On February 22 a 6.3 magnitude earthquake demolished most of Christchurch, which is my hometown, and turned the spire of its iconic cathedral into a pile of dark-stoned rubble. I went back to Christchurch recently, for the first time since the quake, and it’s funny. You walk down a street and you’re sure you remember something – did you go to a party here? Did someone get married? But the visual cues to memory are gone and all you see are empty spaces where buildings were; whole streets like punched-out teeth.
It’s hard to feel sad about what you can’t see.
What you can see however – though just in photos at the moment, as the central city is still closed to the public – is the massive damage to the cathedral.
Now, I was a Catholic boy and our school church was the Catholic cathedral on Barbados Street (which is, like, toast) but the Anglican cathedral stood right in the centre of the city and it was a kind of symbol of Christchurch. I think when most people saw it lying in ruins it brought home the damage that had been done to the city as a whole. It became a focal point for shock and amazement.
Which is why the question of what’s to be done with the building feels important.
These are my ideas.
The photos above are of my favourite church in the world, St Dunstan in the East. It was first built in 1100AD – about 200 years before Maori set foot on this country – got extended in 1391, then burned to a crisp in the Great Fire of London in 1666.
It was repaired in 1671 and Sir Christopher Wren, who rebuilt much of London after the fire, added a new stone steeple before it was again damaged and completely rebuilt in 1817.
Then, after all that fuss, a German plane dropped a bomb on it in 1941. The blast destroyed the roof and much of the walls, though left Wren’s tower intact – at which point everyone kind of got the picture, and it was simply left as-is and planted inside and out with a garden.
I stumbled across it in east London one quiet Sunday and it is one of the most peaceful, beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen. That picture below is the inside of the church.
Could the same be done for Christchurch?
The current Cathedral would need its roof removed – and something would need to be done about rain for it to remain in active use – but I like the idea of making it a living cathedral for a lot of reasons.
I like it because leaving the damage on the church helps us remember the bad things that happened, in a peaceful context.
I like it because life contains both bad and beautiful things, and I think people of faith are prepared to accept that reality in the here and now, rather than squirelling away those notions into concepts of ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’.
I like it because I think we’ve got over the idea of expressing spirituality in terms of soaring structures. Donald Trump’s Trump Tower has become a symbol of greed and ego-mania: if God exists, I doubt s/he needs another soaring spire. I think many people now look to the natural word for their spiritual inspiration.
I like it because you don’t have to be a believer to be moved by the beauty of creation. I like it because the original Cathedral was neo-gothic – and the gothic style is all about taking inspiration from nature. And I like it, finally, because it’s the prettiest thing I can think of.
I hope someone else thinks so too.