The powerful symbolism of an unfinished Christ Church Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral, with spire intact, in 2010.

Christ Church Cathedral, with spire intact, in 2010.

Whether it is to be restore, rebuild or raze, the symbolism of the cathedral spire can not be denied, writes MARK AITCHISON.

OPINION: What is a cathedral; what do people see it representing?  

If we want to save the cathedral at the heart of Christchurch, these are questions to think about. People on both sides of the restoration debate deserve respect as they are passionately trying to save a different cathedral they see and love.


For those who knew the cathedral from the inside, and know its history of earthquake vulnerability, restoration of the cathedral means salvaging what they can from the old building and setting a new shell around them. For others, the shell was the cathedral, and they feel the duty to protect it and, with it, the hope of many Cantabrians who have lost so much but should never be asked to sacrifice the heart of the city if there is any chance of keeping it beating.

Of course they argued over each others' heads. The classic ways to resolve disputes got us nowhere, because nobody was really wrong, and how can you find a compromise in options diametrically opposed like theirs?  Hence the delay, the litigation, the acrimony, the ruins.

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Marcus Brandt puts finishing touches on a model of the "people's steeple" that he envisages as a fundraising device for ...

Marcus Brandt puts finishing touches on a model of the "people's steeple" that he envisages as a fundraising device for Christ Church Cathedral.

So for a third group the cathedral represents the shameful millstone around the neck of the rebuild … and any quick solution is their right solution. In that atmosphere our most important question is in danger of being lost.

Nevertheless, those concerned with the eyesore those ruins present do have a point that needs  addressing before loftier matters. Our cathedral took a long time, forty years, to build, but it was no wilderness. And it need not be one now. Tourists are more patient and understanding than locals in this respect; we don't need to rush for the sake of tourist revenue, nor CBD confidence, but we do need to work together to bring the best atmosphere to the site, that expresses our hopes and heritage well.  

A good example to follow is the Inverness Town House work, where a beautiful curtain and interpretation panels around the work are a good tourist attraction.


If we can see how a pile of broken stones may hurt our reputation we should also appreciate how greater negligence in simple humanity also damages our mana.  Some people still await justice after the earthquake and live in broken homes, battling with insurance companies and a process that we, as a people, should have ensured worked.  Health spending in the region, and especially youth mental health, still hasn't caught up with post-quake needs. That shame cannot be hidden.

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What can be done?  The principle of prioritising expensive buildings over the most basic elements of justice and loving-kindness in quake responses is clearly wrong, but it is hard to convince ardent building campaigners how spending a lot of money on the cathedral will disadvantage (say) raising funds for mental health.

So I suggest a simpler strategy: let us, as a city, deliberately delay rebuilding the tower/spire until the more urgent human problems have been fixed. It does not interfere with the choice of rebuild option, it puts real pressure on to solve problems, and it presents the symbolism of the cathedral as it should be seen.

A beautiful curtain and interpretation panels around the restoration work on the Inverness Town Hall make for a good ...

A beautiful curtain and interpretation panels around the restoration work on the Inverness Town Hall make for a good tourist attraction.

The spire of a church looks heavenward. It is the most inspirational part of most churches, but it easily can become a monument to our skills and extravagance rather than serving God. Making any church or mosque or temple into an exercise in swank is always a temptation, one addressed in the gospels where Jesus begins saying "You see all these things, do you not?".

Often spires are built early on in cathedral projects, to inspire more donations. To not do so would be startling. 

And Jesus-like. 

I think we are being called to look around us, and get the basics sorted first, before looking heavenward. It is something all of us can understand, and a decision that should come from Cantabrians as a whole, after thinking about what it would achieve, and what not doing so would say about us.   

Everything else (such as the final cost, will it again be a ruin for a future generation to fix) may be full of uncertainty but in the significance of putting honour first we are on solid ground. 

I hope we respect those going to Synod to decide on the best, safest option for posterity. Certainly they will take an idea of what the people of Canterbury – for whom this cathedral is clearly iconic – feel.  Our part, as Cantabrians, is to research our history, think about what a cathedral (and the city's logo) should symbolise, say "we see all these things" and, from that understanding, be prepared to declare "do not rebuild the spire until our duty to quake victims is honoured".

 - Stuff


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