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(de)consecration

Yesterday Christchurch Cathedral was deconsecrated. It is a building in which some of the most significant events in my life are focused.

On 28 October, Bishop Victoria announced the Christchurch Anglican Cathedral, damaged in the earthquakes, would be deconsecrated on Wednesday, 9 November. The Cathedral has been earthquake-damaged previously (obviously not as severely as now) but never, as far as I know, deconsecrated during its repairs. Bishop Victoria announced that there will be a “controlled demolition for parts of the building…One consequence of this decision is that I will de-consecrate the Cathedral and return it to secular use prior to the controlled demolition.”

Canon David Morrell in the Press (November 5) argued strongly, “Please leave it in its consecrated state… We await with eager expectation [the Cathedral’s] resurrection and ours as a city, province and community… If the Cathedral is deconsecrated, a signal will be sent to the community that the church is stepping aside from the building.”

Dean Peter and Bishop Victoria at deconsecration
I am not going to, here, get into all the controversies around the details of the Christchurch Cathedral. There are the appropriate channels and other places to do that.

I have never previously given that much attention to the concept of a building’s “consecration” – so I write this blog post without strong opinions. Pretty much immediately after the announcement that the Cathedral would be deconsecrated, I started to receive emails with questions like:

Please can you tell me why they need to deconsecrate the cathedral before they can start work it?

I serve as chaplain in a school where we attempt, as much as possible, to keep our chapel as a place for worship and spirituality. That is one model. Other places use the same space for, say, worship and other activities (a gym, assembly,…). Some communities worship in a hall. There are other models – with their own integrity.

The 1914 Special Forms of Service for this Church have recently been put online. I have the 1959 revision of this on my bookshelf. The sentence of consecration of a church is slightly different to the 1914 version:

Then shall the Bishop say:

By virtue of our sacred office in the Church of God, we do now consecrate, and for ever set apart from all profane and common uses, this house of God, under the name of…. and to the glory of the ever-blessed Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I am not aware of a NZ rite of deconsecration (let me know if there is one). Anglican Taonga reports the Bishop’s words of deconsecration to be:

I do remit this building, and all objects remaining in it, for any lawful and reputable use, according to the laws of this land.

This building, having now been deconsecrated and secularized, I declare to be no longer subject to my canonical jurisdiction.

As we try to think through, together, what consecration of a building means, could mean, should mean, I am conscious of several points:

There is no doubt in my mind, and speaking to those present at other deconsecrations of churches that were being demolished, of the pastoral value of marking the end of a building, especially a church. Do we do this well for other buildings? I’m sure that the Cathedral’s service was important for those who were invited to come, there is talk of it being on television in the future, possibly the diocese will place a video of it on its website (nothing there yet – I can place a link here if it does).

Why do we deconsecrate for a partial deconstruction but not for repairs? Is it possibly connected to being able to continue to worship in the building while it is being repaired?

The Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, being deconstructed, has not been deconsecrated.

What do we understand by “secular use”, “profane and common uses”? The diocese, relatively recently, hosted a ball in the Cathedral. It was rented out as a relatively inexpensive venue (eg. for graduation). When there were complaints about non-Christian ceremonies in the Cathedral, the then bishop responded that these were only in the nave, not in the sanctuary or chancel – are there different degrees of consecration?

Most significantly for me, is the thinking through of this sacred/profane dichotomy – I might say, dualism. Isn’t a central tenet of Christianity the uniting of the sacred and the profane? That we meet the sacred in the profane? That there is no dualism between profane and sacred?

How do we celebrate the sacred in one place and one way in such a way that it becomes the means for finding the sacred in all places, in all ways? And how does the way we consecrate and deconsecrate help or hinder this?

Just thinking aloud. Thinking allowed. Add your thoughts…

Image source; image 2 source

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23 Responses to (de)consecration

  1. The only thing that comes to mind is the idea that, once reconstruction is complete, there would be the possibility for a grand “consecration ceremony”. That could, theoretically, be a moment of healing and renewal.

    But it doesn’t make a lot of sense because it seems to me you could re-consecrate without de-consecrating.

    Like you, I’ve never put much thought into the subject.

