Since when did church buildings become a matter of public vote?

What do the Anglican Church’s decision to demolish the Christchurch Cathedral and the Destiny Church’s decision to build a three-storey church, café, gym and school complex  (the ‘City of God’) in South Auckland have in common. What do Bishop Victoria Matthews and Bishop Brian Tamaki share?

At first glance it would seem next to nothing. The Anglican Church is a quasi-established church made up of many of the rich, well-educated and powerful (or, if you prefer, those in the higher socio-economic bracket) plus a smattering of vestigial Maori congregations from the missionary days. The Destiny Church is a Johnny-come-lately, Pentecostal church comprising many Maori and Pacific Island working class and welfare-dependent followers.

Victoria Matthews is an eloquent, dapper, expatriate Canadian with degrees from Yale and Toronto. Brian Tamaki is an outspoken, even more dapper, charismatic Maori and a former forestry worker with qualifications from the school of hard knocks.

But both bishops and both churches are facing public criticism. One draws flak for selfishly or callously demolishing an historic iconic building. How dare they! The other draws outrage for brazenly constructing a church and preying upon its easily duped followers (and, probably before long, the good inhabitants of South Auckland too). How dare they! Indeed, how can they call themselves a church (really a “cult”, don’t you know) or Mr Tamaki call himself a bishop (forgetting, if they ever learnt it in the first place, that this term just refers to an “overseer” in New Testament ecclesiology).

 Both prelates and their denominations are stubbornly sticking to their guns. In constitutional terms I suggest both are asserting their right of religious freedom; more specifically, both are the exercising an aspect of their right of church autonomy to fashion a house of worship. And I say: good on them.

The Christchurch Diocese of the Anglican Church has plans to one day re-build the Cathedral, albeit not on the same grand scale. Meanwhile, the so-called “Cardboard Cathedral” - more accurately, the Transitional Cathedral” - a more modest but innovative structure (designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban) will be built at nearby Latimer Square. Bishop Matthews in an article for The Times of London entitled “Christchurch finds its resurrection in its people, not in bricks”, posed this question: “How is it that a religious faith that declares that the church is the people of God and the Body of Christ has resulted in massive debates over bricks and mortar?”

This bricks and mortar question is a perennial one that every denomination faces. The Canterbury earthquake has simply accelerated the ongoing challenge that the older mainline churches face when ageing buildings are told by the EQC to strengthen their structures or when dwindling congregations prove unable to maintain their draughty meeting places, capacious buildings designed for a less secular age.

When it comes to meeting sites, some churches decide to convert profane facilities like picture theatres, gymnasiums, warehouses into houses of worship. Others prefer small scale meetings at private homes. Others opt for grand steel, glass and concrete statements that, architecturally speaking, manifest the community’s worship of God. Each church sets its own priorities.

The Christchurch Cathedral, however, is in a rather different position from the usual ageing ecclesiastical edifices, for it is both a house of worship and a civic landmark-cum-events centre. The Cathedral has received ratepayer funding over the last decade “in acknowledgement of the civic functions, concerts and exhibitions that the Cathedral undertakes (e.g., ANZAC Day Citizen’s Service, Kidsfest, Christchurch Youth Orchestra, Antarctic Festival Service and many others) and for the use of the Cathedral land in the Square for civic events (like welcomes for visiting dignitaries and New Year’s Eve celebrations.)” The church may well receive modest council funding for civic activities it hosts in the Transitional Cathedral but, assures the Anglican Diocese, no ratepayers’ dollars will be spent in its construction.

I must say I find this an intriguing issue. Certain church buildings have become what I would call quasi-civic buildings. Their landmark status, tourist pulling-power and utilization for many significant public occasions places them in a different category from the average Baptist or Catholic church in the city or suburbs. This is a mixed blessing for the Anglican Church (as the Church of England has found back in Britain too). For when it comes to adjusting its plans for the building, even a decision to demolish the edifice, local citizens feel they have a stake in that decision. Such card-carrying skeptics as The Wizard QSM lambast the good bishop for the cardboard abomination that might replace their church and for the aesthetic sacrilege of the Anglican leaders, a secular tirade in the style the Old Testament prophets would admire. The government, the critics rail, must do something to thwart this travesty.

What the Anglican Diocese decides to do is up to it. This is the religious freedom stance. A religious community must decide how its resources should be allocated, what its priorities are, how it can best discharge its mission—not public opinion nor the state. If the state wishes to purchase the site and preserve it as a civic monument or tourist mecca (small “m”), then fine. Otherwise, let the church decide. If a secular stake is asserted in a church building, based on historical places listing and the like, then we shall have jolly good legal clash on our hands. I better warn the Anglican Church that overseas experience has not always been sympathetic to weighing ecclesiastic interests over architectural and historic ones.

