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Downtown in the ruined city

For the last couple of days I have been in Christchurch at a meeting of bishops. We stayed in the Chateau on Park Terrace, which I remember being built and to which, when it it was new, and providing I had had enough time to save up,  I would take those girls I really wanted to impress. Back then it was about as flash as it gets in the Garden City but now  it is a comfortable, middle of the range place with quaint early 70s architecture. By and large it is in good nick for a Christchurch building: all that wood and pointy roofing and odd windows seems to have stood up to the rock and rolling pretty well, which is more than can be said for the bits of the city we saw on Thursday.

For an afternoon we donned dayglo vests and hard hats and travelled on a big red Christchurch bus through the CBD. I have some photos here. There are fences around the centre of the city and guards in camouflage jackets and we all had to be counted in and counted out and there was not a lot of traffic in the streets. There was rubble and a lot of dust. There were large machines slowly and methodically tearing things to bits. There were a few other people in dayglo jackets. We stopped in Victoria square and walked over the once pristine lawns, over patches of gray liquefaction and a giant crack running across about half the shaggy turf, past the dry fountain and the derelict town hall to where the statues stood amongst the long grass and the weeds. We drove around streets in which I once could have named every shop and I now found myself continually disoriented. In the square mile bounded by the four avenues 900 buildings have been totally demolished and another 300 partially demolished. Where there were once familiar landmarks there are now piles of broken concrete and tangled reinforcing iron. From the bus window I saw a man working an enormous, oddly shaped machine, separating the concrete from the recyclable metal, moving the tons of machined steel over the tons more tangled steel with a delicacy and precision which hinted  how many long hours he had been doing this.

In Cathedral Square we were allowed to walk close but not too close to the shattered and condemned cathedral. And then those of us who wanted to donned safety harnesses and stood on a small fenced platform as it was hoisted skyward by a crane, up over the cathedral roof and down past the gaping wounds in the smashed West end. The platform moved slowly and delicately, the driver of the immense crane moving it with as much skill as the guy sorting iron.  I looked from above into that still lovely ruin, at the aisle down which I walked to be married and to be ordained. I saw in the dim and dusty recesses of the chancel the stalls in which I had once sat to sing evensong. There was rubble everywhere. Every wall was traced with ominous cracks running scores of metres in every direction. Pigeons flew in and out, the only living things now safe in this once was sanctuary. I found myself interested in details of construction now revealed: the brickwork hidden behind the stone of the tower for example, but otherwise oddly unmoved. For all its iconic value this is now just another ruin in a city of ruins. Over the next short while it will gradually and respectfully be dismantled and someday another cathedral will rise in its place; a cathedral which I hope will be a numinous place and be sufficiently appraised of its environment that it will offer sanctuary to those who seek it for centuries to come.

The old Christchurch has gone, shaken to pieces but the energy and purpose and skill  which was as much evident in the CBD as the piles of rubble told me that a new Christchurch will rise. Thursday's journey was one of loss and brokenness but it was also one of hope. Life rises from death. This is the message the old cathedral has borne witness to for the last 130 years, and contiunues to do so, even as it fades back into the rocks from which it was erected


Anonymous said…
"Downtown in a ruined city" could be changed to "Downtown in a ruined Church" Waffle has replaced conviction. The grand old buildings are replaced with cardboard boxes in which people are economic units and commodities to be sold. Yes, the question that really matters is: Did the Resurrection really happen? . . . or not?
Kelvin Wright said…
The grand old buildings fell because they didn't belong here. They were the aspirations and dreams of another place, made of materials and to designs that evolved in and spoke to another hemisphere but which could never last here. The cardboard cathedral is a symbol of where we are, I would agree, but note the power of the symbol: it is not a replacement for the old cathedral, it is a way station. It is a tabenacle in the wilderness as we traverse the awkward space between what was and what is to come. Something else, not yet dreamed of, will replace the old cathedral.

Did the resurrection happen? Wrong question. Is the resurrection happening? Yes. Always.
Anonymous said…
The Resurrection is "happening . . always" ? You seem to be identifying the instinct to survive with the resurrection. Was this resurrection really "always" happening? Even before Jesus rose from the dead?
Evelyn said…
Although my recent visit was one of mixed emotions.I too was impressed by the vibrant spirit of hope and renewal I felt in the streets of the city of my childhood.
Anonymous said…
I saw a seed on the pavement and thought "Too bad . . this seed will never live. It will never grow and bear fruit. Then I thought of the countless millions of seeds just in this one city that today will never live. This was true yesterday. and it is true today. It doesn't matter how I feel about it or if I bury my head in the sand this is the sad state of life. Now if the resurrection actually did happen then there is hope for all life. If the resurrection didn't happen then I don't see any reason for hope.
Kelvin Wright said…
Do I believe in the resurrection? Yes
Do I equate the instinct to survive with resurrection? No.
Anonymous said…
God, who knows the deepest fundamental changes within each of the atoms of our bodies and whose mind encompasses the complete detail of the universe still has time to ask man "who are you?"

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