Unholy war over cathedral

PHILIP MATTHEWS
Last updated 11:20 29/03/2014
cathedral
IAIN MCGREGOR/Fairfax NZ

STRONG VIEWS: Former Mayor Bob Parker is one of many who has waded into the cathedral debate.

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Graeme Brady is sick of it. Sick of making the arguments, sick of hearing the counter-arguments. Sick of watching a beloved building slowly deteriorate while Cantabrians squabble.

But he has more invested in it than most. Brady is a retired Anglican priest and one of the trustees of the Great Christchurch Buildings Trust. The trust is better known as the group fronted by Jim Anderton and Philip Burdon, former MPs from the Left and Right who buried traditional political differences for the common cause of rescuing the earthquake-damaged Christ Church Cathedral from an Anglican leadership that wants to deconstruct or demolish.

There have been court cases and there are more to come. There have been public relations campaigns. Less discussed is a quiet revolution on the ground.

This past Sunday Brady was at lunch with a group of regular churchgoers. They told him they would stop giving to the church or redirect their funding to the Anglican City Mission because they disagree with the decision to destroy the old cathedral and build a new one.

"People are voting with their feet and their wallets," Brady says. "Anglicans don't protest normally. They are fairly conservative people. They are not going to go out on the streets and yell and scream.

"They feel they have no voice. I get an awful lot of response from clergy and laity who agree."

He expects church income to drop as a result.

Restore Christ Church Cathedral spokesman Mark Belton has heard these stories too. When he mans the Heritage Information Centre at Cathedral Junction, tourists drop in, "aghast" that nothing is being done to repair or maintain such an important building.

They add their names to petitions. He gathered 700 of them in six weeks.

A local Anglican told him that the contribution she had been giving to the Transitional Cathedral would now be directed to the Heritage Information Centre instead. Here was another speaking of her deep disappointment at how Christchurch Anglican leadership had fumbled the cathedral issue.

Belton also knows of "two high net worth families" who have even redirected their giving from the City Mission to the Salvation Army. It worries him that the City Mission could suffer.

These are anecdotal stories and hard to quantify but they point to a disillusionment in the Anglican community in Christchurch that has not been publicly expressed.

What does the church make of these stories? At the mere mention of Brady's name, Jayson Rhodes rolls his eyes.

Rhodes is communications and media adviser to the Anglican Church. A priest himself, he lives in Auckland but manages at least a couple of days in Christchurch every week. He won't estimate how much time is spent talking about the cathedral.

When in Christchurch, he is based at the Anglican Centre which still operates out of portacoms on the grounds of the quake-damaged St Peter's Church in Upper Riccarton. He is sitting in one of those anonymous rooms with Church Property Trustees manager Gavin Holley.

A bright, quiet man, Holley is actually a Catholic. "I work for Ngai Tahu and I'm not Maori either," he says.

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Rhodes mulls over the Brady question, particularly his comments that the buildings trust represents "thousands of fellow Anglicans who are appalled that the future of the once great Anglican Diocese of Christchurch is now decided by gerrymandered polls and an informal show of hands in the Diocesan Synod".

"His comment is rather puzzling," Rhodes says. "He chooses to be part of an organisation. He knows how the organisation works and its governance yet he is choosing to belittle it."

As for Anglicans voting with their wallets and feet, Rhodes calls that "a theory and assumption" and "a rather dangerous claim to make". Church attendances are generally down everywhere and with some churches closed in post-quake Christchurch, direct comparisons are hard.

The sniping goes on. Rhodes also has harsh words for the two men fronting the trust.

"I think most people want Anderton and Burdon to get a new hobby," he says.

For Burdon, Anderton and others, it is less a hobby than an expensive, serious and time-consuming cause. Belton guesses that he has put in 4000 unpaid hours and he too would like to get on with his life.

But that comment from Rhodes shows how the debate has been personalised. People wonder why Anderton, a Catholic from Auckland, would be so invested in an Anglican cathedral's restoration? The answer is that he helped to save two important heritage buildings in Auckland during the 1970s and wants to do the same here.

"Why do you have to knock down one of New Zealand's highest-category historic buildings and completely trample on any cultural, historic, religious and civic identity this building has?" Anderton says. "The destruction of hundreds of historic buildings in our city over the past three years has only served to remind us how important it is to save what is left."

From the church's perspective, the debate has become personalised around the divisive figure of Bishop Victoria Matthews. They argue that much of the criticism has been sexist and xenophobic, as Matthews is Canadian.

"That makes me wonder what is really behind some of this," Rhodes says. "The church loved that cathedral. I get disappointed when I see personalities drawn into it."

