Near the Anglican Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, is a small stone wall with a large inscription on it: “Let these stones speak of a love that endures forever.” Just beyond those hopeful words sits the remains of the cathedral, which was badly damaged during earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 and has not yet been demolished, repaired, or replaced.
The irony is inescapable. Cathedral Square is in the center of downtown Christchurch. The old cathedral itself sits surrounded by a high wall, weeds 3 feet high, odd traffic cones and bits of equipment. The building is less than a skeleton – perhaps half a skeleton. Nearby many buildings are still boarded up. Others have been demolished. One or two structures look new, but not very many. Add to that a bunch of torn-up streets, and the effect is quite depressing.
I checked the cathedral’s website to see what is going on. The congregation has moved two blocks east to the famous “Cardboard Cathedral.” The structure is much nicer than its name implies, and dioceses calls it by the more suitable title “Transitional Cathedral.” Their website is firmly focused on life in their new building. We attended an Evensong service featuring the choir of boys and men, and it was beautiful. Even though the structural elements included shipping containers and lots of drapery, it’s easy to see that living in a cardboard cathedral is eminently better than mourning amidst a pile of rocks.
And yet the impact on downtown is sobering. All roads lead to the derelict cathedral. It was actually a bit difficult finding the transitional one amid the construction fences. I had to dig around to find any plans for the wreck. Apparently the town government is trying to encourage the dioceses to do something, but the church makes the point that it owns 290 buildings, 230 of which were damaged, and it has other priorities right now. So at this date the stone skeleton lays silent, falling further into decay inside its prettily-painted fence.
I was reminded of our own earthquake travails at Seattle First Baptist. When our building sustained significant damage during the Nisqually Earthquake in 2001, we acted swiftly and decisively. After a brief discussion we moved forward with repairs, and within a year or so the necessary repairs were made and paid for. Thankfully the damage to our facility was much less severe, but the cost and effort was still substantial.
In this season of Reimaging Lent, I find these church buildings to be powerful metaphors for my personal faith. My childhood faith was shaken to its core when I was young. By the time I was 13 things didn’t seem to make sense. In my 20s, when I came out as a gay man, my next three trips to my sister’s church each included a special mention of the “abomination” that I was, all recited by her pastor while his eyes rested on me. That experience cracked whatever foundation was left of my faith.
I let this crumbled mess lie fallow in my heart for years. Eventually I found a transitional church, and finally found a faith community I could call home at SFBC. But the wreck was still there, lurking in the background, generating doubt now and then, a source of depression. Only in recent years have I decided to demolish that old wreck and clear the debris, as well as one can clean up a psychic mess.
This year I am challenged to move on. My faith needed more than a few repairs. I needed a new place for my spirit, and I found one. And now I find that I need to formally declare the past to be just that – past. It’s time to stop focusing on what I don’t believe and start articulating what my soul is now passionate about. I feel free in a way I never have before, but to get here I needed to climb out of my pile of rocks.
I’ve seen several agonizing articles written by “former Evangelicals” recently who have discovered that the church they thought they belonged to has crumbled into an amoral heap. The writers are devastated, struggling to figure out where to go, what to do. My advice: clean up the mess and move on.