Christ Church Cathedral: What if it has to be modern?


The Oxford Terrace Baptist Church complex rebuild following the original building being destroyed in the February 22 Earthquake.

The Anglicans are clearly still of a mind to bowl Christ Church Cathedral and replace it with something modern. But what that contemporary alternative might be has turned fuzzy. JOHN McCRONE investigates.

Stonewalled. Nope, the Bishop won't be taking questions. Neither will the Church Property Trustees (CPT). Even those more distantly connected to the vexed Christ Church Cathedral question declined interview requests from The Press after a few days of "taking advice".

Perhaps that is human and reasonable. The Anglican hierarchy has been under sustained attack ever since it decided to pull down the very symbol of Christchurch – its earthquake-stricken Gothic revival cathedral – and replace it with something cheaper, safer and modern.

But here we are halfway through 2017, still waiting to hear an official response to a Government-backed plan to reinstate the Cathedral with the help of a $10 million grant from the public purse.

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Instead of giving its answer, the Church has decided to undertake another survey of people's feelings. In April, CPT employed Research First to run an online questionnaire.

And despite the trustees having formally rescinded their 2013 decision to go "modest contemporary" so they could take part in last year's mediation talks in open good faith, a modern replacement cathedral is again clearly the direction in which they are leaning.

The survey puts the position bluntly. "The Church would prefer to invest in communities rather than buildings," it states in the FAQ.

And then it asks which would the city rather have – a $108m rebuild of which church insurance only covers $42m, leaving taxpayers, ratepayers and philanthropists having to cover much of a $56m gap, or a contemporary option that won't cost anyone else outside the Church another cent?

Cathedral traditionalists, like Great Christchurch Buildings Trust (GCBT) co-chair Philip Burdon, have reacted angrily, saying it shows the negotiations were always a sham.

Burdon accuses Bishop Victoria Matthews – a Canadian – of being "an outsider who neither relates to nor understands her host community." With winter coming, the Cathedral will be left open to the elements for another year, a home for rats and pigeons, becoming ever more difficult to restore.

Three choices, but is there a fourth? The options of a restored Cathedral, a wooden replica, and a modern design.

Three choices, but is there a fourth? The options of a restored Cathedral, a wooden replica, and a modern design.

Yet amid this now familiar back and forth hides an unaddressed question. What is the contemporary cathedral that CPT is asking the public to vote on?

People with good memories will recall a $60m to $70m Warren and Mahoney design being floated in 2013. The reaction to its high-arched glass frontage ranged from comparisons with a bishop's mitre hat or upturned boat to even a "lady's private parts".

However not so much covered in the media at the time was that there was also a second quite different design concept coming from within the Anglican diocese itself – one that became informally tagged "option 3b".

So if the way were cleared for the city's Anglicans to do what they want with their own property – a big "if" given the endless legal and consenting battle being threatened by restoration diehards – then what would actually be their preferred cathedral now?

The public are being asked to tick the box in favour of "contemporary", yet with the Church hierarchy closing ranks, who knows what that might mean?

A spokesman for Bishop Matthews says the timing just isn't right for a discussion. The survey is being collated. Next steps have to be considered.

However it is possible to speculate on the answer. From blog posts and floor plans circulating within the Anglican community, there seems a reasonable indication of what the church faithful would really like to do.


From early on, it seemed just as unquestioned within the Anglican leadership that the 130-year-old Cathedral would not be rebuilt as it seemed obvious to the Christchurch public that yes, it automatically must be.

Led by Matthews, cost and safety were continually cited. Who could trust its high stone walls and heavy slate roof ever again, she asked when deconstruction plans were announced in 2012.

But a no cost spared approach to a replacement building – one fully worthy of the city's centre – seemed the intention.

Bishop Victoria Matthews, flanked by Warren and Mahoney's Bill Gregory (left) and RCP's Marcus Read in 2013 talking plans.

Bishop Victoria Matthews, flanked by Warren and Mahoney's Bill Gregory (left) and RCP's Marcus Read in 2013 talking plans.

Warren and Mahoney (W+M) was retained as the diocese's architect. A couple of its principals, Bill Gregory and Blair Johnston, along with Marcus Read of planner, RCP, joined the Bishop and then acting Dean, Lynda Patterson, on a world tour to seek inspiration.

The group visited seven countries in 14 days. Paris, Barcelona, Lucerne, London, San Francisco, Rome and many other cities.

In 2013, W+M released glossy artist renderings and a site floorplan that looked to make a magpie selection of the architectural features noted on the trip.

The main borrowings appeared to be from a Catholic cathedral, Christ the Light, in Oakland, California – itself a rebuild following the San Francisco Bay Area's Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

The emphasis was on modest materials – concrete and glass – as well as a similar soaring arched entrance and wood ribbed interior that added to the impression of an up-ended boat.

The W+M design also featured another echo of Christ the Light with a similar giant four-storey panel – a relief of Madonna and Child – suspended behind the nave to create a sense of grandeur in a space flooded with natural light.