As for the Right Reverend Brian Tamaki, he can relax. From what I have seen of his scale model, he has, in my lay opinion, no fears his “New Jerusalem” at Wiri will become an architectural masterpiece. Aside perhaps from the Crystal Cathedral (in Garden Grove, California), most Pentecostal or Evangelical church buildings are thoroughly plain but functional. Bricks and mortar rank well down after evangelization, day-care facilities and youth centres.

The Destiny Church incur odium because it is brash, in-your-face charismatic Christianity of the sort that the United States exports (along with McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, rap music and other dubious contributions to Western culture). Destiny’s leadership embrace the opulent lifestyle and flashy ‘bling’ that we associate with huckster TV evangelists from Texas or Georgia. 

All this humbug aside, the main legal concern seems to be fears that the good bishop is fleecing his dim-witted proletarian flock. Short of outright criminal fraud, tax evasion or fanciful mind-bending thought control, I do not see any reason for the state to get involved. And for every bitter ex-member of Destiny there are probably five from the Roman Catholic Church.

The fact that members tithe the customary 10 percent and are exhorted from time to time to give more for new projects is wholly unremarkable. Every Pentecostal church does this. (And, for those who don’t follow such things, the profusion of Pentecostal churches (theologically conservative but liturgically progressive) constitute the driving force in modern Christianity in New Zealand, as they do globally.) As for the fact he claims to hear from God, I would be startled if any religious leader claimed he or she did not, at least indirectly.

Is public, and more particularly, journalistic dislike due more to the fact Destiny espouses traditional but unfashionable Christian moral teaching on chastity before marriage, is anti-abortion, opposes gay marriage and and so on? Is because that Destiny mix politics and religion and Tamaki adopts a prophetic role reminiscent of the dangerously seditious Maori rabble-rousers of yesteryear? Are some incumbent mainline churches jealous of his following? Are some Christians embarrassed by what they (rightly see) as his crass, dumbed-down theology? Do some cavil because he is an “uppity” Maori? Do some people just not like his youthful vigour and his shiny black mane? I do not know.

What I do know is that in a liberal democracy, private voluntary associations of like-minded citizens have the qualified right to build meeting places for their members, to teach almost anything (however politically or scientifically heretical) and fund themselves in the fashion they see fit. Absent fraud, extortion or other criminal conduct, they may pursue their vision of the good and holy life.

“By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.”  (1 Corinthians 3:10-11, St Paul writing) 

Two churches led by two bishops have taken two paths. Time will tell who is the wise builder.


Comments (13)

by glenn p on June 05, 2012
glenn p

I can't remember the details now, but I read a flyer from the group campaigning to save the cathedral, and it made compelling reading. The bit that applied most to the above article was that it was the city of christchurch that financed the cathedral. There was more to it than that too -- but I can't recall what it was. In any event, it was a strong argument that the cathedral belongs to the city and to all its inhabitants. Maybe someone can detail the argument.

by Tim Watkin on June 05, 2012
Tim Watkin

Eloquent and thought-provoking Rex, but I strongly disagree with your premise and conclusions.

You argue that the future of the cathedral is a matter of religious freedom. I think not. No-one is impinging their faith, their doctrine, their liturgy, freedom of movement or gathering or thought. There is no state pressure; indeed, if anything the state in the person of Gerry Brownlee is encouraging demolition. There is no oppression, but rather an expression of free will in opposition to a decision made. Indeed, to argue the future of a building is somehow central to faith is to undermine the bishop's own line – that faith has nothing to do with bricks and mortar but with people. The building is not the faith, the people are its expression and that community God's active expression of love in that community.

What people are opposing is not the faith or the church, but the use of public space, which rightly belongs to them. The cathedral sits at the very hub of the city – it's a public space and all around it is public space.

What the bishop – and you in her defence – seems to be arguing is that the cathedral is the church's and the church's alone and therefore it has the right to act as it likes. That claim, I think, is in error.

That corporatises the church and removes it from its community; it assumes the people of the church can make decisions without heeding the voice of others. But 'the people of God' are not just Anglicans or just Christians, they are all people. Yes, the church is people, not brick and mortar. And by that judgment the people of Christchurch, of New Zealand, and indeed anyone who feels a sense of belonging to that building has a right to a voice, precisely because the cathedral has successfully entered so many hearts.

A church building – a truly great one – belongs to a broad community. Christchurch Cathedral is one of the most recognisable and beloved buildings in this country. Name a better known one. The Beehive? The Sky Tower? I can't think of any other that comes close. As uncomfortable as it may be for some, as with Westminster Abbey or wherever, the public come to feel a sense of ownership for buildings even if they don't actually own them.

