Church to decide cathedral's fate in September

1:13 pm on 22 May 2017

The Anglican Church has announced it will decide the fate of the Christ Church cathedral, in what appears to be a snub to a government working party.

Christchurch cathedral.

The Christ Church cathedral in 2015. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

In a surprise move, the Church yesterday announced members of Canterbury's synod would now decide the cathedral's future at its meeting in September.

The government-appointed working party's report had been trying to decided the fate of the building and its report, which is due out shortly, is expected to support restoring the cathedral.

For six years the Christ Church cathedral has sat decaying and neglected in the Square, a tall wooden fence shielding the damaged building from public view. Exposed to the elements, the rats and pigeons have free entry.

Now, the Christchurch bishop, Victoria Matthews, said after much thought and prayer she'd decided it was for those representing the entire Anglican diocese of Canterbury to decide the cathedral's future.

"As the Christ Church Cathedral is a church building above all else, and a place of worship, the decision on its future should be made by the members of the Synod comprising the gathered clergy and laity of the Diocese who will be using the cathedral forever," she said.

Restore Christ Church Cathedral Group spokesman Mark Belton said the Church's announcement was sad, disappointing and a delay tactic.

"It transfers the responsibility from the Church Property Trust, possibly because the bishop, she may not have been confident, that the Church Property Trust were going to back her preference - which is obvious - for a new cathedral," he said.

Christchurch MP and the Minister responsible for Supporting Greater Christchurch Regeneration, Nicky Wagner, said she was also disappointed, but the decision reflected the deep divisions within the church.

"The Church has made a decision that they can't support the working decision, that they can't find agreement within the Church and so they're looking to synod, which is a wider grouping, to make that decision for them," she said.

In her statement, Bishop Matthews said people were still divided on whether to reinstate the cathedral or build a new contemporary cathedral.

But she said the Church would only go ahead with restoring the existing building if it didn't leave it in debt.

Both sides agreed that restoring the cathedral would cost about $100 million.

Where they differed was over long-term costs, with the Church saying it was looking at a shortfall of $56m, but supporters putting it at $26m.

To try to break the deadlock, 11 months ago a government-appointed working group met for the first time.

Ms Wagner said the group has reached a conclusion, but would not say what it was, or when the report would be released.

The Labour Party's Canterbury spokesperson, Megan Woods, said $500,000 of taxpayer money was spent on the working group - yet there was still no resolution.

"The government put a huge amount of faith in the working groups to come to a resolution and to hear that we're not even going to have that until this year really is just beyond the pale."

Ms Woods said people in Christchurch were frustrated by the lack of progress.

Mark Belton said he knew what had been decided, although the detail of how it would be done was yet to come out.

"There were five people on that working group. Two were from silver society ... and two were from the Church Property Trust and there was an independent chairperson.

"It fully supported re-establishment of the cathedral, which is code for restoration.

"Their report was released to the Church Property Trust and to the government and it hasn't been released yet to the public, but I understand it will be released in June."

When synod members last considered the issue in 2013, they voted for a new cathedral.

But Mr Belton warned if they voted that way again, they would struggle to get resource consent. He pointed to attempts to alter the Canterbury museum and arts centre which failed in the Environment Court.

"In terms of heritage standing and the fact it's now been proven it can be fully restored, there's no way that consent can be assumed ... and in fact it's far more likely that it would be declined," he said.