The price tag for the W+M building was estimated at anywhere from $56m to $74m. But there were many, like then Mayor, Sir Bob Parker, who felt it could stand as a landmark of the new Christchurch – something to identify the city on tourist postcards.

At the same time as this official design was taking shape, W+M's retired co-founder, Sir Miles Warren, sprang a surprise by suggesting his own traditional-look alternative.

Warren said the city should build a replica cathedral in wood – the intention of the Cathedral's original architect, George Gilbert Scott, being that it would be largely a timber structure, so there was historical precedent.

A wooden cathedral – especially with a lightweight copper roof to replace the slate – would be safe and cheap. Inside, needing only a few slender supporting columns, sightlines would be much improved. The whole job could be done for about $35m, Warren claimed.

The three choices – full restoration, the W+M replacement, and Warren's compromise – were put up for public discussion. The Church then decided quickly in favour of its own plan – triggering the four years of court battles and mediation attempts that have ensued.

Left to rot: The state of the Cathedral, standing open to the elements, is apparent when laying Anzac wreath.

Left to rot: The state of the Cathedral, standing open to the elements, is apparent when laying Anzac wreath.

However largely hidden from sight, was a rising clamour for yet a fourth option coming from within the local Anglican clergy.

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One of the influential voices was Christ's College chaplain, Reverend Bosco Peters, who writes the blog Liturgy.

Also posting views on church social media through 2013 were Rev Andrew Allan-Johns, vicar of Rangiora's St John the Baptist, and Rev Dr Peter Carrell, the diocese's director of education.

Their argument was W+M's design approach had got it exactly backwards. Peters pointed out that while the contemporary option might look like a mini-Sydney Opera House from the outside, inside its floorplan was much the same as the old cathedral.

From a liturgical standpoint, this would enshrine an outdated concept of how a modern church ought to function, he wrote. "What is offered is essentially the 19th century plan, with three different 'shells' to keep the rain off us."

As was the norm, the old cathedral was shaped like a cross with side-wings or transepts – a design with many disadvantages. "The seating is cinema style, with long distances for many in what may encourage more a feeling of observing rather than participating."

Peters said especially because of its heavy stone columns, and pews tucked around corners, both the view and acoustics could be poor in the old cathedral.

Then there were the many other old-fashioned features, like a high raised pulpit and a font tucked away in the northwest wing, all contributing to a general sense of hierarchy and formality – a Victorian idea of a congregation being kept in its place.

Carrell, posting on Anglican Down Under, made similar observations. "We must determine that we are building a 'mother church' for the whole diocese and not a church which preserves a narrow slice of Anglican style centred on choral worship."

Carrell complained the W+M design remained anchored in the concept of: "Robed clergy, a choir, a pulpit six feet above contradiction, aeroplane seating."

Modern inspiration: Warren and Mahoney's idea for the inside of a contemporary replacement cathedral.

Modern inspiration: Warren and Mahoney's idea for the inside of a contemporary replacement cathedral.

Summing it up, Rangiora's Allan-Johns said W+M would deliver a modern cathedral that neither gave secular Christchurch the historical monument it seemed to want, nor Anglicans the contemporary working space they really desired.

So if the Church was actually free to do its own thing and build something new in Cathedral Square, then there were many who would support going back to the drawing board on what was being proposed, he said.


It seems a good point. Form should follow function. And in the 21st Century, the cathedral is being rebuilt in a very different world.

Also look around Christchurch – where there are many smaller church rebuilds in progress – and there is this kind of purposeful rethinking apparent. Insurance money is being spent in a way that best meets modern needs.

The Oxford Terrace Baptist Church by the Avon River in Madras St is a prime example.

The oldest and largest Baptist church in the South Island, it was another pre-quake heritage landmark with its distinctive white-columned "Greek temple" facade.

Pastor Chris Chamberlain says the 120 year old design was lifted from the Metropolitan Baptist Tabernacle in London. "The look was a bit foreboding, a bit threatening. But the idea was about a place of learning. You got those pillars on all the libraries and court houses in those days."

Chamberlain says the roof of the church pancaked in the February 2011 earthquake and there never would have been enough money for a safe rebuild. Besides, the Baptists knew they wanted to reinvest in a building fit for today's purpose.

So the replacement space will be light, open and flexible. "Accessible, transparent, nothing feeling hidden." It will have a hall easily reconfigured for use by the community.

Now also there will be a street cafe and, on a floor above, offices for local NGO agencies with up to 30 staff – a way of making the church directly part of the city's social service network.

Coming in a second phase will be a wing of social housing. Chamberlain says the church used to run affordable rentals for homeless families and foreign students. Now it can centralise these on the one site, helping to serve what is a major community need.

In a nutshell, he says, the Baptist church is taking advantage of a rebuild to invest in a seven day a week facility which is focused on Christchurch's social justice issues.

And Chamberlain says what is striking is that, across the city, this is how the churches are thinking. "The churches are a lot more in touch with each other than they used to be. There's a lot more collaboration and communicating."

Baptist pastor Chris Chamberlain with salvaged pillars. The old will make a garden feature, but building will be new.

