Symbols are powerful things and can transcend their intended purpose to create new meanings. Buildings are a pertinent example of this. One building, more than any other over the past eight years has generated huge debate and discussion. Christ Church Cathedral in Christchurch Square is  in the news again and Kiwi acting icon, Sam Neill has suggested that the best way forward is to demolish it and create an interfaith building that reflects the contemporary nature of Christchurch’s community. 

The devastating Christchurch Earthquake of 2011 levelled many buildings of historical and cultural importance and relevance. In a matter of minutes, buildings that had formed the lived experiences and memories of generations of Christchurch’s residents, and visitors, were gone forever. The semi-destroyed Cathedral became an apt symbol of nature’s wrath upon the city’s built environment that day – damaged, ripped apart, yet still standing. In some ways, that symbolised for many the impact of the earthquake and the resilience of the people, who call Christchurch home.

“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.”

Again, tragedy and devastation has visited Christchurch – this time at the hands of a terrorist who murdered 50 people at two Mosques on March 15th.

Sam Neil, featured in an opinion piece in Stuff says: “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.

“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.” (Source: https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/christchurch-shooting/111794941/that-relic-christ-church-cathedral-must-go).

“The Cathedral was a meeting place. Each week, thousands of Christchurch residents would meet friends and family on the steps off the Cathedral and the steps were a wonderful viewing area to the theatre that would go on in the centre of town.”

Neill points out that the Cathedral was built as a part of the Anglican settlement of Christchurch in the 19th century, although it was completed until the beginning of the 20th and that its Victorian Gothic style was out of place for its setting. I agree with him that the building pales in comparison with other cathedrals around the world but I don’t really think its importance is solely about its purpose.

I grew up in Christchurch but the Cathedral in the Square wasn’t my religious destination. I was brought up Catholic and that faith’s cathedral was out of the way, on Barbadoes Street, far from the centre of the city. The Cathedral was a meeting place. Each week, thousands of Christchurch residents would meet friends and family on the steps off the Cathedral and the steps were a wonderful viewing area to the theatre that would go on in the centre of town. The Wizard, for example, would set up on his little step ladder and talk enthusiastically to lunch time crowds. The Square was a fantastic social setting for the people of Christchurch – with its movie theatres, cafes, and stores. In all honesty, the Square was destroyed long before the earthquakes – when banks set up shop, hotels, theatres and cafes were removed and the character of the place was diluted and disturbed.

“But instead of demolishing them, city leaders decided to make them safe but keep their ruined countenance as civic reminders of the impact of conflict and the power of human resistance.”

In some ways I agree with Neill and I know many other people do as well. The Anglican hierarchy don’t however, and in 2017 it was decided to rebuild the Cathedral at great expense. That decision brought to a close a debate that got rather heated on both sides – to rebuild or not.

The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church

Personally I always thought there was another option. One that other cities have taken when churches have been damaged in times of war. There are two particular examples that are now beautiful and potent symbols of revitalisation and resistance – St Luke’s Church in Liverpool, England, and The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, Germany. Both of these churches were hugely damaged from aerial bombing in WW11. But instead of demolishing them, city leaders decided to make them safe but keep their ruined countenance as civic reminders of the impact of conflict and the power of human resistance.

“While it would still require funding to ensure it was safe, and covered from the elements, it would be an incredible memorial and a beautiful symbol of a special place and its wonderful people.”

I believe Christ Church Cathedral would serve as a fitting example of the people of Christchurch’s incredible resistance after the two earthquakes that did so much damage and took so many lives. It would also be a beautiful memorial to the 185 who died. There are plenty of other empty spaces in the city to build a functional Anglican Cathedral. It doesn’t need to be in the very centre of town – the city is divorced now from the particular religious affiliation of its Pakeha ‘founding’, and there is absolutely no need to have one denomination dominating such an important part of town.

There is still much that remains of the Cathedral – even though it has shamelessly been allowed to fall into further disrepair since the 2011 Earthquake. While it would still require funding to ensure it was safe, and covered from the elements, it would be an incredible memorial and a beautiful symbol of a special place and its wonderful people.