OPINION: Here are two things many people may not know about Christ Church Cathedral - it took a long time to build and could easily have been abandoned after its construction got off to a false start.
The cathedral was begun in 1864. Fully eight years later, the English novelist Anthony Trollope visited Christchurch and sadly noted that the church authorities had not got beyond laying the foundations during the intervening years of economic difficulty. Not a single stone or brick had been laid above ground level - something he regarded as a "huge record of their failure".
Contradicting the rosy picture we might have of early Christchurch as a successful Anglican settlement, he also found little evidence after Christchurch's first 20 years of the religious tenets of its founders - apart from the street names.
Trollope didn't think Christchurch was particularly Anglican, compared it unfavourably with Dunedin and supported a "general opinion" among Christchurch residents that the cathedral site might be better used for public offices.
It is tempting, but probably fanciful, to observe in his comments also a prescience about how Christchurch opinion tends to polarise on city issues even down to the present day.
"A cathedral will satisfy less than one half of [the community], and will greatly dissatisfy the other half," he wrote.
The cathedral was not consecrated until 1881, 17 years after it was started. Reporting that event, The Press observed that there were few people present who "could have hoped during their lifetime to see it even partially completed". The western porch would not be added until the turn of the 20th century.
Within a month of its consecration, the cathedral suffered its first damage from an earthquake. It was further damaged by earthquakes in 1888, 1901, 1922 and 2010, before parts of it were ruined in the tragedy of February 22, 2011.
Trollope was very much a Victorian and he seemed to like Gothic architecture. He wrote approvingly of the Provincial Council Buildings, for example.
But he also suggested that the grandeur of cathedrals should be proportional to the size of their flocks - a notion which perhaps echoes modern concerns that cathedral-building should not be undertaken at the expense of a church's ministry.
Trollope's visit to the cathedral foundations, and what he wrote afterwards, suggests that history repeats in other ways as well.
Now, as in 1872, the Anglican church - and particularly the Church Property Trustees - are constrained by financial considerations. Before deciding last weekend to replace the damaged cathedral with a modern design, they costed the option of a full restoration of the old building and obviously decided it was too much.
According to the diocese's own costings, restoration would cost $104 million to $221m and would take between 6 1/2 and 22 years to achieve. The contemporary design would cost $56m to $74m and take between 4 1/2 and 9 1/2 years.
Critics and heritage advocates, and those battling in the courts to prevent demolition, have disputed the figures and questioned the methodology behind them.
But however the numbers eventually stack up, the property trustees will still face the same divided public opinion that confronted their 19th-century forebears. If they get this wrong, what is eventually erected on the cathedral site will satisfy less than one half of the community; the other half will be greatly dissatisfied.
That reflects the importance that the old cathedral had in people's lives before the earthquakes - as the notional heart of the city, an expression of its self-identification as the "most English" of places and for countless families a symbol of connectedness to Christchurch through the generations.
It had stood in the eponymous Cathedral Square for all of living memory. The thought that it might disappear would be for many the final cruelty wrought by the earthquakes that had destroyed so much else and brought so much misery. This fondness for the old church was not just about religion - it was as much a civic landmark as an ecclesiastical one. Jim Anderton, one of the leading campaigners trying to prevent demolition, is a Catholic.
The flipside of that thinking, however, is the view of others that Christchurch might have a new symbolic heart - something that is less a yearning for the past as a beacon for the future. The property trustees' decision to go for a new church did not come as a surprise.
The final battle in the courts has yet to be decided, so it is by no means certain that the church authorities will get their way.
But it is not too soon, surely, to turn our attention to the merits or otherwise of the proposed new "contemporary" cathedral, as despicted in the church handout graphic on this page. An opinion of what might replace the old cathedral has to inform the views of even those still fighting to save it.
The question now surely is: is this the best they can do?
The design has variously been described as like a boat or an upturned iron, or a miniature imitation of the Sydney Opera House, and some women have pointed out the anatomical suggestions of its shape. The spire alone is likely to polarise opinion.
Bishop Victoria Matthews has conceded that the Warren and Mahoney concept might be altered or completely redesigned. If that's the case, why not hold an international competition and get the best possible design for Christchurch's future?
This is important because history will judge us for the quality of what we leave behind. Something that is not only beautiful but timeless, and, given the site's track record, something that is able to withstand recurring and potentially damaging earthquakes.
Will ours be the generation which saved the Town Hall but lost the old cathedral, spending $127m on a concert chamber and half of that on a replacement church? Will this be the age that could afford a convention centre and a stadium, but cared not enough to spend even a fraction of what those things might cost on the city's spiritual heart?
If a new and contemporary cathedral is to be built, it has to be at least a worthy replacement of the one that went before it. Can we honestly look on the current proposed design and agree that this is the one?
And why the rush to complete the thing? The original church wasn't completely finished for 40 years.
Ric Stevens is comment editor of The Press and has an honours degree in history from the University of Canterbury.
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