Connections to the past run deep

22:38, Oct 05 2014
DESIGN IDEA: The Canterbury Cathedral Girls' Choir poses for a photograph after Evensong at Canterbury Cathedral in southern England. The photo shows the curved east end, which may have inspired the shape of Christ Church Cathedral.

Why do so many people in Christchurch, throughout New Zealand and around the world, feel so passionately that the Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ must be restored?

Although it is featured in a book on great cathedrals of the world, it is not a landmark of architectural history like Chartres or Beauvais.

Its size is not exceptional nor is it particularly old; the centennial of its completion was celebrated only a decade ago although its foundations were begun in 1864.

HISTORIC VALUE: Wreaths in front of the cathedral mark Anzac Day in 1928.

There has to be something more to explain its significance to so many people.

As most readers of The Press know, Canterbury was founded as a Church of England settlement in 1850 and part of the promise to colonists was that there would be a complete diocesan establishment with a cathedral at the city's centre.

Christ Church Cathedral was the fulfilment of that promise and it was a building project that challenged, frustrated but ultimately unified the people of the city and plain by the time of its consecration in 1881.


The cathedral sits in the very heart of the city, the enduring symbol of the special nature of the Canterbury Association's idealistic colonising venture.

More completely than almost any other 19th-century colony, Canterbury was the product of some of Victorian Britain's most potent ideas concerning religious reform, immigration theory and the social critique embodied in medievalism, the idea that the values of another age were a yardstick by which the achievements of the present could be measured.

Our Gothic Revival cathedral reminds us that spiritual and human values are more enduring than the materialism of the consumer society. It also shows us what a community of a few thousand people could achieve through sacrifice, dedication and hard work.

The prominence of the cathedral's location, at the very hub of the city's plan, is also exceptional. No other city in Australasia and few cities in the world give such pride of place to a cathedral. No city I can think of shares its name with its cathedral as Christchurch does.


We have long accepted that, in an important way, the city and its centrally placed cathedral are one. No-one needs reminding that the dominant motif of the city's logo is the west elevation of the Anglican cathedral.

The view is often expressed that people are what is important about the church and that buildings represent only the materials of which they are made.

But this is to overlook the fact that buildings are the products of human imaginations, are brought into being through communal effort and shaped by human hands.

Buildings such as Christ Church Cathedral are the embodiment of the aspirations of an entire community.

Created through industrial processes and assembled on a site, the cathedral was handcrafted from its constituent elements of wood and stone.

Every stone of the cathedral has been shaped, every capital carved, every stained-glass window painted, by the hands of individual human beings.

It is the product of the creative energy, skill and labour of a host of named and unnamed people.

The cathedral's human dimension is also expressed in other ways, for it incorporates memorials that link us to our past.

These memorials are not just plaques or inscriptions, although there are many of these, but form parts of the fabric of the church itself. Each column of the nave arcade has a story to tell; one is a memorial to the pioneering photographer Alfred Charles Barker and his wife, Emma; another was a gift of the Freemasons of Canterbury, a third the gift of an English branch of the Acland family.

Perhaps best known is the Rhodes family's funding of the tower and spire but other parts of the building and its furnishings also have commemorative functions.

The pulpit, for example, is a memorial to New Zealand's founding Anglican bishop, George Augustus Selwyn.


The cathedral may be, first and foremost, a place of worship but it is also our ancestral house, a place that connects us to those who came before.

The ability of great buildings to connect us to our past is one of their most important roles.

Unlike the span of a human life, the lives of buildings, like those of great trees, can extend for centuries. They form a bridge between present and past that provides continuity between one generation and the next and across the phases of a community's growth and change.

Traditionally, the building of cathedrals has been the work of successive generations and comparatively few of those who witnessed the laying of the foundation stone of Christ Church Cathedral in 1864 were present when the transepts and chancel were consecrated in 1904.

Yet buildings can forge links across space and time in other ways too. The architect of the cathedral was Sir George Gilbert Scott, regarded by many as the pre-eminent Victorian church builder.

Scott was probably the first truly global architect, the first architect of whom it could be said that the sun never set on his buildings. He designed cathedrals for Newfoundland in Canada, for Shanghai in China, for Grahamstown in South Africa, as well as for Edinburgh in Scotland.

Scott was, of course, not the only Victorian architect who designed for the new Anglican dioceses that were spreading around the globe in the middle years of the 19th century but he was the most prolific.

His Christ Church Cathedral has been described by the architectural historian Alex Bremner as "among the most perfect symbols of the reach and ambition of the Anglican confession worldwide", an observation that reminds us that our cathedral connects us to an international, not just a local community.

Yet these connections run deeper still.

Have you ever wondered why our cathedral has a curved east end rather than the square end that is one of the defining characteristics of England's medieval cathedrals?

Scott described his design as being French in style, which also seems odd when you consider that Canterbury was to be a quintessentially English settlement.

Scott knew what he was doing. The English cathedral that is most French in character is Christ Church, Canterbury, its choir designed in the12th century by Frenchman William of Sens, with a curved east end.

Our Christ Church Cathedral was intended to connect us architecturally, historically and spiritually to that other Christ Church in Kent.

(The president of the Canterbury Association, as Scott almost certainly knew, was the Archbishop of Canterbury.)


Two years ago I attended a conference in Canterbury to mark the bicentennial of the birth of the great Victorian architect, Augustus Welby Pugin, who through his writings as well as his buildings made the Gothic Revival the national style of England in the middle decades of the 19th century. The Houses of Parliament at Westminster look the way they do because of Pugin's contribution.

My only chance to visit Canterbury Cathedral during the conference was to attend an early morning service conducted in the curved, easternmost part of that great church before it opened to visitors.

There were fewer than 10 of us in that vast building but as the timeless ritual unfolded I had a powerful sense of words echoing across centuries, of people linked to people and shared spiritual experiences across time, back to St Augustine in the 6th century and beyond.

At that moment I had no doubt that our Christ Church was intended to link Canterbury, New Zealand and the spot where Augustine planted his crozier in 597.

It is no accident that these two cathedrals, 20,000 kilometres apart, share the same dedication.

A remark by Edward Dobson, the engineer whose involvement with the cathedral stretched back to the start of its construction, confirms my intuition.

On the cathedral's completion in 1904, he suggested that our "church may in future be appropriately known by the time-honoured designation of its English prototype, 'the Canterbury Cathedral'."

In reality, a building does not have to be so very old to link us to the distant past and although we may not articulate these connections, they are nevertheless unconsciously felt.

Now that the trauma of the earthquakes is less immediate, it is possible for us to consider in a more dispassionate way why Christ Church Cathedral is such an important building, not just for Anglicans, not just for Christians, but for everyone in our community.

The cathedral has been a central part of our lives as a community for more than a century, the setting for and backdrop to many of the most significant events in our history.

But it also gives us a sense of belonging to something larger than the commonplace realities of our everyday lives, of inhabiting a larger world than that of Christchurch, and Canterbury, or indeed New Zealand.

It reaches outwards in space and time in a way that a new building will never do.


On Saturday, February 26, 2011, I was in Leeston, away from the turmoil of the city. The sun was shining; everything seemed uncannily normal.

I bought a copy of The Press. On the front page was a story about Christ Church Cathedral in which then-mayor Parker and Dean Beck agreed that it would be restored.

What did others think I wondered? My next stop was the butcher. "Should we restore the cathedral?" I asked as he handed over my purchase.

"Of course we must" was the unhesitating and unequivocal reply. "It's our identity!"

What more needs to be said?

Dr Ian Lochhead is an architectural historian and former associate professor of art history at the University of Canterbury.

The Press