    Funny how everyone can have an opinion on such an arcane subject!

  2. I think this is a very interesting topic. I was very sad to hear about the de-consecration of Christchurch Cathedral. I suppose it is a way of formally announcing that certain church rites can no longer be held there (temporarily we hope). However, as you say, what other signals does this process send out? I work in a hall church which is used as a community resource during the week and then ‘set out’ for church on Sunday. The secular/sacred bounded space is a key issue that I continue to wrestle with. I want to find a way to communicate that we inhabit the same space – a both/and definition. It’s an important discussion to have, I agree.

  3. Hi Bosco,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I am not sure however that the de-consecration was at all efficacious.

    No one, least of all the bishop, is going to treat the objects remaining in the broken Cathedral as less consecrated as a result of her saying the words: ‘I do remit this building, and all objects remaining in it, for any lawful and reputable use, according to the laws of this land.’

    And similarly I am sure that the bishop has not relinquished her authority over what happens to the site, the buildings and the objects in it as her words suggest she has: ‘This building, having now been deconsecrated and secularized, I declare to be no longer subject to my canonical jurisdiction.’

    The service was certainly an important ‘rite of passage’ for the Cathedral congregation and the wider community, but the words alert us to other, perhaps less welcome, aspects of our British heritage.

  4. I guess I have never thought about it either, but reading this here does elicit a certain sadness for me. I keep you and yours and the people of Christchurch in my prayers always, but I have not kept up with what has been going on there very much. Too much busy-ness, too many distractions of late. I heard about this and came here straightaway.

    Peace and prayers always.

    • Thanks, Fran. I was recently away some days and it is so strange, living in a destroyed city, to suddenly be in a city where all is “normal”, roads have no sudden holes or bumps, and all the buildings are standing… Blessings

  5. Thank you for this Bosco.

    I think your questions are very significant ones.

    There is a real sense that over the years the church has undone the work of the resurrection and ascension not only in space, but also in time and our humanity. This has occurred by the setting apart of: Place (‘God’s House as some called churches in England)WHERE certain things could not be done, but thus making it fine for them to occur elsewhere; Time (The Lord’s Day, or Sabbath) WHEN some things were not fit, but letting loose the rest of the week for ‘Profitable’ business :-); and Humanity (focusing ministry in one person) WHO ‘did the God stuff’ so the rest of us didn’t have to trouble ourselves with it.

    The question we are left with is, has the Spirit gone out of these containers, set free into the World as some would say, or has it ‘merely’ gone out . . .

  6. My, what a beautiful church. I’m not sure what I think about the de-consecration of the church at this time. There certainly seems to be some practical utility to it; I understand concerns about what it signals as well. In any case, what a beautiful church, and I hope that it can be fully restored.

    • Thank you for your comment, “@prayerchristian”. It is the practice of this site to use our ordinary name, please. It certainly was a beautiful church, but it has been extremely seriously damaged in the quakes. The ground on which it stands will also need examining. These are some of the issues that I mentioned are really beyond the scope of a blogpost like this. Blessings.

  7. We saw this on the news and I knew you’d likely have a post up on this. Lots of churches close in the US (especially RC) and at that point they deconsecrate. But this seems different.

    Consecration to me means “holy ground” – “off your shoes” (or the like; the Ethiopian Orthodox actually do take off their shoes for worship!). In the Old Testament sometimes just a stone served to indicate that momentous events had occurred in that place. Can “sacred space” ever really “vanish”? And where is the line between sacred and profane when it comes to a human life or human living? Would it verge on dualism to deconsecrate? Wouldn’t the “ground” still be holy?

    In Psalm 102, there is a verse I love (14). I’m quoting from the version in the US Book of Common Prayer:

    “For your servants love her very rubble,
    and are moved to pity even for her dust.”

    These are just some thoughts; I have no real answer. But it’s very sad to think workmen would not indeed love the “very rubble” of the Cathedral and consider the ground they’re working on as holy.

    • Thanks for these helpful thoughts, TheraP. (For other readers here: I know who TheraP is, and there are particular, appropriate reasons why this person’s pseudonym is allowed here). Blessings.

