Some extra-ordinary goings on in Palmerston North this week, centred around the fate of the All Saints church in the heart of that flat and boring city.
You may think that nothing much of importance ever happens in Palmy, but apparently you would be wrong. There’s not much of great architectural significance in PM, but All Saints is one. It is a Frederick de Jersey Clere church for a start – the same architect who designed St Mary of the Angels in Wellington. St Mary’s was an unusual commission for Clere as it was a Catholic church, and he was high Anglican to the core, designing over 100 churches in NZ – mostly in the lower North Island. And All Saints in Palmerston North was surely one of his best works for the Anglican faithful – a masterpiece in red brick. HeritageNZ notes that: “All Saints Church is a splendid example of the High Victorian Gothic principle of honesty in construction. The brickwork, which is among the finest in New Zealand, is not disguised; neither are the interior wooden roof supports. The overall style of the church illustrates Clere’s free interpretation of Gothic Revival architecture.”
So, what has happened? Well, as can be expected, the world is no longer so enamoured of plain old red brick unreinforced masonry any more. As we’ve all learnt from Canterbury, unreinforced brick masonry has a habit of “not holding hands” in a seismic event, and tall brick steeples have a nasty habit of falling down. So, strengthening has been called for, and that is where the trouble has begun. For a start, the church was closed down some many years ago due to a perceived earthquake risk – not unusual given that it is all brick…. but then more recently, the proposals to rip the front off it to make a more “open” frontage have run into a… well… a sort of brick wall. Sorry.
Here’s the link to the Manawatu Standard story about this. While the reporter is getting all excited about whether or not the Council should be giving evidence at the hearing (ie not being just a neutral venue, but actually having an opinion about architecture – shock, horror !) I’m more interested in this quote from the vicar, who says:
“Evidence was given at the hearing that if the part of the application relating to demolition of the baptistery wall was declined, the church would not carry out the earthquake strengthening alone. Rev Sue Fordyce told the commissioners the Diocese of Wellington, owners of the property, would not allow fundraising for seismic strengthening if the project did not contribute to the church’s mission and create a more welcoming entrance. She and other witnesses said that approach, to preserve the historic building in its current form, would be idolatry.“
Goodness ! I thought that idolatry went out with the Abyssinians back in 2500BC.
And in even more astonishing Goodness news, here is what they were debating in 2016:
Arrrgh ! Jesus !! Hell’s Bells! What the Actual F…? At the time, “designer” Matt Soong said that: “There is something wrong about mimicking a style. Trying to copy something that is 100 years old is never going to work. It would look tacky.”
Well, it’s good to know that it is not going to look tacky….
It seems that the front wall – behind which is a baptism font etc – is getting in the way. And so the need is there to rip the front off the baptistry and replace with a more open entry – despite the large door nearby – because, well, you know, sacred cows and all. Sorry again.
So, let me get this right, Reverend Fordyce is clearly one of these modern reverends who thinks that architecture gets in the way of the church being a welcoming place for people. That by opening up the front of the church – effectively ripping off its face to reveal some presumably big glass panes, that more people are just going to be walking in and converting to Christianity?
Clearly the Reverend and I are not on the same page here. But it does pose the question: is the church the Church? or is the church actually the people? Anglicanism is fast dying out in New Zealand if we judge it by the attendances at congregation – each week there are fewer and fewer living celebrants. My mum still goes to church and she tells me that some weeks there is just the vicar, the organist, herself, and one other. The church in NZ is effectively dead – and only the corpses of the buildings remain. That’s not to say that Christianity is dead in NZ, judging by the amount of happy clappers and bullshit artistes “speaking in tongues” at the youthful and bountiful Arise type of churches each week, but Arise and its brethren (see what I did there?) are scarcely interested in fine architecture, judging by that ugly flat monster in Petone.
As the old rhyme goes: Here’s the Church and here is the steeple. Open the doors and here are the people. Or not, maybe. But it does leave us with some urgent questions to answer. Should the church – sorry, the Church – be allowed to deface a graceful old lady in a vain effort to try and retain its congregation? Should the City be able to insist that Church money be spent on architecture – sorry, Architecture – by saving the church as a figure set in stone – architecture in pure form? Is Architecture now really Idolatry? Is the aesthetic architectural purity of a job done well more important than a handful more potential practitioners for a few more years? And the final question, really: what will NZ do with all the churches when the congregation have all died off?