Project Canterbury

Bishop Harper and the Canterbury Settlement

By H. T. Purchas

Christchurch, Wellington and Dunedin: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1909.

Chapter XII. The Cathedral

"'Tis a life-long toil till our lump be leaven,--
The better! What's come to perfection perishes.
Things learned on earth we shall practise in heaven:
Work done less rapidly Art most cherishes."
--B. Browning.

The year 1873, in which the battle of the schools was fought, was also the year in which a novelist of note published to the English world his impressions of Australia and New Zealand. In this book Anthony Trollope characterised the Canterbury settlement as being (from the Church point of view) a melancholy failure, and cited as a proof of his assertion the abandonment of the project to build a cathedral in Christchurch. Yet this same year, 1873, is the date which marks the revival of hope and effort among Churchmen, and the building of the cathedral forms the brightest outward feature in the latter years of Bishop Harper's episcopate.

But the novelist's error was not unnatural. The history of the great undertaking to which he alluded is a history which belied the expectations of the sanguine as well as those of the despondent. That predictions of failure were ever falsified, and that over-confident hopes were in any degree realised, was due in the first place to the sagacious foresight of the founders of the settlement, and secondly, to the splendid tenacity with which the few held on, when the many had lost heart. In more ways than one the history of Christchurch Cathedral is instructive as well as interesting.

Opinions still differ widely as to the functions which a cathedral should discharge, and the relations in which it should stand towards the parochial system. But such questions had hardly been broached half a century ago. The founders of Canterbury intended that it should have a cathedral, and a noble one, but their ideas as to its use when built were no clearer than those of their fellow-churchmen of the period. It belonged, in fact, to what Mr. Godley called the "poetry" of their scheme. Canterbury was to be the reproduction of an English diocese; every English diocese had a cathedral; therefore Canterbury must have one too. In England cathedrals were usually found, not in busy commercial towns, but in quiet places with an academic atmosphere; therefore in Canterbury the cathedral should not be built in the projected business capital (Lyttelton) but in the university town upon the plains. And just as the "poetry" of colonisation must be left over till practical wants were in some measure supplied, so there was no proposal to begin an embyro cathedral establishment at once, but the pilgrims concentrated their efforts on a parochial church which would supply their real needs.

Circumstances, however, soon made it clear that Christchurch and not Lyttelton must be the business centre of the settlement, and also made it clear that "Cathedral Square" must be the business centre of the city. But the Cathedral Commission appointed by the first Synod in 1859 were unable at first to realise the value of the unique site which fate had thus, as it were, put into their hands. Still clinging to the old idea of a quiet spot withdrawn from the hum of traffic, they actually entered into negotiations for various other sites in the city. Unable, fortunately, to acquire any of these, they were at last driven, sentiment and poetry notwithstanding, to utilise the magnificent position, whose value was to become apparent at a later day.

These considerations help to explain Bishop Harper's action. His practical turn of mind led him to throw his energies into the development of parochial work and the building of parish churches. Towards the building of a Cathedral his attitude was one of extreme caution. He feared lest the glamour of the cathedral scheme should blind the eyes of the people to the necessity for effective pastoral work, such as could only be supplied (according to the ideas of that day) by small and compact parishes in which one priest--assisted perhaps by a deacon--ministered to a number not too great to be individually known. Had he been able to foresee the future he might perhaps have taken a different course in 1859. For in that year, owing to a vacancy at St. Michael's, he had pastoral charge of the whole of Christ-church, and the parishioners were willing that the arrangement should continue. Owing to the smallness of the building, he was obliged to institute an evening service in the Masonic Hall--i.e., almost on the site of the Cathedral itself. It would have been easy then to concentrate the work of the city there, and to make the Cathedral in fact, what of course it is in theory, the mother church of the diocese. Much friction between the two systems might have been avoided, had this course been taken. But the bishop deliberately kept them apart, postponed the commencement of the cathedral till parish churches were provided, and upheld its diocesan character throughout. He intended that it should be especially the church for the runholders and country-folks on their visits to town--a church to which they might come as of right and find no barrier in the shape of appropriated pews.

