Back to the future for cathedral

The Synod was deciding between restoration, gifting the building to the Government, or demolition...
The Christchurch Cathedral. Photo: ODT files
It has been an agonising journey for Cantabrians, the Anglican Church and the Government alike, but now the fate of the earthquake-damaged Christchurch Cathedral has finally been decided: it will be fully restored.

The decision was made at the weekend by the Anglican Church's synod, its governing body. About 55% of the synod voted for the rebuild option - one of three being considered. The others were to demolish the cathedral and build a new one, or gift the building to the Government.

The decision was something of a surprise. The church had been in favour of demolition, since the building was badly damaged in the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that devastated the Garden City on February 22, 2011.

The church cited the major costs of rebuilding and insurance, and had been battling heritage campaigners in an impasse that had reached as far as the High Court.

The game-changer that broke the six-year deadlock was clearly the combined offer in July of $35million to help with reinstatement.

That offer comprised $10million from the Government plus a $15million interest-free loan (repayment will be excused if the conditions are fulfilled). The city council offered another $10million (subject to public consultation). And the Great Christchurch Buildings Trust pledged $13.7million. Taking into account the church's insurance of $42million, the $90million promised brought it close to the reinstatement figure of $104million estimated in the Cathedral Working Group Recommendation Report, which had recommended reinstatement.

The deal also offered legislation to fast-track the restoration, allocated $5million to a maintenance and insurance fund, and established an independent fundraising trust to find the shortfall. (That is likely to be considerably more. Indeed, some estimates have put the new cost of restoration at $127million.)

However, the deal now allows fundraising to begin and it is likely businesses, philanthropists and the public will all play their part.

The decision is significant for the recovering city. It allows progress in the centre to speed up, provides confidence for investors, security for the church, and unity for the public. The heritage versus development divisions can at last be put aside. There is the opportunity to move on - even if it is by going back to the future, with a rebuilt Gothic Cathedral.

There has been some negative reaction to the announcement. Some believe the money being pledged for a rebuild is wasteful when the church could use the funds to ease deprivation in the community.

But what has become evident in the past six years is that the cathedral is far more to the people of Christchurch than a place of worship alone. It is a visible link to the past and the city's forebears, has been testament to tragedy, yet it also represents resilience and rejuvenation, community and continuity. As the symbolic heart of the city, it now seems living proof of the adage: love conquers all.

It has been a difficult time for Bishop the Rt Rev Victoria Matthews, who has transcended from being the consistent bearer of bad tidings to someone clearly delighted with the synod's decision.

As a heritage city, there will be many in Dunedin who share in the relief and excitement of our northern neighbours.

Of course the church's next debate may be over the fate of the transitional Cardboard Cathedral, in use since 2013, which has, in its own way, become an important symbol for Christchurch, too.


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