Who would have thought that, in the saga that is the ‘recovery’ of Christchurch, it would be the Anglican Church that would give us the clearest example of the emptiness of modern expressions of ‘community’?
When push came to shove – which, quite literally, happened to the Christ Church Cathedral – citizens of Christchurch were given a clear message: Butt out, it’s not yours so you don’t have a say. The wording, of course, was more diplomatic than that – but the sense, ultimately, was the same.
There have been signs for some time that the decision was going to be taken ‘in house’:
Former Christchurch mayor Garry Moore has joined calls for cathedral leaders to be more open about the building’s future.
“A small number of people are making a big number of decisions that we all need to participate in,” he said.
“We need to have this debate in public. The church is an institution and, as a member of our society, they need to be open as well.
“I think for buildings like the old post office and the cathedral … discussions need to be held out in the public. They are part of the heritage fabric of this city.”
So much for ‘our’ Cathedral.
The veil has been ripped, and revealed behind it is a thoroughly modern corporate entity operating on bottom line principles, led by a new CEO (in all but title). (As with all new CEOs, there has also been a bit of restructuring.)
Yet the decision to demolish the Anglican Cathedral is bad for the Anglican Church, whose worthies are presumably too bent over the bottom line to look up and notice just how bad. They have just managed to undermine their influence in whatever kind of Christchurch manages to survive.
Let me be clear: I don’t mean that they have ‘upset’ a lot of ordinary people in Christchurch and the bad ‘PR’ will hurt their ‘brand’. I mean something far more materially significant that no amount of time or spin will counter.
Their own decision not to restore but to build some completely different building will ensure, on its own terms, that the Anglican Cathedral will not occupy the role the old Cathedral did. And that means that the Anglican Church will also not occupy what role of influence it used to.
I would have thought this was obvious but, as I said, bottom line considerations have a habit of making ‘decision makers’ take for granted that everything else stays the same while they are busy making their ‘optimal’ decision. Problem is, everything else doesn’t stay the same.
The social dynamic changes and some decisions – such as this one – manage to move you away from that dynamism and leave you becalmed in a backwater with few concerned about you or your fate. That’s what this decision will do for the Anglican Church in Christchurch. It amounts to a decision to forego the opportunity to continue to be identified with the city, and to be identified by its citizens as a special part of Christchurch.
Shorn of its historical significance as the quintessential expression of the efforts of the early settlers, any new Cathedral will simply become one of many new, post-earthquake buildings. Christopher Moore opines, hopefully, in The Press that:
Christ Church Cathedral’s story now enters a new, as yet unwritten chapter. But in whatever form it reappears, let’s pray that it will generate as much love, respect and pride as the church which occupied a central place in Christchurch’s heart for so long.
Sorry Christopher. That’s not going to happen, no matter how many PR efforts the Anglican Church puts in or how many fashionably ’21st century’, quirky design features the new (budget) Cathedral sports.
The vast bulk of Christchurch’s citizens are not Anglicans – and most of those who call themselves Anglicans are just ‘nominal’. (Figures for New Zealand religious affiliation are here and here.) There’s no reason for the rest of us to hold a new Cathedral more dearly to our hearts than any number of other new buildings – and, if the Catholic Cathedral is restored in full, my guess is that that will be the Church we’ll all be taking our visitors to see (it was always a far more beautiful building anyway).
No, the Anglican Church has just decided its way into irrelevance.
But there’s another, more general, aspect to the decision: it sends out a huge symbolic message to everyone in Christchurch: If ‘we’ can’t restore the Cathedral then what hope does any other building in Christchurch have?
In a word, the decision pronounces loudly and clearly that the Christchurch that was is completely gone and, what is more, that there is no recognition (by those who will have the power to decide) that some continuity is required amongst the imposed carnage of change (imposed as much by numerous entities’ ‘bottom lines’ as by the earthquake).
No, it will all come down to the money and to the accounting of individual property owners. This decision should make all Christchurch citizens acutely aware that not only is the Cathedral not theirs (and never was) the same is true of the central city. It is not their city, it is owned by a series of private owners who will not be required to consider the views of ‘the community’ of Christchurch.
The neo-liberal chooks have well and truly come home to roost and we can say bye-bye to any notion of an actual community that is able to make decisions in its own interests.
The background to this decision and the way it was announced are object lessons in how talk of ‘community’ in today’s world is a snow job of alpine proportions. If a so-called ‘community’ has no real power to save its most ‘iconic’ building, used so extensively to define itself, then to what extent is it really a community worthy of the name? – and why isn’t it? (more on this later).
It also needs to be emphasised that the Anglican Church in Christchurch is one of the institutions most prone to talking about ‘community’ and its importance (probably second only to the Mayor). And, irrespective of religious affiliation – or lack of – the Anglican Cathedral has always been assumed by people in Christchurch to be an expression-in-stone of that level of ‘community’ commonly called a city.
Here’s how that building fitted into our sense of ourselves as a community – in very ordinary, non-religious, non-official ways.
I have climbed the concrete spiral stairs up the Cathedral spire at least twice in my life (probably more times but I can’t specifically remember when else). Once – around about 1971 – I was taken up there by a schoolfriend and his white-haired father.
