Speeches and Articles

Remembrance for Christchurch Cathedral

Stephen Jacobi
19 February 2012

I am here to tell of the last days of a great Cathedral.

On the fateful day, 22 February 2011, Helen and I happened to be in Christchurch.

I was running a major conference with government and business leaders from the United States.

The fourth US NZ Partnership Forum brought together over 120 representatives from both countries – Ministers, MPs, officials, CEOs and senior managers from leading companies, academics and 20 young leaders from New Zealand and the United States.

On the Sunday before, on 20 February, on the eve of the Forum opening, Dean Peter Beck had welcomed us at Christchurch Cathedral for a service of Evensong in celebration of US Presidents’ Day – a day when Americans remember the contribution of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Christchurch was so beautiful that weekend – great weather, the city was jam- packed with visitors attending a flower festival and several conferences, it had been hard to get a table at a restaurant on the Saturday night.

The Cathedral had been a venue for the flower festival and was bedecked with flowers – a canopy of flowers led into the entrance and a massive display of flowers covered the apse from the entrance up to the chancel steps.

As it transpired, the Presidents’ day Evensong was the last major service held in the Cathedral.

The service was traditional Anglican, with the traditional sentences and responses sung mostly by the choir – O Lord open thou our lips, and our mouth shall show forth thy praise.  O Lord, make speed to save us.  O Father make haste to help us.

The service began with the return of the Erebus Chalice – the cup which is used at Communion services at the Chapel of the Snows at the American base in McMurdo Station in Antarctica.

The Chalice is normally kept at the Cathedral when the base is in summer recess.

An American chaplain spoke briefly of the importance of this symbol of Christian faith and hope for those serving in the long Antarctica winters.

The Chalice was in the Cathedral at the time of the earthquake but was recovered and has been used again at McMurdo Station this year.

It was returned to the Cathedral community at their service at Christ’s College this morning.

For the Presidents’ day service Dean Peter had chosen American music: flags were displayed and the first hymns were the national anthems of both countries – O say does that star spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?; Guard Pacific’s triple star from the shafts of strife and war; Manaakitia mai, Aotearoa.

The opening sentence was taken from Psalm 8 – “what are we that you are mindful of us, mortals that you care for us”

The first reading was given by John Mullen, President of the US NZ Council, an organisation in Washington that promotes relations with New Zealand.

John read from the Book of Micah – “He has told you o mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?”

The second reading was given by the Rt Hon Jim Bolger, former Prime Minister and Chairman of the NZ US Council.

Jim read from St Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”

Dean Peter preached on the theme of partnership – partnership between the nations, partnership in the community and partnership between people and God.

It was his last sermon from the Cathedral pulpit – as you know he has stepped down as Dean of Christchurch: his last service was this morning.

During the service the choir sang the traditional anthems – “My soul doth magnify the Lord, my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour”; “O Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”

And then a final anthem: “Bring us o Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven”

The final prayers were said.

The blessing was given.

We sang the recessional hymn “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”

The organ thundered one last and final time.

And we left the Cathedral moved by what had been said and sung but never to return there again.

Two days later at 1251, when the earthquake struck and the Cathedral fell, the delegates to the Partnership Forum were scattered at ten different locations around Christchurch being entertained to lunch by Canterbury companies.

Some were badly shaken, a few narrowly escaped serious injury, all, thanks be to God were unharmed.

Helen like many of the partners of delegates was downtown, in her case having lunch with the Bishop of Christchurch at a restaurant off Latimer Square.

Dean Helen saw first hand the destruction of the central city.

There followed a mad and somewhat confused scramble as we tried to regroup the delegation at the conference venue the AMI Stadium, now itself badly damaged.

I myself was out near the airport so was spared the full extent of the shock but it took me all day to drive, walk, hitch and finally hail a taxi back to the city. 

By some miracle of God’s grace, and with the help of the rescue services, US Embassy staff and personnel at the American base, our event team and individual Cantabrians we got everyone out to the airport and were able to leave the same day.

No-one would want an event like an earthquake to contribute to reinforcing ties between countries but it is clear that those who lived through this event now share a new bond. 

One of the Forum delegates was Ernie Bower, Senior Adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

He has had this to say:

“As the ground turned liquid, and then shook us all like a menacing dog, as the walls around us crashed down, and the steeple that literally defined the city crashed to earth, a miracle occurred in Christchurch ... The U.S. - New Zealand partnership was forged anew in a way none us could have foreseen”.

We may have seen the last days of a great Cathedral but the spirit of partnership, faith and hope it inspired lives on. 

The people of Christchurch will rebuild their Cathedral as we did here in Napier when our steeple fell 81 years ago.

It may not be the same building, but what takes place inside will be the same - the proclamation and celebration of eternal truths, the keeping and commemoration of sacred things, the gathering and care of people.

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