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What is a Cathedral? Part 2

St Mary's Perth
St Mary’s Cathedral, Perth

This post follows the previous one, What is a Cathedral? Do check that post out first.

I am very grateful that people respected my request to take care with comments, and I WILL AGAIN BE VERY RESTRICTING OF COMMENTS HERE.

The Christchurch Anglican Cathedral is a very controversial topic.

Please restrict your comments on this site to the liturgical and theological content of my posts. I will not allow comments advocating for or against certain actions (past, present, future), what should have happened in the Square, or what you think needs to be done now. If your comment stays with the generic idea of a cathedral, rather than the specifics of the one in the Square, that will be fine.

A Theology and Spirituality of Place

Since my video was filmed on “What is a cathedral?” (filming 20 June), in relation to the Christchurch Cathedral in the Square damaged by the quakes, not only has the offer from Government and Council changed, but a third option is now being placed before the synod to vote on: alongside
Option A) accept the offers of funds, add insurance money, fundraise, and put the building back much as it was (up to full, current earthquake requirements; more flexible interior), have an endowment to pay for ongoing insurance; or
Option B) stay within the insurance payout ($42 mill) to pull down what is there, plan a new building, put up the new building, and have an endowment to pay for ongoing insurance; there is now an
Option C) gift the land and building to the Government for the people of Aotearoa New Zealand.

My first post was looking at a theology and spirituality of space. Here, in this post, I am encouraging us to begin thinking about a theology and spirituality of place.

I think one doorway into this reflection is to think of those cathedrals (churches) that are
(1) simply built on a good spot, and comparing such buildings to
(2) cathedrals built on a significant spot.

Some cathedrals (of Type 2) are built on the spot of, say, a martyrdom. Or churches of this Type 2 are built on the spot where there (previously) was, say, a pre-Christian site of significance, even a site understood to have spiritual significance – a shrine, for example.

For convenience, let’s call Type 1, where the location itself has no deep significance, “place indifferent”. Type 2 is, then, “place significant”. I hope you are getting this distinction.

If the land was a good purchase, and it’s quite a nice site for a cathedral, but it could just as well have been down the road, with a similar land price and a similar view, access, etc. – then that’s Type 1 – place indifferent.

But now, imagine another context: Let’s say, St Esmerelda was martyred here; she energetically, single-handedly brought the faith to this area, and she was buried here. We are imagining that the Cathedral of St Esmerelda has been built on the site of her martyrdom and with her grave at its heart. Such a building is “place significant” – Type 2.

Let me be clear. One category of building is not better than the other.

You can do your own reflections about buildings and cathedrals that you know – classifying them in your own mind whether they are place significant or place indifferent.

Turning now to the Christchurch Cathedral decision (and wanting people, as I’ve indicated, to not debate this specifically here). By gifting the Christchurch Cathedral to the Government (the newly presented Option C), that building ceases to be a cathedral. The bishop’s cathedra (seat) would reside elsewhere (see What is a cathedral?). [Under this option, of course, it might still be called “The Christchurch Cathedral”, just as “Westminster Abbey” is still called an abbey even though it ceased to be one in 1540.]

The permanent moving of the bishop’s cathedra from the Square to another building (at the moment it is located temporarily in the Transitional Cathedral on Latimer Square) would be a decision that would tend to the place-indifferent understanding of the Christchurch Cathedral.

Christchurch and the Canterbury Settlement in NZ is an Anglican settlement. The streets are named after dioceses in the Anglican Communion (Montreal, Armagh, Lichfield, Durham, Gloucester, Worcester, Chester, Colombo,… High – no, just kidding!) The three central squares are named after the three Anglican bishop martyrs (Cranmer, Latimer, Cathedral Square was first named Ridley Square). And at the centre, the plan was always to have an Anglican cathedral as the heart of the city and settlement.

Maybe those (Christendom-like) days are over, and a shift from place-significant to place-indifferent is now appropriate. That is for the synod members to reflect on and decide. The $35 million offer from Government and Council seem to argue that the “secular” world may not be quite as “post-Christendom” as some theologians proclaim.