But sentiment was too strong to be withstood altogether. The first Synod (as has been said) appointed a commission of fifteen, with the bishop as chairman. This body obtained plans from Mr. (afterwards Sir Gilbert) Scott, and took some steps towards ascertaining the cost of material. The design provided for outer walls of stone, but the clerestory and columns were to be of wood. These columns would have been formed each of a single tree of great size, and though the Auckland timber merchants were able to undertake to provide these huge balks, there was considerable doubt as to whether the shipping of the colony would be equal to the task of conveying them to Lyttelton. Time passed in these preliminary enquiries and the public became impatient. In November, 1862, meetings of parishioners were held for the purpose of providing more sittings in the old church, and these resolved themselves (as the minority complained) into meetings for the building of a cathedral. The undercurrent, whose strength had hitherto been unsuspected, now rose to the surface, and soon carried everything before it.

During the next month, and without any systematic canvass, no less a sum than £11,000 was promised--the payments to be spread over five years. Mr. Fitzgerald had in 1858 collected £750 in England, and in 1859 the bishop had added £1000 from the first instalment of the Council's church-building grant. The Commission had thus £1,750 in hand, and in January, 1863, they put forth their first appeal, in which they asked for further subscriptions to make up the sum of £20,000 which would be amply sufficient (according to the estimate) to complete the nave and thus provide accommodation for 1000 worshippers.

Times were good, and the appeal met with a fair response. Encouraged by success, the Commission ventured to request Sir Gilbert Scott to alter Ms design by substituting stone pillars and clerestory. Not only so, but they even decided to lay the foundation of the whole building (instead of the nave only) in the confident assurance that a few years would see it completed from one end to the other. In September, 1864, Mr. E. Speechley arrived from England to take up the position of Resident Architect. He brought with him the alternative plans which were at once adopted, and the preliminary works were soon put in hand. The Provincial Council passed an Ordinance which had the effect of bringing the Cathedral a few feet nearer the middle of the Square, and on November 17th, the bishop signed the contract for the foundation of the whole building.

On December 16th--the fourteenth anniversary of the settlement--the foundation-stone was laid. Great preparations had been made for the event. An imposing procession marched from St. Michael's to the open square. A large choir composed of parochial contingents, the Musical Society of the town, and a number of instrumentalists, rendered the "Hallelujah Chorus" after the laying of the stone, and "Worthy is the Lamb," with the "Amen Chorus" at the close of the proceedings. Rain fell in torrents upon the unsheltered gathering, but nothing could damp the enthusiasm of the multitude, and the day is still remembered as a red-letter day in the history of the province.

And well it might be. Looking back at the circumstances of the time, the prominent feeling is one of astonishment and admiration. Christ-church was a very small town; its population can hardly have exceeded 5,000 people. Already the old church had been enlarged more than once, St. Luke's had not long been opened, and in that very same year (1864) the bishop had laid the foundation-stone of St. John the Baptist's--a solid stone structure. And now the community had put its hand to the erection of a cathedral, to hold some 1,500 people, in full expectation of seeing it completed within the next six years.

What were to be its uses, and who were to fill its spacious aisles? The appeal of the Commission spoke of the value of such a building as a witness to the Unseen Power, and also to the episcopal character of the Anglican Church. It mentioned the need of a large central church on great national occasions and for special episcopal functions. It dwelt also upon the welcome it would offer to country residents who often spent a considerable part of the year in town. But these objects would never have roused such enthusiasm had they stood alone. It was the sentiment, the "poetry," behind them which gave them their power. The general feeling was best expressed in the Latin inscription which was deposited in the foundation-stone.