The church should delight in that and honour it, should appreciate the mission of that building and consider that it's one of the few examples of church really mattering to people who wouldn't know their catechism from their cat.

Regardless of who paid for it, in principle is that the cathedral doesn't just belong to the church, but to the country. I have always had family in Christchurch, but have only lived there for a year. Even so, it is a landmark in my national identity, my childhood and young adult memories, my heritage.

The bishop's failure to realise and take pride in that is harming her and alienating her. A house of worship is for all. Now the difficulty is that it must either stay or go and either way some will feel disenfranchised, but as church surely the goal is find a way through that heals and build community, not asserts property rights and stubborn independence.

by Tim Watkin on June 05, 2012
Tim Watkin

Phew... sorry I went on. I was going to write a counter-post, but didn't want to take the debate away from this thread.

by Ben Curran on June 05, 2012
Ben Curran

I'm not entirely sure what the point was. I agree with Tim in that the Christchurch cathedral is not a matter of religous freedom - there is a tendency recently, I think, to equate criticism of a relgion with persecution, something which is not at all true.

As for Destiny, they get criticized. And ... ?  Maybe I've missed something but I'm not seeing calls for them to be shut down. Again, criticism, not persecution.

"Absent fraud, extortion or other criminal conduct, they may pursue their vision of the good and holy life." No one is arguing this. If any criminal conduct were present, I would expect them to be prosecuted. Religion is an idea, it is not exempt from criticism, nor should it be. Critique does not prevent anyone from practising any given religion and as such does not constitute persecution.

by Matt Smith on June 06, 2012
Matt Smith

Tim, I don't agree. I think Rex has it right about the oppostion to the Cathedral's demolition.

You said that the Cathedral sits in a public space. It may be surrounded by a public space, but it is not public land. The Cathedral is not owned by the public of Chrustchurch; it is owned by the Anglican church.

A church building – a truly great one – belongs to a broad community.

I think any church building belongs to the community that are involved with it on a regular basis and are involved in its upkeep and maintenance. In this case that means mostly the devoted members of the Anglican church of Christchurch. Passing the building by in the square and admiring it from the outside is not enough to claim that it "belongs" to you.

The church should delight in that and honour it,

I agree that when the public come to feel as involved with a church building as the people of Christchurch (and the rest of New Zealand) do, the church should value and appreciate that.

But that appreciation stops once the realities of owning a large historic building hit home. The Anglican church has expert advice that it would cost a lot of money (I admit I don't know how much) to restore the Cathedral. They and their members have decided that those resources would be better spent on other aspects of the church's work. Who are we to say "No. You should spend your money on restoring the Cathedral at the expense of those other activities."?

It's all very well to say that this shouldn't be about property rights, and that the church belongs to the country, but when there's a multimillion dollar repair bill involved, property rights sudenly become rather important.


by Tim Watkin on June 06, 2012
Tim Watkin

Matt, the repair costs are disputed and many have indicated a willingness to donate to a cathedral rebuild fund; and that's before even considering the potential of help from the Anglican community worldwide. I think a wider concept of "ownership" applies with a building such as this.

by Rex Ahdar on June 06, 2012
Rex Ahdar


Thank you for that very full and thoughtful reply. Fa'afetai lava susuga.

I said that quasi-civic buildings ("QCB") are problematic (for the church and civil society), and so they are. 

You argue that the future of the cathedral is a matter of religious freedom. I think not. No-one is impinging their faith, their doctrine, their liturgy, freedom of movement or gathering or thought. 

When a church decides to build or demolish, to gather or scatter stones, it is exercising its mission in the broad sense. Besides, a decision to allocate resources (on buildings, manses, vehicles, superannuation etc) has effects elsewhere on the more obvious doctrinal or liturgical activities.

There is no state pressure.

I do not live in Christchurch (but spent the first 25 years there in North New Brighton)  nor follow the internecine debates, yet I thought the Council (local government) was pressuring the Anglicans to rebuild. But I stand to be corrected there.

But I take your point - the main pressure is not from the state but from the citizenry. They treasure the Cathedral for all sorts of sentimental, identity enhancing, aesthetic and other reasons. The church, any more than any other private assocation or society, is not immune from criticism... just ask the NZRU. The Church ( and I'm taking generally here, not just the Anglicans in Christchurch ) is big  and robust enough ( I would hope) to wither public criticism and is open enough to debate why it has reached the decision it has. It does not owe the public an answer (it is answerable alone to God not to the fickle masses), but as a matter of civility (not to mention good PR) it is wise for it to respond with cogent reasons why its priorities are x and not y.

