CHRISTCHURCH CATHEDRAL – BATTLEGROUNDS AND COMMON GROUND.
Some years ago, one of our city’s most colourful sons, theatre director Elric Hooper, dubbed Christchurch ‘the Verona of the South Seas.” Hooper reckons no New Zealand city can match Christchurch for its polarising and passionate discourse on civic debates, which often see the “Montagues and Capulets” cross swords on significant issues that speak to the soul of the city. No issue better exemplifies our Veronese dynamic in recent years, than the profound and protracted civic fissure over the future of Christchurch Cathedral. Twelve months ago, Bishop Victoria Matthews announced that deconstruction of the cathedral was the only safe and feasible option. Twelve months on, many residents have tired from the bitterly contested battle between the Retentionists and the Demolitionists. But can some common ground be found? Justice Chisholm, who seems to have assiduously adopted the role of relationship counsellor, famously encouraged the rival parties to try some “hot-tubbing”. In a similar vein, the city council unanimously voted in favour of inviting the feuding parties to make their respective presentations on the future of the cathedral. Despite the invitation being issued a fortnight ago, Anglican leaders from the Church Property Trust were a no-show at the council on Thursday morning. However, the Great Christchurch Buildings Trust ( GCBT) seized the opportunity to address city councillors, urging the council to add the might and weight of its moral and civic authority to the cause of maximum possible retention. Former City Missioner, Canon David Morrell was impassioned as he argued why Christchurch can ill-afford to let the demolition squad destroy “our touchstone.” Phillip Burdon and Jim Anderton pointed out that to characterise the current state of the cathedral “as a ruin” is grossly misleading. 85% of the building is still standing, the roofline “is as straight as a gun-barrel thanks to the steel-reinforcing paid for by ratepayers over a decade ago.” The GCBT’s seismic structural engineer, Adam Thornton, delivered a compelling overview of the proposed stabilisation scheme, which would enable to workers to safely stabilise the building to carry out repairs. The general manager of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, Rob Hall, confirmed that his organisation’s engineers had assessed and endorsed the proposed stabilisation strategy. A key factor in the wider debate is undoubtedly the price tag. The Retentionists are emphatic that if the Church Property Trust signals a fresh will to retain the building, there is already an enormous willingness, both nationally and internationally to raise the necessary funds. Will is the key. I was left in no doubt by the council presentation on Thursday that the Great Christchurch Buildings Trust is not demanding a prescriptive replica of Christchurch Cathedral be reinstated. They are realists – not extremists. But their campaign for retention is underpinned by solid engineering expertise. Twelve months ago, we were led to believe any such stabilisation programme was impossible to be undertaken safely. That clearly is not the case. And that is where the great hope for common ground between the warring parties must be forged. Instead of fronting up to the city council, the Anglican leaders are preparing to embark on a consultation campaign, in which a range of design options will be unveiled in a fortnight for public feedback. This is precisely what the Anglican leadership should have done twelve months ago, to avoid the court action and the public relations crisis which has saddled them, ever since. I sincerely hope the Anglican leadership embrace the goodwill and the credible stabilisation plan that has been assembled by the Great Christchurch Buildings Trust, so that a strong retention option is part of the consultation package, to be revealed on April 4.
( Mike Yardley Opinion Piece, first published in The Press, Friday March 22.)