It may be translated thus:--

of the Cathedral Church of Christ, in the City of Christ-church, was laid by the Right Rev. H. J. C. Harper, D.D., First Bishop of Christchurch on the 14th birthday of the Canterbury Settlement, December 16th, of the 28th year of Queen Victoria, being the year of our Redemption, 1864--in the presence of clergy and people remembering with a grateful heart the many and great benefits which God, Most Good and
Great, the Author of all good things,
has bestowed upon the sons of Britain dwelling in this new
country, and the good success with which He has hitherto
favoured the hopes and plans of those who have
earnestly striven to found another England not
unworthy of the mother:
Praying also that as the Universal Church of Christ founded upon the Bock stands immoveable and will stand even to
the end of the world, So Christ's temple resting upon this corner-stone
may stand for all future years
a strong, beautiful, noble, and conspicuous
witness of faith in Christ unconquered and unshaken.
May God bless this work from beginning to end
and be propitious to our labours.
Amen. Praise be to God."

But the day on which the stone was laid was the high-water mark for many a long year. Before the foundations were completed the tide had begun to ebb. A period of severe commercial depression set in, and by the end of 1865 the Commission was confronted with a deficit. Their expenses had amounted to £7,000, while of the promised subscriptions less than £5,000 had been paid. Again and again the Bishop appealed to the subscribers and the public, but with little or no result. Times were bad, and people could not pay. The work was therefore suspended, and for several years there was nothing to be seen above the ground but a few inches of the foundation. Even this was nearly obliterated by the growth of grass and moss, and when the Governor (Sir George Grey) visited the city in 1867 the authorities found it necessary to mow the grass and whitewash the top of the foundation in order to let him see the outline of what they still hoped to build some day.

On his return from the Lambeth Conference in 1868, the bishop found that hope had sunk to an even lower level. In one of the speeches at the welcome meeting he was informed by the Dean (Jacobs) that whereas, when he left for England, some lingering uncertainty still prevailed as to whether it might be possible to go on with the building within a reasonable time, that notion was now quite cleared away. "There is not a single person who does not think that it would be utterly vain and idle to attempt proceeding with the Cathedral under present circumstances for, in all probability, some years to come."

Here was indeed a depressing account. Yet the situation was not without its compensations. The Cathedral idea had never held the first place in the bishop's thoughts, and the impossibility of its realisation at this time simply threw him back on his love for the parochial system. Thus it was that when, in the next year's Synod a motion for a fresh cathedral effort was brought forward by his son, the Archdeacon of Westland, and supported by a majority both of clergy and laity, the bishop actually opposed it with his veto. His policy was to do one thing at a time, and he resolved to postpone any such effort till more church accommodation was provided to meet the pressing needs of the immediate present. Accordingly, he concentrated his energies on the building of a new St. Michael's.

This church, of which the foundation-stone was laid on Michaelmas Day, 1870, was opened for divine service on May 2nd, 1872. Though built of timber, it was a noble and roomy structure and served well as a pro-cathedral for many years.

During this period the cathedral site was left, of course, in its old condition, and desolate indeed was its appearance at the time of Trollope's visit in the winter of 1872. "There is the empty space" (he wrote) "with all the foundations of a great church laid steadfast beneath the surface; but it seemed to be the general opinion of the people that a set of public offices should be erected there instead of a cathedral. I could not but be melancholy as I learned that the honest, high-toned idea of the honest, high-toned founders of the colony would probably not be carried out."

The visitor's information was not altogether correct, but it was not without ample justification in fact. In the years preceding his visit the Synod had been discussing the advisability of some such course as that to which he alluded. In 1869 and in 1871, proposals were brought forward in favour of selling the site altogether, or else of letting it on building leases. In 1872 the Dean himself advocated such a course--his argument being that with the proceeds of the sale a less costly cathedral might be built on some less central site. Even the bishop was not altogether averse to this policy. His great object was practical efficiency, and he instanced the case of St. Ambrose who sold the sacred vessels in order to ransom captives. But the Synod could never bring itself to give up the foundations so hopefully laid at such great cost, and in the same year it at length passed a resolution (moved by Mr. C. C. Bowen) which favoured a resumption of the original work. Now that St. Michael's was built, the bishop felt himself free to adopt what he had vetoed three years before, and the long period of waiting was brought to a close.

