Christ Church Cathedral- Text Of Alma Rae Opinion Article (The Press 29/07/2013)

The text of the Alma Rae "Opinion" article on the Christ Church Cathedral that was submitted and  published in The Press is as follows.

CHRIST CHURCH CATHEDRAL                                  Alma Rae


Readers will be aware of the controversy over whether the Anglican Cathedral should or should not be demolished.  Last year The Press ran a poll seeking to discover where opinion lay.  By an extremely narrow margin, those wanting it gone were in a majority.  When asked their reasons, 39% of those wanting to demolish cited safety as their main reason. In other words, fear predominated.

At that time, it was little known that the Cathedral could and can be repaired to 100% of the most stringent earthquake safety standards, without prohibitive expense or the need to take decades over it.

Fear is not per se rational or irrational.  It is sensible to be afraid of some things.  Falling masonry is undoubtedly one of them.  Fear can motivate the taking of suitable measures to avert unnecessary risk and harm, which is its evolutionary purpose.  A sudden surge of acute fear can, as most of us know all too well, cause the release of adrenalin and other chemicals which, by increasing heart rate and blood supply to our muscles give us added strength and speed to escape a dangerous situation.  But chronic fear causes the release of stress hormones that are not helpful at all; they make us tired and miserable, hopeless and pessimistic, and skew our thinking.

Perhaps this is what happened to cause so many, and in particular the Cathedral Property Trust, to endorse demolishing our city’s most symbolic and centrally important heritage building.  We were tired.  We were nervous.  We were uncertain about our futures, everything was more difficult than usual, hardly anything was where it used to be and the city where traffic jams were almost unknown had become a nightmare to negotiate.  And so, one takes control of whatever’s on offer, in order to feel more on top of things.  At least a building that is not there any more cannot hurt us.

Underneath fear there is often anger; they are closely linked anatomically in the brain.  It would hardly be surprising if some of us were angry about all that we have lost, and if that anger, as well as our fear, led us to think less than rationally.

Fear was a constant theme in Bishop Victoria Matthews’ public utterances on the matter.  She said when announcing the intention to demolish that “this is now a very dangerous building that needs to be made safe" and cited risks to those working in or around it.  The beautiful Church of The Holy Trinity Avonside, built where the first church in Canterbury was consecrated in 1859, was unceremoniously demolished in case it might hurt someone, according to parish publications, although no-one had so much as stubbed a toe on it. Frankly, I found it disturbing that a Bishop should apparently be so afraid.  I am not advocating mindless optimism and pretence that there are no risks, but surely the Church’s pastoral duty is to allay fear, not promote it? Especially in a community where senses were already on high alert and we could hardly have been more afraid if we’d tried.

Well, that was then.  But, as far as Christ Church Cathedral is concerned, little has changed.  There it sits, ringed by protective barriers, looking much the same as it did two years ago.  Court proceedings are proceeding at their usual pace, and an outcome lies in the future.  An uncertain future, one marked by continual change and upheaval for many, with unpleasant uncertainties on all sides.

Change is very stressful to the human being.  Even desired changes are stressful.  Changes forced upon us, beyond our control, possibly against our wishes, are doubly so.  A little stress is a good thing, of course.  It keeps us alive to ourselves and our circumstances, nudging us along in the direction of expansion and growth.  However, too much of this particular good thing can be destructive to the human spirit, bringing with it grief, rage, depression, hopelessness and suicide.  Some of the same hormones involved in fear are also active in stress, especially cortisol, which in excess over time can result in full-blown depressive illness or exhaustion.  Its effects on the hippocampal area of the brain can cause memory problems (how many of us are familiar with “quake brain”?)  Chronic stress impairs the immune system, rendering us more vulnerable to all manner of disease.

Here in Canterbury most of us have experienced more change than we could ever have wished for.  Much of it has taken the shape of outright loss – loss of loved ones, of homes and communities, jobs, a sense of security, trust in the powers-that-be, or all of the above.  To move about in what little remains of the central city of Christchurch is to become rapidly disoriented.  The place is barely recognisable bar a few buildings, and one of these is the Cathedral.  Sad though it looks, at least we know it, and from that, where we are.  This is no small thing in such disconcerting times.

The Cathedral was conceived, as it were, in 1860, when the population of Christchurch was “a thousand adult males” (presumably women and children weren’t counted).  These brave people, who included my own great great grandparents, went on to save and plan and erect a small but beautiful cathedral designed by an internationally eminent architect.  Over the next 130 years or so, this lovely monument to faith and determination was repaired after earthquakes, and became the icon of Christchurch.  One did not need to worship there to become very attached to it.  How many of us have photographs of relatives posing in front of it, have attended funerals, concerts, choral services there!  It has been a backdrop to life in Christchurch for almost as long as our city has existed.  It has become a part of us.  The CPT may own it legally, but morally it belongs to everyone.

There have been incalculable losses in this disaster, not least of our built heritage.  All loss causes pain and grief, which, compounded by the seemingly endless and frustrating process of trying to mend a broken city, is making many people ill.  The specialist mental health services in which I work are at their busiest ever, while almost no-one does not list, amongst triggers for their illness, matters related to the earthquakes.  It is the third year after the initial disaster, and that, according to international literature, is when survivors are at their lowest ebb.

It is the familiar that comforts most.  So little can be relied on in our post-disaster city, we need all the familiarity, all the reassuring routines, relationships and objects we can get, in order to allow our over-worked nervous systems to calm down so that we feel safe and well.

Why, then, is the Cathedral Property Trust determined upon destroying one of the few tangible touchstones we have left?  The legacy of our forefathers is to be demolished, or rendered into some risible little wall, by a handful of people the leader of whom has barely been in the country for six years, let alone six generations.  What is the local Anglican Church thinking?  Have they themselves not lost enough of their precious and beautiful churches to understand the feelings engendered?  Surely it is their job to be reassuring, comforting, helpful and kind.  Instead they plan to demolish our most revered icon and replace it with – well, who knows?  But certainly, if it goes, in the rubble-strewn hole where once it was there will be more loss and pain, foisted on us by an institution that should be outstanding in its pastoral concern, not adding gratuitous insult to injury.

In my opinion, the CPT has a responsibility to the thousands of citizens who will be deprived of yet another beloved building, should the Cathedral be destroyed.  I very much doubt that many will mind if it stays, but if it does not, then those thousands of us who love it will suffer yet another assault on our morale and well-being.  The Bishop already has one new cathedral – can she not take pity and leave it at that?

Dr Alma Rae is a Consultant Psychiatrist with the CDHB. (Source: The Press).

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