South Dunedin Methodist Church

Artbeat column no 441 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 23 March 2009

Iconoclasm is a potent negative force and alive and well in Dunedin. Its outcome is usually the destruction of forms of art. We are witnessing a graphic example in the debate over the proposed demolition of the South Dunedin Methodist church. Ms Lianne Darby, one of the city’s planners and a far from thoughtless person, has recently illustrated the kind of somersaulting confusion it generates and thrives on. Without wishing to embarrass anyone this needs highlighting - so we can avoid a damaging and recurring pattern of destruction.

“Iconoclasm” literally means the breaking of images. The term was coined during a dispute inside the Christian church over the appropriateness or otherwise of having images of the divinity. It is a much older social and psychological phenomenon which has endlessly recurred through history – doing a lot of harm to the human heritage.

At its most benign it is simply the changing of some outward trappings in order to signal a new order. At its worst it is the destruction of magnificent and moving works of art because some one-eyed person or group thinks this is a good way to assert their own values. A recent notable example was the Taleban’s destruction of ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan in the early 2000s.  Another extreme case was the Paris communards’ burning of the Tuileries Palace in 1871, because of its association with the French monarchy. Lesser examples are common. Cumulatively they can be just as damaging.

At its core iconoclasm is a failure to distinguish between a symbol and the thing it symbolises, a distinction which it is necessary to make to arrive at any real artistic appreciation. Plenty of people fail to make the distinction but it’s something anyone can learn.

The South Dunedin story started with a remark by Ms Laura Black, general manager of the South Dunedin Methodist Mission. Defending the demolition proposal Ms Black said “the ‘Victorian gospel hall’ style building harked back to a time when people were lectured from the pulpit and had no place in a modern facility.” (ODT 4/2/09)

This is telling. What does she mean when she says it “had no place”? She isn’t talking about function. Just because you have a hall and a lectern you don’t have to lecture. No, what she is talking about is symbolism. The Victorian gospel hall stands for practices in the past she thinks have no place in the present.

Probably they don’t. But it hasn’t occurred to her one can have the symbol without the thing it symbolises. As this Victorian Gospel Hall is a rather good example of its type some people value it. Why not leave it so they can continue to do so? Even for progressive Methodists it might serve as a useful reminder. But they should recognise it doesn’t symbolise what they are now.

Ms Black’s remarks occurred in the course of a dialogue with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. Unimpressed by the area manager Owen Graham’s suggestions the Mission has proceeded to request the building’s demolition, without even trying to save some of its parts.

Mr Graham submitted to the consents committee that the proposal showed “an abject bias about the building’s image, and total disdain for the Methodist Church’s history, its heritage and its purpose in the community”, which is strong language. (ODT 14/3/09)

The discussion was getting heated. It often does when people are talking past each other, especially when one side is failing to see what the other is saying because that other side is touching a psychological blind spot. But strong language can produce more confusion and this remark unfortunately did. It prompted Ms Darby to say she disagreed with Mr Graham and that “It is my view that a church body is not defined by a church building any more than a family is defined by their house.”

Ummm, yes. But that was Mr Graham’s point, the one which is being overlooked here by the people advocating demolition. The church can do what it wants, probably even in this building, but the building has historic and aesthetic interest, so it makes no sense to destroy it. (Unless you think it defines you so that its continued existence somehow determines your own.)

It is obvious passions are high. The future looks bleak for the Gospel Hall which has presented its forthright Christian face to the Hillside Road since 1894. Dunedin has lost too much of its heritage through failures of this sort. It does nothing for the wider community and discredits the groups and individuals who insist on disregarding that. You would think it would be at odds with the larger aims of the Methodist Mission. It is time to take a deep breath and try to look at the matter again.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times