Another cathedral much admired and beloved

STEPHEN OLIVER
Last updated 07:10 01/10/2012

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Stephen Oliver

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The other week I had the opportunity to visit the south and on my return from Dunedin found myself with a three-hour delay in Christchurch, waiting for a connecting flight north. I can think of nothing more boring than hanging around airports and paying $5 for a coffee or $9 for a so-called panini. Highway robbery - or should that be tarmac robbery. International airports complete with domestic terminals are like little city-states; a law unto themselves.

Instead of being put in a position to endlessly ponder these thoughts (to read a book is always an option), I decided on a two-hour escape into Christchurch, or the wasteland that is now post-earthquake Christchurch. One curious phenomenon I had observed in my fellow travellers was that many of them were armed with Kindles.

While waiting in the departure lounge at Auckland Airport for my direct flight to Dunedin, I asked a guy sitting next to me what he found useful in the Kindle device as opposed to the traditional book. Printed matter versus electronica. The first thing he said was, “It's got a light.”

Groovy, I thought. And, that he could store 3000 books on it. I said he could never read that many books. Basically, it was a trendy gadget with add-ons. That was the attraction. Reading or deep reading comes without an artificial light as I understand it, except for the one in your head. An attitude and mode of concentration as opposed to gadgetry. What happens when the batteries run out? Does it glow forever?

Another tool, another trend. Each to their own, I suppose. Long live the book!

I have written about Christ Church Cathedral in a previous column suggesting that beyond complete demolition, the structure might be preserved at least in part as New Zealand's first quasi- mediaeval ruin. In reality of course, it is an example of late Victorian Gothic architecture. Or at least that is the way I see it.

Up until this point, I had not physically seen the structure. Suddenly there it was, stoic and damaged. The quadrant resembled a compound. The cathedral and square closed off to the public. A security guard redirected traffic away from the cordoned-off access points. He emerged from a guard booth, wearing a black beret and dressed in green army fatigues complete with combat boots. He wore aviator sunglasses.

Looking at the cathedral I was surprised to see how much of the main structure remained ostensibly intact.

I thought, what is being protected here - is the cathedral the ossuary of Jesus Christ? Does it house the old bones of Anglican founding fathers?

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That was the point. The Christ Church Cathedral symbolically represents Christchurch and is revered in so far as it “protects” and represents the “soul” or historical identity of that city.

Anglicanism, pilgrim! The last of our ties to the illusion of imperialist Britain.

That ghost yet lingers on in Christchurch. Should the cathedral be completely demolished so too would the historical identity of the city and the frayed ties to the “motherland”.

Of course, that link was severed decades ago; already moribund by the end of World War I.

No-one told Christchurch the game was up. Maybe the telegrams didn't get through? “The Empire Is Dead.”

So there it stolidly squats. Testament to an undecided future safeguarding the lie of empire: God, Queen and Country.

George Bernard Shaw when he visited Christchurch in the 1930s famously commented upon one cathedral, stating that it represented perhaps the finest example of architectural grandeur in the southern hemisphere.

The civic leaders puffed out their Anglican chests and said they were very proud of their Christ Church Cathedral.

GBS snorted, “No, not that one - the other cathedral down by the gas works."

He was referring of course to the Catholic Basilica with its Neo-classical design and supposedly the finest example of post-renaissance architecture in Australasia. The architect was Francis Petrie, and the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament is regarded as perhaps his finest work.

The Anglican fathers of the day did not want the Catholics to build in the centre of the city and offered a swampy strip of land down near the gas works and railway station - well away from the main centre. Anglicans rule.

As for beauty and style, Christ Church Cathedral looks like a giant kennel in comparison to the shattered beauty of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament whose fate remains undecided.

It has lost its two bell towers and has had the great central dome removed and much of the back structure of the church. The facade attests to the classic beauty it once was, yet its future remains uncertain - just like the identity of Christchurch.

Stephen Oliver is the author of 16 volumes of poetry.

- Waikato Times

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