  8. When I heard Bishop Victoria declare that the cathedral was to be deconsecrated, I was surprised by her list of the items to be retrieved. In the TVNZ news report, these consisted of flags.

    I was extremely dismayed that the items associated with Christian worship (especially the Holy Communion) were not included in the list. Surely there are patens, ciboria, chalices, offertory plates etc as well as vestments which need to be retrieved.

    These items tower above flags in significance for Christians as they are used in worshipping Almighty God, to whose glory and praise the building was constructed!

    I can only conclude that the cathedral and its contents were deconsecrated quite sometime ago, at least in the minds of its bishop. It seems that the clergy have become as secularised as NZ society. This is a sad indictment on the church as a worshipping community and its priorities.

  9. It is we ourselves who are ‘consecrated’ or not I believe, in terms of how we choose to treat the world and people around us as sacred or not, it is our dedication not the building’s which matters.

    A building can be designated sacred for centuries and someone for contemporary example commits abuse there…then clearly they themselves have no firm dedication to the purpose and sanctity of that building and its faith, whatever rites have been said there.

    Maybe some of the ancient superstitions were useful for teaching self-restraint: the belief that committing a crime or blasphemy in a consecrated setting was more evil, or that religious buildings should be an intentional sanctuary from the ills of the wider world.

    In the case of Christchurch Bosco I wonder if many people needed a symbolic service to let go of the beautiful building and its significance to your city? In the news reports it looked like a grief ritual, another step in the bereavement and adjustment process.

    Many of us around the world also sent up prayers and shed tears for all that you have been through- so far away but close in our hearts.

    • Very helpful points, Tracy, as usual. The importance of seeing ourselves as consecrated. And I think you are right – those who were at the deconsecration of a building to be demolished speak of it in terms of a marking in grief. While the Cathedral’s future has not so been declared, the reporting of the service has been with similar grieving. Thanks for your ongoing thoughts and prayers. Blessings.

  10. Hi Bosco,

    Thanks for this article. Below is an extract of my post on Anglican Down Under a little while back when the de-consecration was announced. I introduced it with a caveat that I understand Christchurch’s cathedral to be a very special feature of that city, and given the pain they have suffered from the earthquake, people should see these comments as related to the general issue of consecrating church buildings, rather than a specific comment about Christchurch.

    “…we value our buildings as places of worship and visible signs of Christian communities, but do we believe that they are more holy than other places? Do we think if we are doing building work on them, we need to “take away their holiness” while that happens? It almost seems like an Old Testament perspective of God dwelling physically in the temple, rather than a New Testament perspective of God dwelliing among his people by His Spirit. I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to use the language of “dedicating” a building for Christian ministry, with a service of “thanksgiving” for the ministry that has happened there if it ever stops being a Church.”

    As your ball in the Cathedral example shows, all churches use our buildings for a number of “secular purposes” even though they are supposedly “consecrated”. I think it would be more helpful to say something along the lines of “we dedicate this building for Christian ministry and service, and we pray for God’s wisdom to do so”.

    A number of innovative church plants in Australia (and other places) use facilities like pubs, cinemas, and schools as a way of establishing churches in areas where land and building costs are prohibitive. That might not be the normal model we wish to have, but are they any less a consecrated church than one meeting in a traditional church building?

    • Thanks, Andrew, for your helpful points. As I said at the start – I have no deep knowledge about the history or theology of consecrating buildings. Certainly it appears that such a “consecration” is understood in terms of what you call “dedication” and “deconsecration” has strong elements of “thanksgiving”. As I indicated, in my own context your first sentence in your penultimate sentence does not apply. What are the edges of what we would allow in our “consecrated/dedicate” buildings? Blessings.

  11. In the 1980’s I was at the last Eucharist held in the S Mary’s at Silvestream near Wellington that has been constructed about 1931. Then parish priest Malcolm Wheeler performed a rite of deconsecration as the building was to be totally demolished. This brief rite combined words and actions. In discussion Malcolm said this rite did not require a bishop. It may have been the original structure, church at one end and hall (also used for larger services) at the other had been dedicated but not consecrated.

    PS: Bishop Eddie Norman consecrated the new building when finished.

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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