I guess there is hardly anyone in New Zealand who has not heard some part of the debate about the future of Christchurch Cathedral, and probably most of them have an opinion. It’s good that all of Christchurch regards the building well, but it’s clearly been a double-edged sword for decision-makers. Most churches just have to serve the needs of the people who worship there, and the rest of the population are happy to ignore them, scoff at them, leave them alone or otherwise treat them as they choose.
And I guess that the people of Christchurch too, have generally been happy to ignore the spiritual function of their landmark while it got on with adding to the church of God. But it was visible, and indicative of history, and when its owners had to decide what they should do, the people had an opinion. Or several.
There’s a difficulty in maintaining a place of living worship and a landmark under the same roof. I imagine the Anglican Church really wanted, most of all, to get the worship centre re-organised. And they have announced their plans.
They are imaginative plans. They include the “deconstruction” — great word! — of the damaged cathedral alongside the construction of a $5 million temporary cardboard replacement. They are calling this the Transitional Cathedral. With seating for 700 people it will also provide a venue for civic events, something Christchurch has lacked since the earthquake. A spokesman said it should attract national and international interest.
It’s not hard to see why. A cardboard cathedral. Are they really serious?
They are. The cardboard manufacturer said: “The cathedral will be structurally sound, without a doubt. It’s sustainable, it’s affordable and it’s a good example of what can be done in post-disaster environments.” A spokesman called it a symbol of hope for the future of the city.
It will certainly be a symbol of hope. All church buildings are that. Some of them are structures to be proud of and some of them are downright architectural eyesores, but they are all symbols of hope. And this is because their aesthetic function has nothing to do with the real function of the church.
That function is to be a place for people to declare their faith in a risen Jesus and a hope that there really is to be an era of justice and righteousness. Every Christmas we read the words of the shepherds who announced the birth of the baby in Bethlehem: “Peace on earth.” Often we add the words of the prophet, 700 years earlier: “To us a son is given, and of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.”
Fine words. But it must be apparent to the meanest intelligence that they have not yet been fulfilled. The promises are not finished.
Some months ago a friend of mine asked me, quite out of the blue, “Do you believe in the second coming?” And the answer is, “I absolutely believe in the second coming.” When Jesus returns to this earth, those prophecies will be completed, and the promises of Christmas will be fulfilled, and the suffering of the world will be put to rights.
That’s why the church building — any church building — is a sign of hope. The new cardboard building in Christchurch will face the CTV building site, where 115 people died, and a spokesman said, “It’s sort of poignant looking around at the CTV site opposite in particular. We’ve all suffered a great deal.”
He speaks for the world. We have, all, suffered a great deal. And the church at its best faces that, and it proclaims that the present situation is not all, that it is not over, that Jesus is to be relied upon to finish the job he began at Bethlehem and continued at Calvary, and in the meantime the church can help. We may know that the church everywhere is a transitional church. It is not finished, and it is not static. It is going somewhere, in the care of a saviour who has loved it, and died for it, and has not finished with it, and is going to come again and finish the job he has begun. That’s why the church is a sign of hope to its city — every city, whatever its suffering. “The zeal of the Lord almighty will accomplish this,” and the church will tell of it, whether it’s in an icon of the old order or in the cardboard of the new.
Photo by Adam Selwood. CCL, some rights reserved.