Not aspiring to a spire?

The earthquake has turned everything upside down.

The Wizard is at war with the Anglican Church – and I’m in agreement with Councillor Jamie Gough.

Whatever happened to life’s eternal certainties?

Looks like we’d better not ask Bishop Matthews – she appears to have lost track of them.

Or has she?

Today there will be an announcement on the future of the Anglican Christchurch Cathedral. [Update since starting to write this post: The Cathedral is to be ‘deconstructed’ to a 2-3 metre rump.]

The Bishop of Christchurch, Victoria Matthew’s has suggested – or at least supported – the idea that Cathedral Square could become “welcoming” and “engaging” if it had large movie screens and an artificial beach installed. I guess that’s a bit like the welcoming and engaging Hoyts’ centres? (Perhaps they’ll be inspired to install beaches in their foyers once the Square leads by example??)

In response, the Wizard has written a letter to The Press excoriating the Bishop for “coming up with more and more peculiar ideas“. Here’s my favourite bit.

Instead of vowing to rebuild the temple, the bishop wants the Square to be filled with an artificial beach and a giant outdoor movie screen! And some people think I’m crazy!

At least when the Romans tore down the temple at the heart of Jerusalem they didn’t add insult to injury by replacing it with a lido and commercial mass-media entertainment.

The response to the idea has inclined to the Wizard’s take on the matter (with some exceptions). Councillor Aaron Keown was all for the Bishop’s enthusiasm but had his own ‘commercial mass-media entertainment’ spectacle in mind – with less sand and more grass (and ice):

“I love her enthusiasm, I think it’s great she’s throwing ideas out there, and I love the idea of the movie screens,” he said.

“Not a beach, because of the winds that come through our city. Sand would just peeve me off, whipping up and smacking me in the chops.”

Keown favoured an ice-skating rink and a drop-in grassed area which would be known as the “Great Lawn”.

“[It could be] the largest inner-city outdoor skating rink in the southern hemisphere, full Olympic size so you have sports in there, and it would be open late to the public every night. It would be a beautiful inner-city winter image and for the other eight months the Great Lawn would be dropped in.”

[T]he largest inner-city outdoor skating rink in the southern hemisphere“? Looks like he wants to push Alexandra off the map.

There’s a context for the Bishop’s comments, of course.

The Cathedral is in a bad way as the result of the earthquakes.

Just how bad is something of a contested proposition. It’s ‘fate’ will be determined today but earlier offers from Kit Miyamoto and his claims that a restoration would cost about $20m set the scene for controversy (‘fate’ is an odd word in this context given it depends on what will, presumably, be a financial, political and strategic decision – hardly ‘fate’.). [Update since starting to write this post: The Cathedral is to be ‘deconstructed’ to a 2-3 metre rump. The costs, ultimately, have decided its ‘fate’.]

I have to come clean, though, and admit that I’m with Councillor Jamie Gough on this one:

Cr Jamie Gough said he supported creative ideas to revitalise the city, but an artificial beach was a “bridge too far”.

“I’m more interested in building back what we’ve lost. We haven’t lost our beaches as a result of the earthquake, what we have lost is a stunning and iconic [Christ Church] Cathedral in the heart of our city,” he said.

“My desire would be for energies to be going into permanent rebuild solutions for the cathedral, not temporary Aqualands.”

And there, I think, is the nub (or rub) of the matter. Will Cathedral Square remain Cathedral Square.

The simplest reading of Bishop Matthews’ “peculiar” idea about the beach and movie screens is that the Anglican Church is planning to abandon the Square – so it may as well join the rest of the secular city in becoming a “lido and commercial mass-media entertainment” venue. Whether this would or would not ‘revitalise’ the central city is probably neither here nor there for the Bishop – what it would do, though, is make the clear point that this is no place for a Cathedral.

Bishop Matthews has previously – and long before the more recent quakes which she is now emphasising – mooted the idea of the Cathedral making a massive pilgrimage westward to safer ground (and, interestingly, towards some of the wealthier Christchurch suburbs) if the city itself were to abandon its eastern suburbs and move its centre of gravity west. It looks like that centre of gravity is already on the move.

But there’s another reading of this suggestion that may well be closer to its ‘inspiration’. That reading goes deeper to the nature of the modern Anglican Church and the internal tensions within Christianity and other religions as they attempt to survive and retain their significance in an increasingly secular world.