The cathedral sits at the very hub of the city – it's a public space and all around it is public space.

Not sure it if is a public space (in the legal sense) ... I'd have to research that. If it is, then nearly every church is and faces the same dliemma.

What the bishop – and you in her defence – seems to be arguing is that the cathedral is the church's and the church's alone and therefore it has the right to act as it likes. That claim, I think, is in error. That corporatises the church and removes it from its community; it assumes the people of the church can make decisions without heeding the voice of others.

The Cathedral is the church's alone, and that is my point. But then we run into the QCB issue. Church's encumbered with QCBs are in a jam. I feel sorry for them. They can't get into "hard core" evangelisation or saving souls (not that they would probably want to anyway, at least the liberal social justice wing of Protestantism) but must operate as a sort of tepid, public service, Jaycees, Christianity. They can't make decisions solely according to their understanding of God's direction, but, it seems, must factor in the input of the Wizard, the Historic Places Trust, the tourism operators, Mr and Mrs Cedric Biggins of Sydenham who have been visiting the square since 1949, Tim Watkins' sense of national heritage and identity, and so on.

(By the way, the church is already corporatized. The very idea of a corporation sole comes from Christian doctrine.)

But 'the people of God' are not just Anglicans or just Christians, they are all people.

I disagree. The people of God are 'the household of faith', 'the elect'  or many other Biblical expressions for those who have submitted to the Lordship of Christ, have be re-born by the Spirit. It is must certainly not "all people", unless you support some version of religious universalism. Here we get into some theology that would bore the readers and is outside my competence. Another time...

Manuia le aso, Tim




by Kevin Moore on June 06, 2012
Kevin Moore

I'm with Tim on this one.

Around about 2004/5 (can't recall exactly), the city council, under the urging of Garry Moore (no relation), the then mayor, put (and I might have the sums the wrong way around) about $1.4m towards earthquake strengthening (which may well have saved the main part) and about $2m towards the re-roofing. They also convinced the Community Trust to donate another $1m+ sum for the roof.

Moore did it on the basis of a 'partnership' (he's catholic, I think) which acknowledged the fact that the Anglican Church was at the heart of the city's founding (I seem to remember that, at that founding, it gained preferential allocation of large amounts of land at 'mates rates', as well - but I'd have to check that). At the same time (2004/5) the council committed to about $240,000 annually for upkeep/running costs. As you can guess, Moore is now ropable over this unilateral decision. Where's the partnership?

As for being compensated for hosting civic events, first, the Cathedral actively encouraged that role, perhaps rightly perceiving that through such 'hosting' it would retain and enhance the general citizenry's support for it (over and above the other churches) - including generous dollops of cash when needed. All publicity is good publicity.

Second, haven't christian churches - and I'm talking about the people, not those apparently inconsequential, material bricks and mortar - always had, as part of their mission, service to the community within which they find themselves? I don't think Jesus said 'feed the poor - so long as their Anglicans'.

'Outreach', as most modern churches call it, is much desired for spiritual, evangelical and rather more pragmatic motives. An awful lot of time and energy goes into it. The idea that the Anglican Church is, in fact, going out of its way to provide an arena for civic events - and hence should seek financial compensation - is bizarre.

I also don't buy the 'religious freedom' argument. The Anglican Church is the establishment church. Remember that old claim about the longest word in English? Antidisestablishmentarianism won the day - in England at least - and as we have so recently seen by the behaviour of our Prime Minister, Elizabeth, Defender of the Faith, remains our monarch here in New Zealand.

That means the Anglican Church is a political entity first and foremost and, frankly, that's why its cathedral sits (still) in the centre of Christchurch and why all of Christchurch's - and Lyttelton's - main streets are named after Anglican dioceses around the world; Colombo, Madras, Armagh, Manchester, Lichfield, Tuam, Antigua - in Lyttelton it's London, Canterbury, Dublin, Oxford, Winchester, etc..

Suddenly getting all coy on the rest of us and saying that we have no say in the decision to demolish the Cathedral is extremely naive, at best and, at worst, disingenuous.

The Anglican Church is now trying to lay claim to the kind of civic anonymity (and, hence, freedom of operation) of the minor churches simply because that discourse currently suits it. But notice that, already, members of the Church are urging Christchurch's citizenry to 'embrace' and 'take to their hearts' the yet-to-be-built cathedral.

