a sermon she gave on March 6 about "acts of God". She, too, was dismissive of the insurance company phrase and thinks that the true acts of God have been in the community response. The emergency workers, the student volunteers, the local dairy owners who gave produce away - they were doing acts of God.

At those times, "it's possible to see God at work much more clearly", she says. Another example: she lives on a street where there's a gang house.

The gang members went door to door with bottles of water they bought in Hornby and made sure everyone had enough. "I would call that very close to an act of God."

Matthews has seen this, too. She met some of the Urban Search and Rescue guys who were working out of Latimer Square. They told her that their work had been a privilege. "Although they didn't use the word, they realised they had been made by God to help other people.

"The question I've got is, will it change us for a while or permanently?" Matthews says. She admits to being a little more pessimistic, remembering that when she first came to New Zealand, we were in the depths of a recession.

"The theological question, and it is theological, is what will it take for us to change?" she asks. "Because we know that caring about people is better. It's better for the people and it's actually better for us. We were created to care and reach out. We were never created to be selfish and not care. It doesn't make for a good human being."

The Press