The time was opportune for a new advance. The commercial depression was passing away, and the community felt a new breath of hope. Trollope's book, which appeared in 1873, actually helped the rising tide. It led to the formation of a Cathedral Guild, whose exertions were of considerable value. The bishop came forward with a scheme which bore the stamp of his generous nature, for it practically meant that he himself should bear the largest part of the cost. A loan was to be raised on the Church property--two-thirds on the Bishopric Estate, one-third on the joint security of the Dean and Chapter and General Trusts Estates--interest and sinking fund to be provided by proportionate deduction from the income of the bishop and canons, and the grant to the clergy of St. Michael's, St. Luke's, and St. John's. This proposal was not accepted, but in August the Trustees raised a loan of £5,000 and in the following year one of a similar amount. The tide of enthusiasm once more set in, a fresh canvass was made, the public responded with generous subscriptions, and by the end of 1875 the outer walls had risen to a goodly height. On Anniversary Day in that year a service was held within those walls, which the Bishop characterised in his journal as "very good." Previous to the service he was presented with a pastoral staff and a Primatial crozier by the laity and clergy of the diocese.

From this time onward the building proceeded, with some intervals indeed, but at a fairly rapid rate. The nave columns were given by different donors whose names they now bear. Mr. W. B. Mountfort was now resident architect, and to him many of the most beautiful details are due. In 1879 the Synod determined to make a special effort for the completion of the nave, and authorised a further loan of £8,000. [Altogether some £45,000 was spent on the cathedral prior to November, 1881.] This was supplemented by several generous gifts. The rose window was given by the Cathedral Guild, the north porch by Archdeacon Wilson, and lastly, the tower and spire, with peal of bells, by Mr. B. H. Rhodes and the family of Mr. George Rhodes, his brother.

Thus it came about that on All Saints' Day, 1881, the nave was consecrated. This was perhaps the greatest day of Bishop Harper's life. He himself of course performed the ceremony, but the Bishops of Nelson, Wellington, Dunedin, and Waiapu took part in the proceedings and preached at the services held during the octave. A Dean and Chapter had been appointed as far back as 1866; a choir had already been trained and a daily choral service of a character hitherto unrivalled in Australasia was carried on uninterruptedly from the day of consecration.

The history of the building during the next twenty years was a somewhat checkered one. The lofty spire (210 feet) was injured more than once by the earthquakes with which New Zealand is visited from time to time. When the second Bishop of Christchurch was consecrated in 1890, it stood in a truncated condition; and when the second dean was installed in 1901, it had again been recently shaken so severely that the top courses had to be removed a few weeks later. In each case the family by whom it was built came forward generously with the funds for its restoration. During all this time the transepts and chancel stood in the unfinished state in which they had been left previous to the great effort of 1880, but in 1900 a new movement was inaugurated by the present bishop, and the 40th anniversary of its foundation saw the whole building completed and open for divine worship. By that date, no less a sum than £65,000 had been spent upon the building, instead of the £21,000 which formed the original estimate.

Christchurch Cathedral has thus a history which is bound up with that of the settlement itself. Already it contains within its walls many noble memorials of early founders. There is none, it is true, of Godley in whose devout mind the idea of the building was first conceived, but from the adjoining square his bronze statue looks towards the western doorway which his feet would doubtless have entered daily if the opportunity had been given him. The font, given by Dean Stanley, of Westminster, commemorates the annexation of the Island to the British Crown, in 1840, by his brother, Captain Owen Stanley, of H.M.S. Britomart. The pulpit was erected in memory of Bishop Selwyn--the carved alabaster panels representing different incidents in his life, such as his consecration of Bishop Patteson and his reception of Bishop Harper in 1856. In the north transept an impressive recumbent figure of Bishop Harper himself rests upon a cenotaph, on which the dates of his episcopate are recorded.

The central position of the building has proved of great advantage. Its holding capacity has been none too great for the congregations which have come together on Sunday evenings, and has been altogether inadequate on great national occasions when citizens have wished to join in united acts of solemn worship. Its stately architecture and commanding position have given a character of its own to the "Cathedral City," and afford to a new generation an eloquent testimony to the high aims and devout aspirations of the founders of Canterbury.

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