Monday, 23 December 2013


I've had quite a hectic December, what with one thing and another, and one of the another things was a trip to Christchurch last weekend to preach at the installation of Lynda Patterson as Dean of the Transitional Cathedral. I flew up, booked into my accommodation, had a meal and drove to the Cathedral through once familiar streets. Suburban Christchurch, though battle-scarred, still looks much as it did when I lived there and knew it. Once inside the four avenues however it's a different story. All of the familiar way-points are gone and in their place are broken walls, piles of rubble and, here and there, the foundations of the  way-points which are not yet. The layout of the streets is unchanged of course, but many of them are closed or are obstructed by containers and chain-link fences. I picked my way through  in the general direction of where I thought St. John's Latimer Square used to stand, hoping I was heading the right way and then I saw it: a blazing triangle of light jutting with defiant optimism up towards the early summer sky.

I hadn't seen it before and walking into the filling nave I was struck by two things: the extraordinary quality of light inside the building and the sense that it was what it proclaimed itself to be: transitional. The huge tan tubes out of which it is constructed are covered by translucent corrugated plastic sheeting. Diffuse, soft light flows down around the tubes and, mixing with that from the huge multicoloured rear window, swamps the place. Across the front are wide glass panels, allowing anyone passing to see anything and everything that is going on inside. It also allows those inside to look back and out at the ruins of the beloved city. It feels airy and spacious though it is not actually all that big. Behind quite temporary looking curtains and forming the lower parts of the walls are shipping containers turned into offices, vestries and a kitchen. They work fine but they are quite cramped and do look very transitional indeed. There is a smallish stage at the front on which were chairs  and choir stalls and a pulpit, made ingeniously from cardboard tubes, sitting a little incongruously with one or two pieces from the old cathedral. It is beautiful. It is temporary.

I can see why the building has already become something of an icon in Christchurch. It does exactly capture the current state of the city, where ingenuity and tradition and aesthetic sense are beginning to build a stylish new metropolis out of the ruins of the old. It is a sign of what can be done, and a pointer to what shall be.

The choice of Lynda as dean of this place is inspired. With her intelligence and her deeply grounded spirituality, with her humour and music and street savvy she is someone that others can respect and listen to. As this building is becoming a sign around which the city can build its hopes, so Lynda is the leader around whom  the Cathedral congregation can build their mission to show Jesus to the city.

It was a great service and I was humbled and honoured to be part of it. The liturgy managed that delicate balance between dignity and relaxed warmth, the Cathedral choir sang well, I preached to an attentive congregation, and there was a pervading sense of optimism and energy and joy which this transitional space held and contributed to. The old Cathedral which I knew and loved so well perfectly embodied the hopes of the Canterbury settlers and the city they founded. This cathedral perfectly captures the present heart of Christchurch and gives me hope that the cathedral which will follow it will do the same - spectacularly - for the phoenix city now in the early stages of rising.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Come to the Waters

I took this picture with my phone on my walk through the streets of Galdstone this morning. about the only thing this river has in common with the one in what follows is that they're both wet.

When I was Vicar of Sumner in Christchurch, with a very large congregation of young people, we held baptisms at least five or six times a year on Sumner beach. I and the people professing their faith would wade out into the waves or stand in a small perfectly sized pool which formed under Cave Rock if the tides were right. Dates were set in advance and we went ahead regardless of weather, so that the first one of these I ever performed was in August with snow covering the Port Hills. Others were on fine clear days with an audience of the curious licking their icecreams and puzzling. Some of those baptised were new converts and some were people who were reaffirming their faith, which meant that often enough the ones walking bravely into the sea with me had been baptised as babies; but not everyone knew for sure whether or not this was true in their case. Of course I knew that baptism wasn't repeatable, but the people concerned had recently found a new dimension in their faith and wanted to mark it somehow, and wanted that marking to involve water and lots of it. So we dunked them all, realising that even if I didn't know whether the person involved had already been baptised, God did. Some of the acts of immersion on Sumner Beach were, in other words, baptisms and some were something else: a reaffirmation of what had gone before, marked with the application of water - similar in many respects (apart from the amount of water involved) to the sprinkling of people on the Easter Eve vigil or to signing oneself with water at the doorway of the church. This is what I told myself, and I was comfortable with that, and it seems the church was comfortable also as several years later we approved of a practice called 'reaffirmation of baptismal vows by immersion'.

Last week I performed another of these. I was in Fiordland for various reasons and the Te Anau congregation asked if, while I was there, I would help Helen to reaffirm her vows. She had recently grown to a new level of commitment to Christ and wanted to mark the dramatic shift in herself by following Jesus's example of baptism. She had chosen the spot. She runs a horse trekking business and knew of a particularly lovely piece or riverbank where the river is wide and clear and still and the native bush cases the hills. Of course I agreed.

Thursday, the appointed day, was not brilliant. In fact it was raining so hard we needn't have bothered going down to the Waiau as planned - standing outside for 30 seconds would have done the trick. Several of the invited congregtion looked out of their windows, assumed it would be off, settled back down into their comfy chairs and made a cup of tea. But a dozen of us were there, including Helen with a string of daisies in her hair, a bouquet of paeonies in her hand and a knee length Dri-Z-Bone over her wetsuit. I had tramping pants and a t shirt. Under umbrellas we shared a suitably adapted version of the baptismal service and waded into the swollen and fast flowing Waiau. My legs immediately went numb, so I didn't in fact feel the cold and we only stayed long enough for me to immerse her in the name of the Holy Trinity and pray for her future walk with Christ. Then we were out and walking the half kilometre back to the cars and back to the beautiful house Helen shares with her husband and small sons for coffee and treats and lots of standing around in front of the log burner.

I've presided at a lot of baptisms and reaffirmations, but I think I'll remember this one for a long time. Partly I suppose it's the weather that makes this one stand out, but more it is the faith of a young woman whose commitment meant more to her than either her own comfort or the frustration of an ideal of what it might have been like if only the sky had been blue and the Southerly not howling in off the mountains. My position brings many privileges and standing with Helen in the wind and the rain, waist deep in the icy Waiau was definitely one of them.