Analysis: The unacceptable information vacuum on the new Christ Church Cathedral option

Synod members will decide the fate of the quake-damaged Christ Church Cathedral in September.

Synod members will decide the fate of the quake-damaged Christ Church Cathedral in September.

ANALYSIS: The Anglican church has thrown a very large cat among the pigeons roosting in the decrepit Christ Church Cathedral. What effect it will have is unclear.

The church announced on Monday that a third option to gift the earthquake-damaged church to the Government "on behalf of all New Zealanders" would be introduced into a critical Anglican synod vote on September 9.

Until then, synod members were being asked to consider only two options: demolish and build a new cathedral, or restoration.

Those options presented two clear, distinct paths. The third option does not, because right now it has two enormous unanswered questions hanging over it:

– Would the gift include the church's $42 million insurance payout on the cathedral?

– Is the Government open to accepting the cathedral as a gift?

So far, the church has said the third option would see it enter into negotiations with the Government for the gifting of the cathedral building. Asked specifically about the insurance money, Bishop Victoria Matthews said that would be "discussed as part of the negotiations".

That's not good enough. Withholding an insurance payout would be a pretty clear dealbreaker for anyone considering accepting an earthquake-damaged building as a gift. To be clear, the church has not said that it would do this, but it hasn't explicitly said that it wouldn't.

The reference in its statement that, if the gift option prevailed at synod, the church would "share its extensive knowledge and experience of the building to assist the Government in its reinstatement" suggests a commitment to restoration that would surely have to include the $42m, but nothing more.

The church refused to answer questions about it on Tuesday, saying Matthews was too busy preparing for pre-synod meetings.

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Hopefully those meetings will give synod members more clarity because it's disingenuous to expect them to properly consider supporting such a plan without knowing for sure whether or not nearly half the money for the cathedral's $100m plus repair bill is part of the deal.

Equally, they are entitled to know if the Government is even interested in accepting the cathedral as a gift, and judging by its public comments since Monday, it isn't sure itself.

Asked if the Government wanted such a gift from the Anglican Church, Prime Minister Bill English said: "We'd have to consider what they think they mean by that".

Christchurch Regeneration Minister Nicky Wagner was a little more forthcoming, revealing that she first learned of the plan from Matthews late last week and was "keen to hear more detail about this new option in order to better consider what it means for the Government".

She also said the funding model of the existing restoration option – including a $10m pledge from the Christchurch City Council, a Great Christchurch Buildings Trust pledge of $13.7m, a $10m Crown cash contribution, a $15m suspensory government loan and the church's insurance payout – would likely "have to remain the same".

Which is something at least, but it's clear that the details around the money haven't been confirmed and the Government hasn't yet properly considered if it wants to be the custodian of Christchurch's most celebrated building. 

It needs to, and it needs to inform the church what its position is, because it's no use the synod voting to give the cathedral away as a gift only to later learn the intended recipient doesn't want it.

Needless to say, more information is required. Not just for synod members, but for "all New Zealanders" the church says will be the beneficiaries of its largesse.

On Tuesday the church wasn't even able to confirm the synod voting process.

Traditionally, the bishop, the clergy and the laity each have one vote, but in May Bishop Matthews said she hoped to give every synod member a single, equal vote on the cathedral. That would be more representative, but could also open up the possibility of a split vote between two 'restore' options. We will report the answer if and when it arrives. 

Time, as always, remains a factor. The cathedral has languished in its eponymous square for more than six years and the latest announcement from the church is barely two days old.

There are just over three weeks until the decisive synod vote, which isn't long, but long enough to digest the latest development and bring some more clarity to the situation. It's not perfect, but nothing has been perfect about Christ Church Cathedral for a very long time.

 - Stuff


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