Sorry, it's not 1850 now and you've just told the rest of us to butt out - why on earth should non-Anglicans 'embrace' a new cathedral? In fact, why are they contemplating building another cathedral at all? Aren't the people what matters? Aren't there also concerns about the financial costs involved in repairing all the suburban, Anglican churches? It seems some bricks and mortar - or glass and steel, or whatever - are worth forking out for? To be blunt, the inconsistencies in the Anglican Church's position on this are legion.

Again, why should non-Anglican citizens of Christchurch embrace a new Anglican Cathedral after what's happened? I think that question is one reason the Anglican Church has clung, tenaciously, to that very central site (Bob Parker offered, apparently, to buy the site - not personally, of course - prior to the Church making its decision and there have been suggestions to buy the site and establish a trust to operate it and restore the Cathedral).

Were it to be usurped from that site it can look forward to the civic anonymity and freedom it now, temporarily, wishes to have - but more permanently. By remaining there it gains, by default, a central role in the city once the dust settles. As Ariel Sharon was fond of reminding everyone, it's the 'facts on the ground' that matter in the long run.

Sorry, this is not some simple debate over 'private property rights' and 'religious freedom' in a 'liberal democracy'. It is about the real - messy and complicated - situation, not a seminar on political and religious philosophy.

by Frenchy on June 07, 2012

Professor, with the Cathedral, I think you are finding a Church v State situation where there is none. The Anglican Bishop is facing more public outrage than a Dunedin stadium builder, but fewer legal problems than a Wellington waterfront developer. Religion doesn't come into it. Would be more convincing to frame your argument in the private property rights v public interests.

As for Tamaki, I think what New Zealanders find 'off' with him is that he tells people with very little to give a lot, yet he seems to have a lot himself. What is it they say about camels and needles?

by Tim Watkin on June 08, 2012
Tim Watkin

Rex, in a purely legal sense you're idea of rights and ownership are well and good. But grand public buildings are, in every sense, bigger than that.

When I say it's a public space, I mean the public feels a historic, emotional, very real sense that it belongs to them. And that's ok. It's even great. The church needs to deal with that; I disagree that it does not owe the public an answer – it certainly does. Yes, they do owe something to the Wizard and all those others, because there's been an intense relationship between those people and that building for many, many years.

As citizens we have ownership of our cities, in particular our few iconic buildings, that go beyond mere property rights. I'm not sure who owns Westminster Abbey, but Anglicans wouldn't have the right to bowl it, even if they had the legal right.

This applies to the owner of any icon, but most especially to the church, and its ethos of service (tepid or otherwise) and building community; and it should be open to the possibility that God is speaking not through the Bishop, but through the Wizard and others. If the story of Elijah in the cave or Moses with the burning bush or Jesus himself teaches us anything, it's that God can choose some rather odd ways of communicating with folk.

by Matt Smith on June 08, 2012
Matt Smith

My problem with that approach Tim, is that it comes across to me as caring about things when it's convenient to, and not otherwise.

The people of Christchurch have recently been caring a great deal about property rights - their own - when it comes to red zoned houses. But when they consider the Cathedral, property rights are not so important.

It's very easy to say that an issue is bigger than property rights when it's someone else's property rights at stake.

by Rex Ahdar on June 08, 2012
Rex Ahdar

First, New Zealand has never had an established church.As the Supreme Court clarified at the turn of the twentieth century, “There is no State Church here. The Anglican Church in New Zealand is in no sense a State Church. . . . and, although no doubt it has a very large membership, it stands legally on no higher ground than any other of the religious denominations in New Zealand.”

Carrigan v. Redwood, [1910] 30 N.Z.L.R. 244, 252. The Court of Appeal affirmed this in 1998. See Mabon v. Conference of the Methodist Church of New Zealand, [1998] 3 N.Z.L.R. 513, 523 (“Unlike England and Scotland, New Zealand does not have a national established church.”).

by Rex Ahdar on June 08, 2012
Rex Ahdar

Apologies, I hit 'send' before I had completed the comment

The previous comment was in reply to Kevin. I would add ( to him) that 'real messy and comlpicated on the ground situations' are always manifestations of deeper 'below the surface' ideas, worldviews and so on. Is it not helpful to go beneath the surface skirmish to the animating premises and presupposiitons that direct the debate? 

Tim, I  think we actually agree but we differ in the style and manner of the church's response. Yes, God can and does talk through anyone. I have heard the Wizard many times and at times took as much from him as my friend Ray Comfort. God can speak through Bishop Brian too. He can even speak through an ass (cf Balaam son of Boer, rebuked by a donkey). Yes, the building is, in a broader cultural sense a public building, and, yes, the Anglican Church owes the public an explanation about its plans. But this is a matter of courtesy and good PR and perhaps as you say, its Chrisitan duty to love its neighbour,

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