I am considering a further, future post that would reflect more on this above paragraph: the relationship between church (the Christian community) and the world (the context and culture of the church). There is also further, worthwhile reflection to be had about the size, significance, and confidence of the church (the Christian community) in the decision.

Other Anglicans blogging on the Christchurch Cathedral:
In Christchurch: Peter Carrell
In Auckland: Helen Jacobi

If you appreciated this post, do remember to like the liturgy facebook page, use the RSS feed, and sign up for a not-very-often email, …

image source: my photograph of St Mary’s RC Cathedral in Perth, a neo-gothic building expanded in the last decade with a curved central design.

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14 Responses to What is a Cathedral? Part 2

  1. Hi Bosco
    First, thank you for a photo drawing attention to St Mary’s Perth, a significant old/new blended cathedral in our Down Under neck of the woods. (Though I note that currently such a blend is not one of the three options before us).

    Second, on the significance of place, it was pointed out to me the other day that sometime in the 1860s, when the original building project ground to some kind of low point, the Diocese seriously contemplated seeking the land in the Square!

    Nevertheless, I think we do have reason to consider carefully the location of our cathedral: heart of centre of city (by definition no other site in Chch can match that), historic symbolism of that location as direct link to Anglican heritage of city, and, thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the thought that the location is our turangawewae (place to stand, beneath which we have deep roots to our ancestors). (For which idea I am indebted to another person, though they and not I should identify their public association with the thought, if they choose).

    • Thanks, Peter.
      I’m not as convinced as you that a “blend” is not within the options being presented. Option A already has explicitly significant changes made to the physical building from “as it was” to allow greater flexibility and make it more “fit for purpose” of a 21st Century cathedral (I mention some in my video).
      I presume by “seeking” you intended to type “selling”.
      Blessings.

      • Ah, yes, selling!

        Yes, minimal blending in current concept of reinstatement. My reading of reinstatement to date rules out anything like as much blending as St Mary’s Perth has in it.

        • Since your earlier comment, Peter, I’ve had a careful look at St Mary’s (Perth) floor-plan (footprint) and the Christchurch Cathedral as-it-was floor-plan/footprint, and I think it is safe to say that applying Perth’s principles to the Christchurch footprint would not improve it anything like the improvement brought to Perth’s cathedral. Perth started with a significantly thinner cross, with longer, thinner arms of the cross. Another way, possibly, to state that: Perth may have had much more work to do to adapt its medieval shape to contemporary needs. Blessings.

  2. From your description of how the City of Christchurch and the plat for it came about, I think that originally the Christchurch Cathedral was built on type 1 land. But today I think that it has become, because of its history, a type 2 location.

    My question is, how might the rebuilt cathedral be encumbered by accepting government funds for the rebuilding? How would it become encumbered on a day-to-day basis? How would it become encumbered in its future as the needs of the diocese change?

    (I’m trying to stay within the perimeters that you have set for the conversation, but I don’t know how well I have.)

  3. I wonder whether the location of old English churches on lines (ley lines) is because of spiritual significance of the place (so type 2) or some practical reason to do with line-of-sight, or coincidences? For example the 17 mile Canterbury Ley between St Mary the Virgin, Chartham and St Mary the Virgin, Fordwich, there are several churches in a straight line, including Canterbury Cathedral.

    Whatever the reasons for siting a cathedral or important church in a particular location, even if the reason becomes forgotten over time, the place seems to gather its own feeling of sacredness (especially if you can say people prayed at some spot for generations), but I suspect that if the building was transported somewhere else then there would still be a feeling of “prayer-soaked stones” in the new location, and maybe still some feeling of sacred place in the old location? I wonder how many examples there are of that?

    • It’s a fascinating reflection, Mark. I wonder how many Lyttelton people can point to where the current Lyttelton Anglican Church was located when it was previously in Lyttelton, and if they still have a sense of the sacred at that earlier spot. Or do people in Auckland still think of the place where St Mary’s (now part of the cathedral complex) previously stood? I guess moving buildings is pretty rare – wooden ones being the exception. According to this article, there is only one solid masonry church in Europe to have been fully moved. Blessings.

