Is the church really the one to say what its building should be?


The Christchurch Cathedral saga is had so much written about it one hesitates to add to the interminable debate. My purpose is to explain a dimension to the controversy that perhaps has been neglected.

The right of religious freedom is a very broad concept. It is recognised under sections 13, 15 and 20 of the NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990. One of religious liberty’s most important strands is the right of religious groups to organise their own affairs—the claim to self-regulation. A group asserts the right to choose its members, leaders, the content of its doctrines and so on. Yet another of these is the right to establish and maintain places of worship.

Now if the state completely denied a faith community the opportunity to build a church, mosque or temple that would be a clear violation of that body’s religious liberty.  If the state refused to allow it to modify its existing building to reflect the changing needs of its followers (because, say, the congregation had grown or shrunk) that would also look like a blatant infringement.

Yet, the right to religious freedom has never been absolute under the law and the government may lawfully restrict it where the activity or practice would pose a serious threat to public order, health or safety or would interfere with the rights of others. After all, a worship centre might tower above all the other dwellings, be made of inferior materials, lack proper emergency exits, sufficient parking and so on, and thus intervention is warranted. Now I come to the rub (at last you say!). Can the state limit the right of a religious community to modify its place of worship in the interests of preserving the building’s outstanding historical, architectural or civic characteristics?

Here the case for limitation is, I suggest, much weaker. If a church decides that its current needs dictate the modification of an existing structure, or even its demolition to make way for a smaller (or larger) building, or one in a different location—perhaps incorporating different design features to reflect the church’s current mission (a different shaped cross, a bright (well, not too bright) neon cross, or no cross at all)—then it seems difficult to deny the faith community this.  The present building, no matter how beautiful or ancient or useful to the surrounding community for civic events, just no longer serves the needs of the faithful. The state seeks, nonetheless, to assert its right to keep the building as is. The preservation of historic landmarks is, the authorities claim, more important. Too many have gone under the bulldozer of late. A city’s traditional iconic structures cannot be altered or destroyed, say the city’s leaders or prominent citizens. We must keep what is unique to our town lest we look like every other place. Prince Charles where are you?

Unsurprisingly the clash between the right of church autonomy and the claims of historic preservation has led to court battles overseas. The results have not always been in a church’s favour. For instance, in Boerne, a town close to San Antonio, Texas, the Catholic church was initially not allowed by the city council to expand the historic stone 1923 mission-style St Peter the Apostle Cathedral to accommodate a growing congregation. Why? Historic preservation regulations and zoning laws mandated that the original design of buildings in this historic precinct be kept. An appeal to the Supreme Court by the church was unsuccessful. Eventually, a compromise between the city and the church was reached and a new bigger sanctuary was constructed—but not without it having cost the diocese and the city a half-million dollars each in legal fees.

Perhaps the religious nature of the building in question is just plain irrelevant. If the structure is architecturally significant or an integral link to the city’s past, then it stays—whether it be a town hall, museum, art gallery, school or church. It is a shame that the church cannot use its building for its purposes anymore, but there are greater things at stake. It is regrettable that the church building is no longer serving the needs of the flock, and its upkeep is prohibitive for them, but it is a truly beautiful example of a fading genre of architecture, the likes of which must be preserved.

It is easy to forget that the Cathedral is first and foremost a place of worship and a dwelling designed to serve the liturgical and pastoral needs of the adherents of that faith. It is not a museum, art gallery or palace. If we usurp the right of the religious group to determine the present and future purpose of a building designed by them for them, then we need, I suggest, a pretty compelling reason.

If we reach an impasse where the church does not want to keep or fully restore the former structure then the last thing we should be doing is coercing them into doing so. When did the state (in the guise of local government) become such a tyrant? Are we such an increasingly secular society that historic or architectural values can so easily trump the rights of a church to control its own place of worship?

The principled path is for the Anglicans to decide what they want. In truth, it is their decision, from first to last. If demolition and replacement with a modified contemporary-style building is the outcome of the Synod deliberations, then more drastic steps by the indefatigable preservationists will no doubt eventuate. Perhaps it would be best to sell the site and let the architectural aficionados design a glorious civic masterpiece that will, like the Sydney Opera House, become a new beacon for Christchurch. If this happens—who, on Earth, can say?—try not to forget that, along the way, the original architects simply wished to worship, pray, meditate, and sing in a sanctified dwelling. They have graciously sacrificed, or been forced to sacrifice, something they prized. They yield if they must, but the yielding is with sadness.


Comments (6)

by Alan Johnstone on August 09, 2017
Alan Johnstone

We have no established church in this country, the building is private property.

There's a planning and zoning process to be followed. I don't get the complexity.

by Lee Churchman on August 09, 2017
Lee Churchman

I've said it before. A city that boasted among its sons Ian Athfield and Miles Warren can do better.

by Rich on August 10, 2017

I don't see why a religious group should have any prvileges other than the same rights of free speech and associations that apply to any group, such as a political party.

Like Alan says, it's a building - it isn't a form of expression. It should be subject to the same planning processes as anyone else.

(IMHO, it's a dull cookie-cutter church similar to hundreds if not thousands in the UK. It doesn't really have any particular architectural merit. Preserving the ruin, after the fashion of many churches in Europe that were destroyed in WW2, would seem sensible).


by Moz on August 10, 2017

Surely the obvious compromise is that some part of the government buys the thing as is and turns it into a museum or gallery or pillory, preserving the bits that matter and building something nice instead of the bits that don't? The church can use the proceeds to build a more suitable structure somewhere else.

Of course, like all wealthy landowners they'd prefer to use public pressure rather than spend their own money on this process, but hopefully that will fail. It's succeeded all to often in the recent past.

by Rex Ahdar on August 11, 2017
Rex Ahdar

To Rich:   The idea that religion is no longer special and thus there is no need for distinct legisaltive recognition a la the right of religious freedom is gaining currency today in both popular and academic circles. I think a very good case can be made why religion merits singling out in rights legisaltion, but the fact I have to re-make the case is a sign that religion is increasingly 'in the dock', so to speak. 

Religious folk over history have seen the very architecture as an expression of their worship.

That said I agree the Chch Anglican Cathedral is not exactly a world beater in terms of ecclesiastical architecture. I've seen better in Samoa, let alone Europe.


by Rex Ahdar on August 15, 2017
Rex Ahdar

And as the saga unfolds:

"A new option for the future of the Christ Church Cathedral has been tabled, less than four weeks out from a decision on the derelict building's fate. The Anglican synod will meet on September 9 to vote on what to do with the earthquake-damaged cathedral. Until now, it was considering two options: restoration or building a new church. But on Monday the Anglican diocese announced there would be a third choice: handing it over to the Government to manage on behalf of the citizenry.":

'Anglican Synod to consider gifting Christ Church Cathedral to the people of NZ', The, 14 August 2014


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