But no-one interviewed for this story made such criticisms of Matthews.

Perceptions that Matthews might have been hurt and has stepped back from the public eye are incorrect, Rhodes says. She has other commitments and would be talking about this right now "were she not on the other side of the world".

This week the Church Property Trustees released a "facts" sheet, which ran as an advertisement in The Press and generated another round of news stories, including a claim by the visiting Anglican Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, that the old cathedral should go. It followed a new review of the building by John Hare and Logan Taylor of Holmes Consulting Group, supplied to the Church Property Trustees after a site visit in February.

They reported that there had been no earthquake damage to the building since January 2013 but there "is continued degradation due to weather and infestation".

The building is exposed on the west side. It is said to be full of pigeons and rats.

That line about degradation gets heritage campaigner Mark Belton going.

"They haven't done any decent protection," he says. "Poison the rats, poison the birds, cover it up. They want it to deteriorate. What they've done to the most important heritage building in the city, even if it wasn't to be restored, is disgraceful."

The report says that the building is likely to be at "significantly less than 33 per cent" of New Building Standards. It would be unlikely to survive an earthquake as strong as that of September 2010, "without partial or even full collapse".

But the report was "not a complete damage evaluation," its authors say. It was "a general walk around" with a review of key indicators for comparison with earlier visits.

Over the preceding 13 months, only two things had changed. Some glass fell from a leadlight window and "a small amount" of rubble fell from a cracked area on the south transept wall.

There is more detail about deterioration due to weathering, infestation and plant growth. Hare and Taylor did not go inside but inferred that there are "significant quantities of pigeon droppings", which will "accelerate deterioration" and are "a health hazard".

They note that earthquake strengthening last decade helped prevent "a more catastrophic collapse of the building".

Could it be repaired? The report does not explore that but the fact sheet released by the Church Property Trustees says that "it is agreed by engineering professionals that it is technically feasible to strengthen and repair the building".

So if the cathedral can be repaired, why is it not being repaired? Matthews has talked about the safety of workers being paramount. Beyond that, there is the issue of cost.

When the church released three cathedral options for discussion last year, a modern option was costed at between $56 million and $74m, depending on timeframe. Full restoration was costed at $104m to $221m.

That seemed decisive to many who became resigned that the church would embark on the modern option. But that figure of $221m was based on delaying for 15 years while fundraising with costs escalating at 5 per cent per annum.

"That's just dishonest," Belton says. "It's voodoo economics."

That was one piece of misinformation. Another was that the Anglican synod voted for the new cathedral. That claim was repeated just this month by Reverend David Boyd of Christchurch in a letter to the Press.

In fact the synod, a ruling council including lay members and clergy, never voted for the cathedral. A vote reported in the media was actually an informal show of hands and Brady suspects that it was overwhelmingly in favour of the modern design because clergy were intimidated by Matthews who has been strongly against restoration.

"In my experience, courage was never one of the gifts of the spirit," Brady says. "Clergy on the whole are fairly conformist."

Brady is surprised that a decision this crucial never went to a formal vote at synod.

"There is no need for a vote from synod," Rhodes responds. "That show of hands was informal to see reactions after all three options had been shown. It was not even counted. It was a matter for Church Property Trustees to decide."

Not the Bishop and not the synod. However, the Bishop chairs the Church Property Trustees.

If even the church agrees that the cathedral can be repaired, is it cost prohibitive?

Actually, the opposing sides may be closer than most think. Once the numbers are set out, it is hard to believe that some agreement cannot be reached.

Costings released this month by the Church Property Trustees put the cost of restoration at $97m. That includes $8m for base isolation, which is optional. Gavin Holley admits that "you can get to 100 per cent code without base isolation but the question is how well your building survives through and after a big seismic event".

The church's latest estimate for the modern option, including a full and careful deconstruction of the old cathedral rather than a demolition, is $59m.

Seen from this perspective, the difference is only $30m. It could be even smaller.

Anderton says that the restoration could cost just $67m. He says the church received around $46m from insurance for the cathedral and contents.

As the buildings trust already has $6m committed, including the $4m offered by UK businessman Hamish Ogston, it would only need to find another $15m. He makes it sound like child's play for a couple of well-connected ex-politicians.

"Fifteen million dollars!" he says. "It's extraordinary. Philip Burdon and I could do that in a week on the phone."

He adds that many are keen to work for below the usual rate for a good cause.

"There are building construction companies, stonemasons, architects, seismic and structural engineers, project managers and a fundraising network in the wings, plus very significant discounts on materials and labour."

For example, when the trust costed make-safe work for the cathedral, it was offered $5m of steel for just $1m.

