Telling the stories of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia

Cathedrals fulfil many roles

What on earth and in heaven’s name is a cathedral? asks Bishop Victoria Matthews.

Victoria Matthews  |  03 Apr 2013

What, on earth and in heaven’s name, is a cathedral? And how does the location and role of a cathedral give definition to a city and region?

Certainly, a cathedral is more than an expensive monument to an impossible dream. Cathedrals are suggestive of a greater beauty than we can actually find on earth and signposts to a reality beyond the visible world. 

They are inspiring insofar as they move the person who enters the sacred space to ponder meaning and to ask questions.

A cathedral is a place of worship, and to be truthful often the worship happens long before the choir begins to sing or the Scriptures are proclaimed. 

Cathedrals remind the pilgrim of the relationship between love, life and the source of all meaning. They also assist people to celebrate the great moments in our national or regional life as well as to grieve the loss associated with disasters.

Cathedrals are places that remember the important milestones in our history.

In the 4th century St Augustine, in a famous passage, acknowledged the woven nature of love and life, both earthly and heavenly:

What do I love when I love my God?  Not physical beauty, nor the splendour of time, not the radiance of earthly life, so pleasant to our eyes; not the sweet melodies of harmony and song; not the fragrant smell of flowers, perfumes, and spices; not manna or honey; not limbs such as the flesh delights to embrace. These are not the things that I love when I love my God.

And yet when I love him, I do indeed love a certain kind of light, a voice, a fragrance, a food, an embrace; but this love takes place in the inner person, where my soul is bathed in light that is not bound by space; when it listens to sound that time never takes away; when it breathes in a fragrance which no breeze carries away; when it tastes food which no eating can diminish; when it clings to an embrace which is not broken when desire is fulfilled. This is what I love when I love my God.  (Confessions 10.19)

Augustine writes as a disciple of Christ but it is not hard to understand that when he writes he is actually reflecting the human condition. We need to know our life matters and is somehow connected to that larger scheme of meaning and purpose. 

He also might have been reflecting on the vocation of a cathedral where many different strands are woven together. Hence ChristChurch Cathedral has been frequently the place of community celebration and also of community healing. 

When news of international disaster was received people flooded the cathedral to pray and weep and mourn. Locally, the Pike River Mine disaster saw the same response and people of ‘all faiths and none’ turned to our Cathedral.

It was in many ways the symbol of Canterbury NZ and the cathedral that allowed Christchurch to be a city.

The Biblical scholar N.T.Wright has said that people who believe in God build cathedrals and embrace the Gospel, calling to care for those less able to look after themselves. Each is a ministry of feeding and enhancing life. 

It is no surprise then that the Christchurch City Mission and the cathedral have an obvious affinity.

“People in our contemporary society are cramped and stifled, fed on a diet of ugliness and noise. They are hungry for beauty, for light, for music. 

“In celebrating and maintaining a wonderful cathedral, we are not a sub-branch of the ‘heritage industry’. We are telling real people about the real God; we are saying that there is a different way to be human, a way in which worship and mystery and silence and light and space all play their proper part.”(N.T Wright, For All God’s Worth)

That is why Cathedrals have always celebrated people’s different gifts. There are often resident visual artists as well as musicians and poets and more than a hint of choreography in the grand liturgies of the Church year. 

Cathedrals are in touch with present-day artistic genius as well as the artists of yesteryear.

In Christchurch Canterbury I want a beautiful cathedral that will invite the spirit of those who look upon her to soar and sing even before entering. I want our cathedral to inspire and to uplift. 

I believe we all want a safe cathedral so no matter what the earth delivers, in the future the cathedral can embody ‘sanctuary’ for the city. 

And the cathedral needs to encourage the mission of God across the region and beyond. 

This means having a new cathedral in the Square in a reasonable time frame and a beautiful building that will not cost so much that the cathedral is built at the expense of ministry to and by the people.

What is a cathedral? It is the mother church of a diocese but a cathedral is never only for church goers. 

It is a place where all are welcome and where many come as tourists yet leave with questions about discipleship. 

It is a place to celebrate and a place to repent and experience the loving forgiveness of God. 

A cathedral is a stream in the desert, a place of healing and nurture. 

Our cathedral will be a place where the Good News is proclaimed and the presence of God is realized in moments of deep intimacy.

Our cathedral will reflect our local story of place as well as share the eternal truths of God.

The Rt Rev Victoria Matthews is Bishop of Christchurch.