Editorial: Church battles not over yet

Litigation to try to prevent the demolition of Christ Church Cathedral began more than two years ago. The latest decision on it, lifting an order that was preventing action by the Anglican Church that would have advanced the work, was delivered on Friday.

That decision removes one obstacle to progress but, unfortunately, it is unlikely to be the last of the contention over the future of the cathedral site.

The battle in the courts began in October 2011 after the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, using its powers under the earthquake recovery act, ordered the church to make the cathedral safe.

When the cathedral's custodians, the Church Property Trustees, reacted to the order with a proposal to demolish the remains of the cathedral to a height of two or three metres, the Great Christchurch Buildings Trust, led by former MPs Philip Burdon and Jim Anderton, challenged it.

The challenge was based on the proposition that the church was required by its trust deed to retain the cathedral as it had been built.

The High Court rejected that, finding that the church was required only to have a cathedral on the site, not necessarily the original building, and that finding was upheld by the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

The decision on Friday lifts an order that halted work while the case made its way through the courts. More demolition, though, will require further consents, which raises the potential for more litigation.

That would be a pity, for in litigation there is usually one winner and one loser but, given the incompatibility, as it appears, of the positions of the two sides in the argument, it seems inevitable.

The church suffered badly in the earthquakes. In addition to the cathedral, many of its parish churches were heavily damaged.

It does not believe it can justify the expense it believes would be required to try to restore the cathedral while so much else needs to be done. It also does not believe that the supporters of the cathedral would be able to raise the money required to complete the work as they said they could do.

The supporters of the cathedral, for their part, believe passionately that, with so many of Christchurch's other heritage buildings gone, the city cannot afford to lose its single most central one.

A design for a new cathedral has been produced but the architects that produced it have already said the design needs more work.

A recent opinion poll found that only a fifth of respondents wanted to retain the old cathedral but more than half wanted something on the site that retained the "look and feel" of the old cathedral. This suggests that the church must move sensitively from here on.

The sense of loss that many feel from the damage done to the cathedral by the earthquakes is likely to become more acute when any demolition gets under way.

Aside from the court battles, the proponents of the old cathedral claim to have a body of ordinary church supporters behind them and have said they will mobilise that opinion in their cause. If they are right, the fight over the building may be far from over.

The Press