The ‘reading’ I have in mind follows from a comment by comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell – in a well-known series of television interviews with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth – shortly before Campbell’s death. In one episode, Campbell noted the way that – in the Catholic Church – the latin mass had been abandoned to make the service more accessible and ‘relevant’ to the congregation.

Not only that – the priest now would address the congregation, facing them, rather than turning his back on them and addressing the highest point above the altar with arms spread in supplication and submission.

As Campbell derisively put it (I paraphrase), “It’s like a Julia Child’s cooking show” – and, as we now know with ‘Masterchef’, Jamie, Gordon and Nigella, they might be omnipresent but cooking shows are pretty routine and mundane fare (Then again, food and its preparation and eating can come close to lifting us out of the mundane and into communion – at least with each other, as I blogged earlier this year.).

Campbell’s concern was that the sacred – and the mythological – was being lost in pursuit of ‘relevance’ and ‘accessibility’. He was a non-believer but his sentiment was echoed by conservative members of the Church who saw these changes as undermining the sanctity of God.

The question for any religious or spiritual effort in a secular age revolves around this question: To appeal (in the anthropological sense) to the ordinary and the mundane; or, to appeal to the super-ordinary, the sacred and transcendent.

It’s probably one of the deepest spiritual truths, however, that the last barrier to the ‘truly’ spiritual experience of life is the very images of the sacred and ‘spiritual’ that we erect in our societies, cultures and minds.

As Campbell pointed out – in another episode of the same series – the last obstacle to becoming one with God (for the religious) is the image of God.

I may be being too generous, but perhaps the theology underpinning – or at least justifying – the loss of a neo-Gothic Cathedral in Christchurch is in a similar vein.

That the mighty Cathedrals of the past, the lavish vestments of the clergy and the aloofness of the traditional rituals are themselves barriers to spiritual insight may be, at least partly, behind the apparent readiness in Bishop Matthews and, it seems, in the Anglican hierarchy, to abandon all hope of (even inclination to) resurrecting the Christ Church Cathedral in any form resembling its past incarnation.

The idea that the ‘sacred’ is ‘other’ than the ‘ordinary’ – requiring the ethereal, stalagmitic striving of Gothic spires to ascend to it – may well be seen not only as outdated, but also as a barrier to the spiritual.

Hence ‘ordinary’ surroundings like a beach and a movie screen for the heart of Christchurch may be the best way to experience the tantalising paradoxicality of the spiritual – i.e., we miss it because it is everywhere, ‘even’ in the ordinary things of life.

Maybe that’s the right kind of heart to situate the ‘House of God’ within.

Well, maybe.

Then again, Bishop Matthews may simply be mistaking ‘accessibility’, ‘relevance’ and ‘popularity’ for appreciation, respect and spiritual awareness in the same way that some parents strive to be their children’s ‘best friend’ on the assumption that, in that way, they become better parents.

Having a ‘heart’ dominated by an artificial beach and giant movie screens may be so ordinary that God may have a hard time getting a look in (I wonder if ESPN will be showing non-stop?)

But, I suppose that having a Cathedral at the centre of the commercial heart is not that much better – though the stark contrast between God and mammon may well have converted a few souls over the decades. I’m not sure how lounging in the sun on a beach could achieve the same aim, but who knows – God works in mysterious ways that are typically unfathomable for the likes of us.

It looks, after all, like the heart of Christchurch will remain in the current CBD and Cathedral Square will remain at its centre. That means – if Bishop Matthews determination for the Cathedral to remain at Christchurch’s heart, no matter where that might be is as strong as it was in June last year – that some sort of Anglican Cathedral will be built on the present site.

I wonder what a Cathedral on a beach, vying for attention with movie screens might look like?

Affordable beachfront Cathedral

[Epilogue: The perils of writing while a story unfolds! Councillor Keown is promising to chain himself to the Cathedral – with many others. Gerry Brownlee has congratulated the Anglican Church on a “good decision” (How does he know it was ‘good’?). Completely unsurprisingly, it all came down to the money. We can quickly build a rugby ground with government support but not the most photographed, most ‘used’ building for Christchurch’s ‘brand’.

As reported:

Bishop Victoria said the trust was now “looking to the future” and wanted to create “a beautiful, inspiring, safe new cathedral”

She perhaps should have added “cheap” to her list of adjectives.

I am going to have to write another post on this announcement.]

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