That relic, Christ Church Cathedral, must go

David Walker/Stuff
History was made today when Anglicans voted to restore the Christ Church Cathedral.

Don't rebuild the cathedral, writes actor and former Christchurch resident SAM NEILL. After this succession of disasters, the city has an unexpected opportunity to begin anew. 

OPINION: Around the world, since March 15, the word Christchurch has become so much more than a place-name; but synonymous with massacre, terrorism, racism, gun madness and fanaticism.

But also leadership, compassion, tolerance, solidarity, community, bravery and hope. Even love.

Without meaning or wanting to, little Christchurch has become incredibly important in a global sense – representing everything that is wrong with the world, and everything that is right at the same time.

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Sam Neill knew the cathedral well, having spent his childhood listening to long sermons inside.
LAWRENCE SMITH/Stuff
Sam Neill knew the cathedral well, having spent his childhood listening to long sermons inside.

What happens there now, how people go forward in Canterbury, is central to all our futures.

At the very heart of Christchurch lies a potent symbol of all of this, as well as the suffering of Christchurch's recent years – the ruins of a cathedral. Fenced off, abandoned, full of rats and pigeons, it is a vivid reminder of the violence of the two great earthquakes, as well as the history of the city itself.

It was a church I once knew well, and in which for the 15 or so years that I lived in Christchurch, I spent many long hours struggling to stay awake listening to well meaning men in unlikely looking garb preaching very long sermons.

These days, religion is not something for which I have a great deal of time. Given the state of the world, I have long joked that if I were God, I would ban religion. I don't really mean it – I think everyone is entitled to worship as they see fit. Unless of course, there is any kind of intolerance that accompanies that faith.

But I am an unabashed fan of great cathedrals – Worcester, Notre Dame, Reims, Durham, Ely and so on; these are among some of the greatest creations of man. The same is true of great Mosques – the Blue Mosque Istanbul, Jama Masjid, Shah Mosque Isfahan to name a few. Religion can build beautiful things.

But, in all kindness, Christ Church Cathedral was never one of them, never great. It was too small, too pedestrian and ultimately a pale pastiche of another time and place. English Victorian Gothic.

From its very foundation, there was something slightly wrong with this cathedral. Canterbury was founded as a Church of England colony. Dominant in its centre was this Anglican place of worship. Unfortunately it was never just a church, but a symbol of the Anglican Establishment and the hierarchical structure that was deliberately imported from Great Britain, class by class.

The geography of Christchurch is telling – plumb in the middle is the cathedral. Every other church, mosque, synagogue and so on were consigned to the periphery, demoted in importance. The wrecked Catholic Basilica was as literally close to the wrong side of the tracks as possible. The same is true of the marae of Ngāi Tahu. Every other faith, every other culture was of less evident value than the old school cosiness somehow embodied in the grey stones of the cathedral.

All these years later, Christchurch is a very different place. The Anglican establishment is diminished. If the events of the last few weeks have told us anything, it is that this is now a city more diverse, more complex, and far more interesting. But I would also say more fractioned, more splintered than ever. Until now. What I witnessed in the days after these atrocious crimes, was a city that demanded unity, that hungered for community and for a meaningful place to come together. The Botanical Gardens fence was not that place.

Nor is the ruined Anglican cathedral.

The plan, as I understand it, is to rebuild this relic, at vast expense. I seriously doubt the wisdom of this. If ever there was a time to start again, it is now. 

That is also true for the Anglican Church. 

Just as we have all had to recalibrate the way we think about each other, about our community, we need to think again about the fabric of our place. 

What's needed is a completely rethought centre, a new true heart for Christchurch. A place that represents and belongs to all of Christchurch.

An architectural  symbol of a different unified  Christchurch.

Somewhere to meet, to sing, to talk, to be quiet, to debate, to laugh, to perform, to get to know one another, to listen. Somewhere without hierarchy but rather fellowship. Somewhere without any particular creed, and that embraces all our cultures. Somewhere to believe, or not, as you wish. A place full of life; with theatres, meeting halls, even prayer rooms … a dynamic social hub.

I do not suggest that there should be no Anglican cathedral. There already is one – the Cardboard Cathedral. It is brilliant – very cool – practical, humble and positioned as far from the centre as all other places of worship in Christchurch. And it's about the right size for its congregation these days. It is appropriate in a way the old ruined Cathedral never really was.

Let's quietly and respectfully dismantle the old wreck, sad as that may be for many. Let us make an entirely new start. It would cost far less and mean so much more. An inclusive heart in the very centre of a great resurgent city, and make Christchurch a byword for a new harmonious world.

After March 15, the city demanded unity, hungered for community and for a meaningful place to come together. This church was not that place.
Iain McGregor/Stuff
After March 15, the city demanded unity, hungered for community and for a meaningful place to come together. This church was not that place.

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