      • Do monasteries count? In the US, William Randolf Hearst moved two from Europe to the US. One is now just a few miles outside of Miami Beach FL, St Bernard de Clairvaux, from Segovia, Spain. After changing hands a few times it belongs to the Diocese of Southeast Florida and is the home of an Episcopal parish. The second one was never rebuilt and the stones a strewn about Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, where they have become a part of the landscape.

        There is also the St. Joan of Arc Chapel in Milwaukee WI, originally built in the Rhône River Valley in France.

  4. Both of the Spanish monasteries brought to the US by Hearst were taken from Spain in secret, without the governments’ permission, and with very expensive (for the time) difficulties of transportation to port. The first taken during the reign of Alphonso XIII and the second just after the fall of the monarchy during the 2nd Spanish Republic. Neither remained in Hearst’s possession as his wealth slowly shrank.

    The one in FL arrived in NY by multiple ships. The stones were in wooden crates which were marked with their exact location in the structure. However, the US Dept of Agriculture demanded that the Spanish hay and the boxes be burned to protect the US from European plant diseases. When that happened, the careful location of each stone in the structure was lost and it became a giant puzzle to reassemble.

    Hearst sold the monastery to the folks who transported it to FL. They paid to have stone masons unravel the puzzle to reassemble it. It didn’t become the money maker that they had hoped and later sold it to the man who donated it to Dio SE Florida. Today it is not only home to the parish and used for the services, but is also a local wedding venue, known for the beauty of the restored building and it’s garden setting.

    The second stolen monastery landed in the Port of San Franciso and has never left the city. Hearst had more secular plans for this one. It was to become the swimming pool of a strange home that he was building, with the diving board to be located at the position of the chapel altar. That indignity never came about.

    When Hearst found the fees for storing the stones in a warehouse exhausting, he proposed to give it to the City of San Francisco to be worked into a civic museum. With the advent of WW2 that didn’t happen, but Hearst had already moved the stones from the warehouse to Golden Gate Park and there they have remained, soon taken over by the landscape.

    • Thanks, David! I love Science Fiction – but often say that what actually happens on this planet is weirder than a lot of the Science Fiction that I love! Blessings.

  5. It does seem to me that the Christendom/post-Christendom paradigm has value, but it can be over-used. Another way of looking at things in NZ would be to examine the interplay between the missionary church and the settler church, although we should be wary of seeing one side as good and the other side as not so good. Neither does it seem to me that the abandonment of buildings is more holy in itself than building with clarity and purpose. And we should be wary of labelling certain secular attitudes toward the buildings, activities and values of the Church as somehow not equal to the purer forms of a Christianity to which we might aspire. As an outsider from a diocese which got rid of its former Cathedral to the state it seems to me that the Christchurch Cathedral re-build offers a wonderful opportunity for the Church to engage with the local community for an outcome which expresses the ideals of all. At present we talk a lot about mission, but to me almost all of this activity seems to be directed at the shape of the Church, with the intention of making it more missional. Yet the result is a more introverted Church, less involved with the world around us. The cathedral certainly needs to be laid out in a liturgically appropriate way in order to facilitate the growth of eucharistic community, something which does not seem to be a strong characteristic of the transitional cathedral. But there are lots of other things which a cathedral does for the general community. The Church needs to interact with the whole community and facilitate the expression of a wider spirituality as part of a deep engagement with that community. To retreat from the centre of the city would surely symbolise a retreat from this engagement. To insist on the Church’s right to decide alone the future of the cathedral is surely also a retreat from engagement. To insist on certain basic needs for the shape and nature of the cathedral but then to provide hospitality for the hopes and aspirations of the general community to be part of the process seems like it could be a mark of a Church which is outward-looking, missional and able to listen to the needs of others. Perhaps it is less important to produce the perfect building than it is to build a Church which is outward-looking, which talks with, and listens to, the hopes and aspiration and needs of the community in which God has set it.

    • Thanks, David. Your challenging of the Christendom/post-Christendom paradigm fits with some of the ideas that may lead to the post I’m thinking about. Your reflection on laying out church-building interiors has been a concern for me you may have seen previously. We seem to have continued to build a shell and then, afterwards, design what we will put in it and how. The trend I’m noticing is to think that having everything flexible solves it. Blessings.

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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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