Cathedrals and Hairdressers

26 July, 2013 — 6 Comments

It’s been a while since I went to a hair dresser. I still remember what it was like. It’s not actually something I miss. My stereotype of hairdressers are people who talk a lot all day with many different people. They have their ear to the ground, their finger on the pulse, and are probably happy to give their opinion about anything (I say that all positively).

For my doctoral research I interviewed some people who were not what I defined as being Christianised.  I wanted to gain their perception of the Christian church in New Zealand. One of these people was a 30-year-old male hairdresser working in the inner city who was born and grew up in Christchurch.  He had some fascinating thoughts about the Anglican cathedral which was a central icon in the inner city.  This is part of his story:

[This conversation was before the 22 February 2011 earthquakes which destroyed both of the cathedrals in Christchurch.]

I invited the people I interviewed to choose where we met and I offered to buy them a drink at a cafe or pub. This hairdresser, lets call him Dave (not his real name), chose a cafe on the edge of the square in the centre of the city, where we met one Tuesday at lunchtime. We sat at a table by a window and the view was similar to that in the photo above.

We were well into the interview, perhaps 40 minutes had passed, and we’d been talking about things to do with society and church. I looked out the window and the thought of asking him about the magnificent symbol of Christendom sitting only meters away from us crossed my mind:

Mike “Looking out here, does the cathedral being in the Square mean anything to you?”

Dave “Um, yeah, I actually thought about that, I think it’s a beautiful building, it’s historical… because we’re New Zealand, we are part of Europe, um, all these countries that churches were, um, originally founded, because they that’s um, English-style architecture…”

Mike “People probably go there on a Sunday”

Dave “Oh it’s a church?!  I thought it was just-”

Mike “What would you think of people that went there?…”

Dave “That’s a hard one but I should have an answer for that, I should probably think about that before I answer… if it is a church, I don’t know if it is an active church?”

Mike “yeah, yeah it is”

Dave “People do go there?  And it’s probably something you’d see in an old English- with choir boys and big long gowns-

Mike “Yeah, I think they do have a choir”

Dave “And their slick back haircuts and suit and ties…”

I love this conversation. I think it says so much about so many things to do with the church in New Zealand:

  • the way a part of the church presents itself,
  • the way something as historically iconic as an Anglican cathedral can appear to be so removed from the essence of Christian-faith-community,
  • the difference between how I as a churched person see a cathedral and how someone not familiar with church sees it.

Christianity has not been in New Zealand for long: nearly 200 years.

When New Zealand was being colonised, there were two church sponsored settlements, one by the Presbyterian (Scottish) church in Otago in 1843, and the other by the Anglican (English) church who founded Christchurch as a settlement in 1851.

I lived in several New Zealand cities before moving to Christchurch at the end of 2008. When I arrived here I found the historical Anglican influence in Christchurch very noticeable compared to the other major New Zealand cities – for example, the number of Anglican church buildings in the original city limits (the “Four Aves”) compared to the number of “dissenter” churches.

This post isn’t supposed to be a critique of the Anglican church or the city of Christchurch – I like them both! What I hope it does is provide an example of how two people in the same city, both in their 30’s, view a nice old building in the centre of town:

I think of it as the seat of the Anglican bishop for this region, and a place where people who consider themselves part of the Anglican communion in this city can gather for worship. I have also experienced the building as a space used like a town hall, where public meetings and concerts occurred.

Dave valued the building’s architecture including its historical connection back to Europe, and appeared to see the building as having no current religious significance.

When I said I love this conversation, I acknowledge that it isn’t particularly positive for the public impression of the expression of Christian spirituality – that was occurring from the Anglican cathedral before the earthquakes.

What I love is how succinctly it gives a snap-shot of one person’s reality concerning that big old building in the square.

I suspect Dave is not alone with his views and understanding.

Four (?) generations into New Zealand’s most Anglican city and even the bricks and mortar of this institution have lost their meaning [for some – for many?]

What would your hairdresser think? (Lets call this The Hairdresser Test)

Image: ChristChurch Anglican Cathedral, Christchurch, New Zealand, Sunday 15 March 2009, (lens: 11mm focal length), Mike Crudge.

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  • Chris

    this is tremendously topical today Mike- the day the Anglicans have won a court case to deconstruct the cathedral after a long wait post earthquake. The media exchanges highlight what this building means to people- not many are commenting publicly about the Christian spirituality aspects it links to… the big question though, is why do so many hairdressers drive Saab convertibles or Mercedes Benz coupes?

    • It is good timing Chris!! Here’s a link to the news site Stuff with an article about todays Cathedral news:

      There are lots of readers comments after the article – which would make facinating data for thematic and rhetorical analysis on public perception around the Cathedral.

      There’s nothing wrong with a good Saab Chris!

  • disqus_aUV4kk8nVj

    So …………. is this a question I have to imagine my hairdresser answering and give her imaginary answer – or do I have to ask her next time I have a haircut (which might be a couple of months, as I’ve only just had a haircut!) by which time you will have covered many more topics so my/her answer will probably be out of date ? Also …… what exactly is the question – and I’m not blonde, as you will remember, Mike : >) But is it about Christchurch Cathedral or any church anywhere? And furthermore, I’m not sure if my hairdresser drives a Saab convertible or Mercedes Benz coupe -…………. but I could ask her!!

    • Hi Kate, and thanks for seeking clarification!
      An imaginary answer is fine, but by all means ask your hairdresser next time you see her.

      Dave in my story above is someone who hasn’t been Christianised. My “hairdresser test” is to try to get churched people to imagine or find out how some people not part of the church might perceive the church in NZ. For example, is it common for people like Dave to have such a different view of cathedrals than someone like me?

      So, your homework is to find someone like Dave (maybe your hairdresser) and have a chat with them and see if you can find out something of their understanding of church.

  • Tim Bulkeley

    I love the way Dave does not associate the fancy building with living Christianity, meeting in a dark basement under a Thai and an Indian restaurant can feel like inferior church. But it’s not :)

    I just wish I was happier that the way we (people committed to being and identified as) Christians behaved gave rise to better ideas of who we are! But it doesn’t we “are” anti-gay, indeed anti-sex, anti-fun, and self-righteous prigs who think everyone else is a “sinner”. Thank God (some of us) do some good social projects that help redress the balance!

    • Hi Tim. Since talking to Dave I have pondered his comments occasionally, especially here in Christchurch where I live near the site of the transitional “cardboard” cathedral. I wonder what Dave and people like him think it’s for…

      Your second point frustrates me too.