"People would be lining up to volunteer," Belton says.

Not even those proposing deconstruction try to claim that Cantabrians don't love the building.

"I think there are a lot of people in Christchurch who have a great love of heritage buildings and we absolutely understand that," Holley says. "But it's badly damaged and a call has been made to move on.

"The diocese is ready to move on and some of the strong heritage advocates are not ready to move on."

Holley and Rhodes say that the church is every bit as determined as it was a year ago to take down the old and build the new, although maybe not the exact design that was released.

If a new cathedral is to be built, could the world's best church architects compete? That seems unlikely.

"Our commitment at this stage is that Warren and Mahoney are the diocesan architects," Holley says.

But what if Anderton and the others are right? Would there be second thoughts if the cathedral could be repaired in the way that they claim for the amount they say?

"It would have significantly influenced the discussions and decision-making process," Holley admits.

Rhodes agrees with that.

"If things could be done for some of the numbers being said around here at the moment, there would be a whole different paradigm."

Could we yet see peace break out? Actually, Matthews rejected an offer from the New Zealand Historic Places Trust to mediate. And there are court battles to get through first.

"There are some deep pockets," Graeme Brady says. "It would be a pity to see all the money go into legal fees but there is a long way to go yet."

The buildings trust challenged the church's plans in the High Court in 2012. The High Court ruled that the church had to build "a" cathedral in the Square, but not necessarily "the" cathedral. That case went to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, which agreed with the High Court last December.

But that is not the end of it. Anderton says that two more cases will come up in the High Court in Christchurch on April 28, brought by the Church Property Trustees. They will seek to have a stay of demolition lifted, meaning that they can start deconstructing the cathedral to a height of about 3 metres.

They will also challenge an earlier ruling that said the church should not have spent cathedral insurance money on the Transitional Cathedral.

There are other legal avenues. One is a challenge of the section 38 order put on the building under Canterbury Earthquake Authority (Cera) legislation. A section 38 ordering demolition applies if a building is unsafe or holding up the recovery. Heritage supporters argue that the cathedral is no longer either.

Another argument is based on research by lawyer Mai Chen into the role of the Historic Places Trust. She found that the church would need archaeological authority before it can demolish and that Cera's emergency powers do not override that. If the Historic Places Trust gave such authority, it could find itself in court.

The Historic Places Trust's heritage planning adviser in its southern regional office, Mike Vincent, says that "the Historic Places Trust has not received an archaeological authority application in relation to the cathedral and any application would be considered if and when it was received".

But the wider argument in the court of public opinion is about who the cathedral belongs to and what it is for. The Anglicans see it as one church among many and while it is the mother church of the Christchurch Diocese, the church is managing without it. For them, the new Transitional Cathedral embodies hope.

For Belton and others, it makes sense to rebuild or restore the old cathedral because it has cultural meaning that goes far beyond the small community of regular cathedral worshippers. A new cathedral would lack that meaning and be an expensive and empty church occupying a prime spot but catering for a small group.

The curved modern design even looked like a sinking ship to Graeme Brady, "a symbol of everything that's happening".

Belton remembers that before the earthquakes the cathedral would get about 70 people on a typical Sunday night, a third of whom were tourists.

"The notion that it's a living church of great importance is nonsense."

Instead, the old cathedral embodies the memories and associations of the "insanely heroic" early settling of Christchurch. Its rocks were quarried and shifted by wagon. The wider community coming together to rebuild would be a resumption of that Cantabrian spirit.

In philosophical terms, Anglican thinking includes the idea that cathedrals are open to people of all faiths and none.

"A cathedral is there for the whole city," Rhodes explains. "It is meant to mirror the city. Those who make up the city, that is their home."

So if the church has invited that sense of public ownership, perhaps the decision should go wider than the Church Property Trustees or even the synod.

Last year, the church asked for public submissions and received 3819. Fifty one per cent of those were in favour of the modern design and 29 per cent were for the restoration, but this support was based on the costings and timeframes that Belton now calls "dishonest".

Restoration supporter Hamish Ogston has offered to commission a new poll.

Ogston was not the only supporter to come out of left field this month. New Zealand First leader Winston Peters said he would make restoration a condition of a post-election coalition deal. He argued that if the Government can find $45m for Novopay and $42m a year for the Auckland casino, surely it can find a smaller sum for such an important building.

The political equation is quite simple, Anderton says. Whether it is National or Labour that needs Peters in September, a stable government could be purchased for $15m.

Anderton's line indicates just how small the sum is in the greater scheme of things.

"If it can be saved, why wouldn't you?" he says. "The amount of money is relatively modest."

- The Press

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