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The Old ChristChurch Cathedral - RIP, you will be missed!

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

 I was sorry to read like so many other New Zealanders of the Anglican Church's decision to pull down most of the old ChristChurch Cathedral.

However, the Anglican Church has reached the regretful decision to demolish it. I know that this has been a very controversial decision given the Cathedral's historical and cultural significance for Christchurch. But I support Bishop Victoria Matthews and the Anglican Diocese's decision to bring it down. I fully respect the heritage lobby's views on this issue but on this and other earthquake related issues, they are in the wrong this time. The Cathedral was earthquake strengthened back in the early 1990s. This enabled it to withstand the September 4, 2010 tremor that shook the city. But on February 22, 2011, the edifice came tumbling down. It was initially feared on February 22 last year that people had died in the Cathedral but that turned not to be the case.

And that's why I believe that people sometimes misunderstand the concept of earthquake strengthening.

I am not a seismologist or a civil engineer but my understanding of earthquake strengthening is that a building should be able to protect people from injury or death in an earthquake. In both major Christchurch quakes, the Cathedral's earthquake strengthening served its worst case scenario purpose - that of giving people time to escape injury and death. It is a requirement of the 2004 Building Act that buildings which present an earthquake risk be strengthened. This policy and others implemented since 1935 (when this country first introduced earthquake strengthening policies following the 1931 Napier earthquake) have had positive flow on effects. These include that under more recent changes, the majority of old earthquake prone buildings have had both their interior and exterior facades and facilities modernised (and one more bonus is that for disabled people like me ramps and accessible toilets have to be added as part of any such moves).

But in some cases, according to the earthquake strengthening policies I've looked up on the web, strengthening can also sadly include the need to demolish unsafe buildings. ChristChurch Cathedral has now reached the point that its continued existence in its present form would imperil public health and safety. I don't think the Diocese would be fulfilling its moral, ethical and legal obligations either had it decided to retain the Cathedral given it has been condemned. The heritage lobby are merely going on emotive arguments and I can understand that but you can't let emotion stand in the way of reason and clear evidence either - the cathedral is to use that now well worn Christchurchian phrase 'munted'. 

But the good news is that some of the very lower foundation stones will be retained in a newly rebuilt cathedral. Bishop Matthews has also stated that New Zealand's best known church will be demolished slowly and respectfully. And more to the point partly demolished down to at least the lower two or three metres of the foundation stone. That is the way it should be.

I always went to Cathedral Square when in Christchurch. I can't honestly remember whether I ever set foot inside the church itself but if I haven't, then I have missed out seeing something that in its hey day was a truly remarkable building. That is the one regret I and many other New Zealanders and overseas visitors who also never did will have. But from the ashes of the old will arise a new, modern cathedral that will respect the traditions of its forebear and symbolise a new start for Christchurch and Canterbury.

However, RIP the old ChristChurch Cathedral. You will be missed by all New Zealanders of whatever faith or belief system.

(NB: I was for once astounded that Mayor Bob Parker offered to take the cathedral into public ownership so that it could be restored. As a socialist, this offer has its attractions. However, perhaps given the spiritual significance of the land, it could be placed in joint public/church ownership while reconstruction takes place. I don't think the Anglican Church should have spurned this offer entirely. I also support the provision of some taxpayer and ratepayer money to support its rebuild alongside church money given the building's historic importance to Christchurch and New Zealand.)


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