Last Sunday morning we went to church as becomes all good Christians. The morning was cool out of doors from the evaporation caused by a strong breeze. In doors it was oppressively hot the wind being in the North-west.
Being a member of the Church of England, we performed our devotions at St. Michael's, the fashionable church of Christchurch and we must confess we had to do so under disadvantages of a very formidable kind. A long low building, with walls not much above the height of a man, and a not very steep roof, with an aisle of rather less width and height, is not a convenient sort of apartment into which to crush a large congregation of men, women, and children, as closely as is consistent with the compressibility of men's flesh and women's crinoline.
It does not seem to us that human beings are at all more awake to the impulses of piety when in a situation of acute personal discomfort, than when pleasantly accommodated with fresh air and a moderate temperature. Nor, so far as experience has gone, can it be said that religious truths are more successfully inculcated in an unsightly barn than in a decent parish church. The world would not appear to have grown more religious since the time when the Jewish monarch abstained from building himself a house until he had completed a temple for the worship of Jehovah.
With us it is different. We build houses and surround them with every luxury of modern domestic life. Our young men provide themselves with a club, whose substantial comforts reflect in a limited, but really not wholly insignificant manner, the splendour and luxury of the palaces of Pall Mall. Our Provincial Council discusses the temporal welfare of the community under a roof which even amidst the halls and chapels of England would rejoice the hearts of lovers and connoisseurs of medieval architecture. Our houses are daily growing in magnitude, and convenience, and architectural embellishment. Our expenditure on public works and undertakings is the largest in proportion to the population which probably the world has ever seen.
With all this it is a fact that the principal place of worship in the chief town of the province, is exactly the same miserable barrack, with some make-shift additions, in which the few first colonists assembled to worship, within a month or two after first landing on these unoccupied shores.
Let it be remembered we are speaking of the Church of England. No such disgrace hangs over the Wesleyan or Presbyterian communions. A stranger driving through Christchurch could not fail to be struck with the churches erected by both these Christian bodies, and would, no doubt, arrive at the conclusion that they constituted the most numerous, and most wealthy, and most influential sections of the community. He would, did he know nothing of Church history, imagine that it had been the dissenting bodies who had been the students and patrons of Church architecture, whilst the peculiarity of Episcopalians had been to promote simplicity, unsightliness, and discomfort in their places of worship. Amazed indeed would he be to learn that Canterbury had been founded as a specially Church of England community, and that the numbers of that body still exceeded in a great degree those of all the other religious communities combined.
But we forget. There is another church in Christchurch. That large roof on the north side of the river, which is sometimes mistaken for a riding school or a theatre, is also a church. Having been rescued from the peril of falling down, which it modestly endeavoured to do well nigh before completed, as in despair at its own ugliness, it has been propped and stayed into a ricketty, but let us hope, shortlived existence. We cannot therefore accept St Luke's in satisfaction of what Christchurch ought to do for itself in the way of church building.
Why has not Christchurch a proper decent church to accommodate the large congregation of the Church of England? Is it the fault of the Bishop or of the Synod? or of the Church Trustees? or of the parishioners? or of the Incumbent? The Incumbent, by the way, may console himself for the want of a parsonage, by the consideration that his congregation have not yet even thought it right to build themselves a decent place of worship. Whosesoever fault it is, no one will deny that it is a somewhat discreditable fact that whilst every other building, public and private, increases with the advance of the place, the church building power of the community remains comparatively stationary.
Now we believe there have been two reasons for this. First, when it was most desirable to enlist all the power of the Church on one good central building, the design was set on foot for dividing Christchurch into two parishes, and for having another church on the north side of the river. St. Luke's Church is the result. It was built as an accommodation to that earnest class of Christians who will, it is supposed, go to church if the walk occupies five minutes, but on no account if it demand ten minutes. Unfortunately the smallness of the congregation at St. Luke's hardly justified the greatness of the sacrifice.
Secondly, there is, we believe, an ambitious desire on the part of some persons to see a great cathedral built on Cathedral Square, apart from the parish church. We have seen very beautiful designs by Mr. Gilbert Scott for such a cathedral. The cost of such a building will be, we should imagine, some twenty thousand pounds. But are we to wait till this great structure can be achieved? In our humble opinion such a work is, in the present state of the colony, mere folly.
Fifty years hence ten thousand pounds will be as easily raised in Canterbury for a cathedral as ten hundred now. Nothing that we can possibly build now will satisfy our posterity a few years hence. Our task therefore should be far different. It should be to keep alive in the community, by temporary and convenient church accommodation, and by the ministration of the clergy, that faithful spirit which will one day produce the vast sums which will be required for a cathedral in Christchurch.
A plain handsome church, capable of holding from 800 to 1000 persons, could be built on Cathedral Square for £3ooo or £4000. That money could, we believe, be raised forthwith, especially if arrangements were made with the subscribers for dividing their subscriptions over two or three years, and with the banks for advancing money upon such guaranteed subscriptions. By this time next year a building ought to be standing in Cathedral Square, which would answer all the purposes of a parish church for Christchurch, and of a cathedral for the diocese for many years to come. It ought to be of wood, not of stone.
A wooden building would not cost more than one-fifth the price of a stone building of equal architectural decoration. Stone has little advantage over wood, except in its durability, and durability is not wanted in a country where nothing can possibly be built now which will not be swept away as worthless in twenty or thirty years. Some of the most beautiful churches of England have been of wood. The church of Beovoir, in Cheshire, was repaired but ten years ago, and was built about A.D. 1350. Wood is the material of some of the noblest roofs in Europe. Who is not conversant with the roof of Westminster Hall? Canterbury has often been charged with making broad its phylacteries in church matters. We wish we could see it set itself to work in earnest to build a cathedral on such a plan that it could be done at once.
Press, Volume III, Issue 78, 25 October 1862, Page 1