Historic super-cathedral plan

Anglicans in Christchurch are talking about sharing a cathedral with the Catholics, a move that would have worldwide ramifications. OLIVIA CARVILLE reports.

Rebuilding Christchurch's two wounded cathedrals into one 'unprecedented' Anglican-Catholic super-cathedral is under discussion at top levels in the Anglican Church.

The Sunday Star-Times understands the possibility of an ecumenical, or joint, cathedral to unify the two churches has been discussed behind closed doors for months.

If given the green light, it would bring the Catholics and Anglicans together under the same cathedral roof for the first time in the world since the churches split in the 16th century.

Christchurch's Bishop Victoria Matthews was reluctant to speak publicly about the controversial idea for fear it would 'kill the possibility'. But she confirmed she had informally discussed it with local Anglicans.

'There are conversations about this going on, but those conversations are with ourselves,' she said.

The idea had not been raised officially within Christchurch's Anglican Diocese, was yet to be broached with the city's Catholic leaders and was currently only an Anglican 'hope'.

'It's fair to say there are many individuals in the diocese who would welcome the idea," Matthews said, adding that while the Christ Church Cathedral demolition was before the High Court, the 'delicate conversation' had been put on hold.

'It's something that I would love to be able to discuss, but at this point we can't. We have to wait for this thing to get out of the courts before it even becomes a good conversation.'

Matthews said the Anglican Church would patiently wait for the 'right moment', rather than 'raising the question at the wrong moment and it's dead in the water'. If the super-cathedral was accepted it had the 'potential of being huge' for Christianity worldwide, not just Christchurch.

The earthquakes have already ignited a spirit of co-operation between Anglican and Catholics in Christchurch, Matthews added. Three churches, two Anglican and one Catholic, have already allowed the other denomination to worship on their site although the services are held separately, she said.

New Zealand's Anglican Archbishop David Moxon is also understood to have discussed the idea in private, but when approached by Star-Times said he did not have the 'authority to speak in public' about the possibility.

He had not spoken officially about the idea with Matthews, but said they had communicated by email when someone within his clergy suggested the city should rebuild only one cathedral.

Moxon, who lives in Hamilton, said if he was faced with the same predicament and the two cathedrals in his city were damaged in an earthquake, he would raise the possibility of a combined cathedral with the Catholics. 'I think it would be important to have the conversation and to see whether or not it was possible or practical.'

Long-time Anglican Michael Earle asked how the city's two Christian churches could justify spending millions to repair or rebuild both broken cathedrals, when both churches were already suffering dwindling congregations before the quakes hit.

'How is it in the best interests of the poorest people of our community to rebuild them both? We have a God-given opportunity to do something different here.'

Although the idea has yet to be raised with the Catholic diocese, its leaders have already poured cold water on the proposal.

Christchurch's Catholic Bishop Barry Jones struggled to 'visualise' how the two church groups could combine into one building.

Jones was aware Anglican churches in the South Island had been 'very hospitable' to displaced Catholic congregations but struggled to imagine the city's two major cathedrals following suit.

'The really important part is that a cathedral is the bishop's church by definition and how you would have a building that would serve as a church of two bishops, I don't know and I can't imagine it.'

Despite a lack of communication between the two churches, it appears Anglican leaders are creating fertile ground for the dialogue. Less than two weeks ago, Archbishop Moxon invited English Catholic Professor Paul Murray from Durham University's Department of Theology to speak at public meetings around New Zealand about bridging the gaps within Christianity.

In Christchurch, Jones and Matthews attended the meeting in which the professor challenged the two churches to set aside their differences in order to learn from one another and heal together.

After the lecture, Murray told the Sunday Star-Times he had not heard the idea of a joint cathedral being raised in Christchurch but if it was built, it would be an 'iconic, powerful and unprecedented symbol'.

'Tragic and difficult times can also bring unforseen opportunities, if only because such times require us to think again,' he said.

Murray and Moxon serve on the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (Arcic), a group that was established by the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury 25 years ago in a bid to find common ground between the two churches.

The long-term goal for Arcic and both the Anglican and Catholic churches was 'organic unity' because Jesus had willed it, Moxon said.


Creating a super-cathedral would be like 'erasing history', Canterbury University Associate Professor of Sociology Mike Grimshaw said. It would be the first ecumenical cathedral in the world, but 'there is no way it would work'.

Differences between the two churches, such as the ordination of female priests and the doctrine surrounding Jesus' mother Mary, would make the proposal impossible.

The Anglican Church split from the Catholic Church more than 500 years ago and had always 'defined itself against the Catholics', he said, To combine into one cathedral now would raise questions about theology, authority and control over the one building.

'There is a difference between having a shared space out of necessity for a short time, and having a combined Anglican and Catholic cathedral.'

Grimshaw also said bringing the Catholic Cathedral into the city centre would be an 'incredible political move' because Christchurch was originally meant to be an Anglican settlement. 'Everything works against having a shared cathedral.

"The idea is interesting; but it will never fly.'

Sunday Star Times