Christchurch diocese moves toward reducing size

Special synod also favors modern look for eventual 'permanent' cathedral

Posted Apr 17, 2013

[Anglican Taonga] In the wake of the 201-2011 Canterbury Region earthquakes the New Zealand Diocese of Christchurch has voted to take the next step towards a dramatic redrawing of its map.

The diocese met in a special synod on April 13-14, and chose to proceed on a path which could see the 46 parishes in and around Christchurch being significantly reduced, even halved in number, as a result of parish mergers.

The draft proposal, which had been prepared by a Structural Review Group, was received by the synod, and it will now be sent to the Diocesan Standing Committee for review.

Participants in the Diocese of Christchurch's recent special synod favor a modern building to replace the earthquake-damaged cathedral in the heart of Christchurch, New Zealand. Photo/Diocese of Christchurch

Participants in the Diocese of Christchurch’s recent special synod favor a modern building to replace the earthquake-damaged cathedral in the heart of Christchurch, New Zealand. Photo/Diocese of Christchurch

That body now has the task of bringing proposals for adoption at later sessions of the synod.

Also during the synod, the diocese gave overwhelming endorsement to the most modern of the three concepts for a new cathedral in Cathedral Square. When Bishop Victoria Matthews ask the 220-odd synod members and observers for a show of hands to indicate which cathedral option – restored, traditional or contemporary – they favored, none chose the restoration and perhaps ten were raised for the traditional option. There was a forest of raised hands for the contemporary version.

[More information about the impact of the temblors on the cathedral and the current construction of a temporary cathedral is here.]

In her charge to the special synod, Matthews described the challenge facing the diocese in succinct and blunt terms:

“How will we as a diocese respond to the devastation of property, and the re-arrangement of the population of our region following the earthquakes in Canterbury?

“Will we be set free? Or will we become even more imprisoned by our possessions and structures?”

The diocese’s Church Property Trustees have advised that there are around 200 earthquake-damaged buildings across the diocese – including 38 which have either been destroyed, demolished or require repairs that will cost more than $50,000 each.

According to the CPT, the shortfall between the loss and the insurance cover could be as high as $30 million. That’s excluding the inevitable shortfall between the insurance payout for the ruined cathedral – estimated at $30 million – and the cost of building whatever takes its place.

Furthermore, the cost of assessing, and then strengthening the surviving buildings so they comply with the new earthquake building code, could be a further $11 million.

The ground has shifted under the diocese in other ways, as well.

Christchurch itself is being drastically reconfigured, with major new subdivisions being planned – almost 15,000 sections in the west alone – while the city’s Red Zone (including some 8000 homes) is being evacuated.

In the light of these changed realities, last September the regular diocesan synod resolved to set up a Structural Review Group. Its task was to come up with a proposal for a future map of the diocese.

In an example of the challenges facing the diocese’s parishes, Archdeacon John Day, chair of the SRG, said the suburb of Burwood in the northeast part of the city has seen 40% of its residential area disappear into the Red Zone.

All Saints Burwood now finds itself on the very edge of the Red Zone – with its access on a street which may become a river pathway, and the community it once served now relocated to its north.

That is the location of St Mark’s Marshland, which, within five years, will be surrounded by 2500 new homes.

Trouble is, said John, St Mark’s was built in the early 1900s, when Marshland was a rural area. And to this day it has no running water, and can seat only about 60 people.

Then there’s St Stephen’s Shirley, which is a big, bustling and lively church which lost all its buildings – church, vicarage and hall – in the quakes.

The SRG proposal suggests short, medium and long term developments in the North-East, which would involve the four parishes of Belfast-Redwood, North New Brighton, Burwood and Shirley working together for 10 years.

This would allow those partnered parishes time to sell St Mark’s Marshland, the St Stephen’s church and vicarage site, and the complete site of St Andrew’s North New Brighton.

These sales would finance the buying of bigger parcels of land in more strategic sites to build new churches.

The 10 years would also allow time to develop new ministries – and then, after that period has elapsed, to become separate parishes once again, with the possibility of a new parish emerging in the Marshlands sub-division.

The review group’s proposal includes other significant mergers.

Some at the synod – particularly those who feel their identity is threatened – complained about lost autonomy, pressure, speed of the process and loss of diversity.

“The SRG is very conscious of the uncertainty and sheer weariness of Cantabrians, and aware that it is difficult to make changes in such circumstances,” the report said. “Nonetheless, it is important that as a diocese we make these hard decisions.”

Matthews spoke in her charge of the need to make decisions. She referred to the workers who will flood into the city to work on its rebuild, and asked whether the parishes would be ready to reach out to them:

“Remember, not to decide is to decide, and the longer we take to decide questions about a diocesan map, the less energy we will put into helping our neighbors.

“It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Will we fight over parish boundaries – or reach out to the newcomer in our midst who is wondering what sort of community this place called Christchurch really is?”

Part of the challenge, says John Day, “is that we are being invited to think beyond the confines of our parish boundaries, and to begin to minister as the Diocese of Christchurch gathered around our bishop.”