A Catholic Monthly Magazine

One Cathedral to unite them all

by Fr Brian O'Connell sm

by Fr Brian O'Connell sm

Two of the highest profile buildings badly damaged in the Christchurch earthquake of February 2011 were the two Cathedrals. The Anglican gothic building in the centre of Cathedral Square was a city landmark. The rebuilding project has been marked by controversy; the Dean has resigned and a group of architects has taken the Diocese to court to force them to rebuild in the Square. Meanwhile a ‘cardboard cathedral’ of Japanese design (life 20 years) is about to be opened as a temporary centre for the city parish in nearby Latimer Square.

The Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament (dubbed ‘the Basilica’ by the media) on the edge of the CBD was also a landmark , and is being disassembled stone by stone, with the possibility of a rebuild. The soil underneath is being tested for load-bearing given the amount of liquefaction that occurred. Meanwhile the Catholic Bishop has taken over the city parish church of St Mary’s Manchester Street as ‘Pro-Cathedral’. The Bishop and his advisors are contemplating the insurance payout, and options open to them.

Christchurch 'cardboard' Cathedral

Artist's impression of temporary Anglican 'cardboard' Cathedral

In the middle of all this speculation an informal proposal surfaced along the lines of what quite a few people had been thinking: Why not have one Cathedral for Christchurch shared by the two Dioceses. One ‘cathedra’ (throne) shared by two traditions. On their own ‘diocesan occasions’ each Bishop would preside. Each has already got their temporary ‘home church’, and occasionally both congregations can worship together. Unprecedented? Probably. Difficult to bring about? Very. An exponential leap forward in Ecumenism? Yes. A huge savings in resources for both dioceses? Yes. A common sense solution for a shattered city? Definitely.

This is a unique situation that may never arise again

To make it possible, the bishops would have to agree to explore the possibility in principle. Rome and Lambeth would have to agree not to veto. The dioceses would commission their theologians to come up with a plan capable of being accepted by both traditions, foreshadowing changes to canon law and even Acts of Parliament. Then it will be up to each Diocesan Authority to sell it to their own people, each having to make major concessions.

St Mary's Pro-Cathedral, Christchurch

St Mary's Pro-Cathedral, Christchurch

Sections of each Diocese will object strongly. It is up to the theological commission to anticipate these difficulties and answer them. I have already heard it said that the Anglicans will never allow statues of Mary in a shared Cathedral. But some of the most beautiful Lady Chapels in the world are in Anglican Cathedrals. What about the tabernacle? Well, a separate Blessed Sacrament chapel is standard in most new Catholic Cathedrals, so the problem may never arise.

This is a unique opportunity that may never arise again. A bold initiative like this would do much to restore the morale of the divided population of ‘quake city.’ It may capture the imagination of the whole Christian world. Christchurch Unity Cathedral could become a place of pilgrimage. 

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