Baptist pastor Chris Chamberlain with salvaged pillars. The old will make a garden feature, but building will be new.

The central city has had its corporate rebuild. Less appreciated is that with churches both in the city and the suburbs rebuilding as well, there is a Christian opportunity to have an impact on the other side of society's scale.

The Baptists of course had the advantage of a free hand. They owned a heritage building, yet its loss was not seen as a threat to the very brand of Christchurch itself.

But the Anglicans promoting their "option 3b" still felt they could come up with something better than what was on the table.

It was about the same social mission. The old cathedral was a starchy and forbidding building – representative of English class divisions despite every attempt to soften it.

Comparisons were made with the Transitional Cathedral in Latimer Square where homeless people could come in and sit in the warmth without seeming out of place among the gawking streams of tourists.

Peters and Allan-Johns eventually went so far as to draft up an alternative floorplan to express the modern liturgical design they had in mind.

First they got rid of the cruciform layout. They suggested a curved interior seating space – a semi-circle – where the congregation could gather around the "Word and Sacrament" in close, unobstructed, fashion.

They said there was no need for a high pulpit given modern sound systems and projection screens. A moveable lectern would do.

And the font could be placed centrally at the entrance – symbolically where all would pass. There would be a very different look and feel to where the business of worship took place.

Then just as importantly, their option 3b would replace the high empty archway of the W+M frontage with something more functional.

For a start, the toilets – which W+M had kept outside, along with a separate community meeting block – would sit right in the entrance foyer. Also a hospitality kitchen.

It might not be so architecturally shock and awe, but much more everyday practical, they said.

Then above the entrance area could go a second story mezzanine to be used as a public meeting place and education room. Again, the everyday functions W+M had left in the courtyard would be integrated into the building to spell out its community-orientated purpose.

When contacted, Peters – like Carrell – said he could not comment beyond what he wrote in his original posts. However Allan-Johns was willing to say it was deliberate that any new cathedral should be as unintimidating as possible.

Rev Andrew Allan-Johns, vicar of St John's: Promoted the liturgical alternative that became option 3b.

Rev Andrew Allan-Johns, vicar of St John's: Promoted the liturgical alternative that became option 3b.

"I would use the term inclusive in the sense the building would invite everyone in to be part of it. But also the actual worship space – the liturgical part of it – is one that helps you realise you are gathered as one, rather than just being an audience."

Allan-Johns says option 3b was in fact aired at general synod, the diocese's governing body of clergy and lay representatives, in 2013. He and Peters spoke to it.

And while it was never put to a formal vote, there was strong support for the view that Canterbury's Anglicans needed to be building "a 21st century cathedral for the 21st century" and not some costly tourist landmark.

But Allan-Johns adds that if the W+M approach were indeed reversed – the contemporary option designed from the inside to the out – then that would leave open the possibility of a cathedral with a modern-day interior and also an exterior frontage that at least echoed the cathedral as it used to be.

The look from the Square could be easily rebuilt in a way that was enough of a reminder of what was familiar and iconic, Allan-Johns says – if that is still what secular Christchurch believes is important here.


The Bishop and the trustees are not speaking. And probably fair enough. They are still officially in mediation, committed to an effort to find $108m for a full cathedral restoration – even if they also happen to be out there canvassing support for a modern replacement at the same time.

However on financial grounds alone, the W+M design may be already a dead duck.

In his most recent statement, CPT general manager Gavin Holley said there is a firm view within the Church that its "go it alone" budget for a contemporary rebuild would today have to come in well under its $42m insurance settlement.

Holley says a good chunk of that money would have to be set aside as an endowment fund to pay for a new cathedral's upkeep. Christchurch City Council (CCC) might no longer contribute there.

This would leave the Church as little as $30m to spend, he says – way off the near $70m of W+M's proposal.

That in turn might put the Miles Warren timber replica back in the frame. It is worth remembering the trustees brought that $35m option up again in 2015 as one way to break the demolition deadlock.

Sir Miles Warren's lightweight wooden replica option. Without the heavy stone columns, an open interior.

Sir Miles Warren's lightweight wooden replica option. Without the heavy stone columns, an open interior.

Few people liked it as a compromise at the time. But it has a more open interior. And with a few extra liturgical modifications, it might become acceptable to the Canterbury synod.

Otherwise with the cash crunch, it could be right back to the drawing board for a very budget cathedral design with an informal worship space, toilets in the entrance, and nothing much to boast about by way of exterior architectural look either – the stuff of the traditionalists' worst nightmares.

CCC has written some special rules into the new District Plan to cover what the Anglicans can do on the site. The Cathedral has its own sub-clause – "Buildings at 100 Cathedral Square" – that creates some significant consenting hurdles in terms of "visual interest" and "architectural values".

But one only has to look across the Square to the Crown's proposed Convention Centre – another building that was supposed to be an architectural showpiece of the rebuild, yet which has now been radically scaled back as the true cost of construction has hit home.

So form may not only have to follow function, but also insurance pay-out for the Cathedral. However with feelings running high on what the Anglicans will be allowed to do, nothing will be settled until it is settled.

 - Stuff


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