I remember looking out of the west balcony and being told by his father that if you dropped a penny from there and it hit a passerby on the head it would be travelling so fast that it would go right through them to the ground. That impressed me in a schoolboy kind of way.
We spent maybe twenty minutes looking out at all the sides – seeing the Port Hills down Colombo Street, the clear sky above and any number of buildings. I remember the United Services Hotel was still there (now the ANZ building – well, that’s right now, but who knows in a few months time?).
The second time I was with some family members visiting from England in the 1980s. My brother and I were showing them the landmarks from the balcony, showing off the city as so many locals have done.
When Bishop Victoria Matthews made the announcement she mentioned the
“high level of community interest and sense of ownership” in the cathedral as an iconic building and a place of worship for many.
‘Sense of ownership’? I’m sorry Bishop Victoria Matthews but that was not a ‘sense’ of ownership – it was ownership, in a far more fundamental ‘sense’ than legal title.
And that is what your Church had always encouraged us to believe and it is one important reason why the Anglican Church retained an influence and prominence in this city far beyond the size of its diminishing congregations. It was also the reason it received constant support and, I suspect, funding from our city.
As a brochure (that can be downloaded from here) puts it:
It is a church for the city, open to all, and its programmes are supported by people of many different beliefs.
For those of us who climbed those stairs to stand looking out over our city or to show, proudly, those things that were ‘ours’ to our guests, the Cathedral was not just some private building (like a showy ‘Sky Tower’ or the reception foyer of a classy Hotel) that we thought we could get away with sneaking into.
No, for us the Cathedral was more like the Town Hall, the Provincial Chambers or the Arts Centre – it was a public building in the full sense of the term. It was ‘ours’.
But this decision has shown us, quite plainly, that we were wrong. It was not ours and, more significantly, the very Church that encouraged us to embrace it as ours was there to remind us, in the end, that it most definitely wasn’t.
With that decision, we – the rank and file people of Christchurch – have been turned from a ‘community’ for whom this Cathedral existed into an emotional, skittery herd in need of careful rhetorical massaging as we get let down gently into the ‘realities’ of the situation.
While ordinary people are often encouraged to think of themselves as part of a community (e.g., Christchurch or New Zealand) and to participate in the sentiment and emotion of that connection the reality is clearly that, when there are decisions to be made, the door will be closed to us.
As a result, the power to make decisions about the very things (e.g., the city’s Cathedral) which we were told symbolised the reality of our ‘community’ is denied us. It is telling that the Mayor, Bob Parker, made the suggestion to the Bishop that the Cathedral could move into public ownership in order for it to be restored. The offer was rejected.
Apparently, there was too much of an “emotional link” for the Church to what must be – even now – a valuable piece of inner city real estate. Bishop Matthews went on
“That is not a possibility for the church. The cathedral needs to sit on Anglican land because of the whole notion of consecration. That is not the way we want to proceed,” she said.
I hadn’t realised that a private property title was required for a church to be consecrated – quite a curious legal stipulation for a spiritual matter – but presumably she knows better than me what God requires. Further,
“This site is very important to Christchurch and the Anglican church. That has been a place of prayer for all those years. One-hundred-and-thirty years for that building.
“Prayer has soaked into the walls and earth. You can’t walk away from that.“
Well, it appears that, on the one hand, you can, indeed, walk away from the prayer-soaked walls, but, on the other hand, the dirt – which presumably collects the prayers as they seep earthwards down the walls – is another matter. That is far too special.
But perhaps there’s, in fact, a more positive lesson about community to be had from all of this, and one that applies to other issues in New Zealand such as land and asset sales.
When push does come to shove, we need to realise that all that rhetoric we hear (from all sorts of institutions – political, commercial and religious) about how we are all part of a ‘community’ is, as I said, a snow job. Yet there was one very real expression of community that has been noted constantly during these earthquakes and the recovery.
Many of us found our community in the same street and in the faces of people who came to bend their backs to the heavy tasks we had before us. Underpinned by the mountain of practical and material difficulties we all faced we generated connections and, more importantly, a sense of social ‘common fate‘. We ‘moved together’ to do what needed to be done.
This is the basis of community. It requires a collective project, performed together in a coordinated way (determined by all members of the community) and towards an end that all benefit from and contribute to.
What made us think that the Cathedral was an ‘expression-in-stone’ of our community and collective existence was the notion that it was ours and that we, together, could use it for our collective goals. But now we know we can’t.
No community exists when everything is held privately – that social condition is merely an association of substitutable, property-owning individuals who have, by definition, no ‘common fate’ (or none that they wouldn’t like to be able to avoid). We are seeing in Christchurch the result of that social condition every day.
The challenge, then, is obvious. If we wish to be an actual community then we need buildings, projects and resources (capital) that are ours, collectively, that we can employ- put to work – for our ‘common fate’.
That applies as much to New Zealand as a whole – its land and its ‘assets’ – as it does to this broken city I call home.
Our community – and that proportion of the material and practical ‘capital’ that is an utter prerequisite for its existence – must be held in common; in all of our hands.