The symbolic heart of a city

The Christchurch Cathedral. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery.
The Christchurch Cathedral. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery.
The combined offer last week of $35 million to help reinstate the Christchurch Cathedral could finally provide the game-changer needed to break the deadlock of the past six years.

The cathedral was badly damaged in the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that devastated the Garden City on February 22, 2011. Since then, it has stood forlornly behind bars in the heart of the city, a crumbling, decaying monument to that deadly day - and to the protracted and painful rebuild.

The fate of the cathedral has been fiercely fought over. Different parties have sought competing options: full reinstatement, partial restoration, or total demolition and a modern new build. The public is divided. The Anglican Church wants the building destroyed, citing the major costs of rebuilding and insurance. Heritage campaigners want it saved. The battle has reached the High Court.

The $35 million offers a welcome reprieve then - should Bishop Victoria Matthews and the 200-strong synod give it approval when it meets in September.

The reinstatement offer comprises $10 million from the Government plus a $15 million interest-free loan (repayment will be excused if the conditions are fulfilled). The city council has put up another $10 million (subject to public consultation). This adds to the $13.7 million pledged by the Great Christchurch Buildings Trust.

Taking into account the church's insurance of $42 million, the $90 million total brings it close to the reinstatement figure of $104 million estimated in the Cathedral Working Group Recommendation Report, which recommends reinstatement. Significantly, the deal also offers legislation to fast-track the restoration, allocates $5 million to a maintenance and insurance fund, and establishes an independent fundraising trust to find the shortfall required for reinstatement of the building.

The major boxes have been ticked, then. However, some estimates put the new cost of restoration at $127 million. And even though the public may be willing to put its money where its mouth is, the church may still - for other reasons - wish to step away.

Many believers would argue the building itself is, to all intents and purposes, irrelevant. The church is more than bricks and mortar, after all. Worship can occur anywhere - even in a cardboard cathedral - and perhaps the more humble the place, the better. The lofty designs of the past when the church was the dominant heart of a city are not needed now congregations have dwindled, and the church is no longer the glue that binds us together.

Of course, others would argue in these more selfish, isolating times there is more need than ever for a place of unity. Add in what Cantabrians have been through and the need for a place that symbolises love, community and continuity is obvious.

Having the cathedral languishing in the heart of city has stymied other progress, too. The city rebuild is - at long last - gaining momentum. The impasse must be resolved so locals and visitors alike can have pride in the progress made.

The church has a chance to harness the feeling around the building and see if it can translate it into more ''bums on pews''. They might not be traditional worshippers, but maybe a ''multipurpose'' building (if not in design, then in function) would offer new possibilities for growth and connection.

It could be a panacea in more ways than one.

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