Different bishops, different buildings, same outcry

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.