McCoy's cross, St Pauls Cathedral

Artbeat column no 449 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 1 June 2009

Should Ted McCoy’s perspex cross go back into St Pauls Cathedral? This nutty little aesthetic question has been the subject of a quiet debate for some time. The cross has been on display in the Otago Museum recently as part of the exhibition to mark the New Zealand Institute of Architects’ centenary. It hasn’t been in its place in the cathedral for several years. It was part of the architect’s design for the 1971 sanctuary. Its removal has troubled some people. Is it going back? Should it?

The cathedral in the Octagon is the replacement for the earlier St Paul’s church, and pro-cathedral, erected in 1864. It took a long time to raise the money to start on the grander structure Bishop Samuel Nevill considered the needs and dignity of the Anglican Diocese of Dunedin required.

Eventually the British architectural firm Sedding & Wheatley was commissioned and Edmund Harold Sedding (?-1921), nephew of the more famous Henry Dando Sedding (1838-1891) designed a cathedral. His conception was of a large Gothic revival building, of cruciform ground plan with a two hundred foot tower over the crossing and a nave extending to the Octagon with a main entrance in that front.

Construction began in 1915, the second year of the first world war, under the supervision of the Dunedin architect Basil Hooper (1876-1960). In the event only the nave had been completed in 1919 when the building was consecrated. A temporary chancel was constructed on the site of the crossing to serve until the whole might be finished.

What had been built was impressive. The Oamaru stone nave, sparely but convincingly composed in the early English style, was set on a raised platform above the Octagon with an imposing flight of ascending steps, an interior marble floor and the only stone vaulted ceiling in New Zealand. But it was probably something less than half of the whole and after Bishop Nevill’s death in 1921 the drive to finish the building faltered. By the late 1960s it had been decided completion was impractical. Ted McCoy (b.1925) was commissioned to replace the temporary chancel with something else.

This he did by producing an apsidal extension, the full height of the nave, its reinforced concrete vertical framing echoing the nave’s buttresses and turrets. Oamaru stone was used on the new exterior to further contextualise it. In a departure the extension had tall, clear glass windows allowing light in and views out. The nave’s interior was very chaste. McCoy responded to that with a similar restraint. To focus the congregation’s attention on the altar, the centerpiece of the sacred ritual, he suspended above it a cross he had designed himself, made of translucent perspex, some clear and some the muted liturgical colours of the church.

Some of the congregation were unhappy the cathedral hadn’t been completed to the original design. Some didn’t like the modernity of the extension. Some of this disaffection became focused on the crucifix where the choice of materials was criticised. The use of plastic was felt to be disrespectful.

We are human beings. We construct hierarchies of merit around materials which have no objective foundation. The timber of many traditional crosses is commonly used for practical purposes but it is hallowed by time and tradition. Plastic is new, cheap and almost wicked.

This sentiment persisted and a few years ago the cross was “temporarily” removed and hasn’t been returned to its place. Mr McCoy’s design has been reduced and the altar is less distinct. A modest man and generally forgiving of the changes made to his buildings, often to their detriment, he has mildly protested the removal of his cross, in his book A Southern Architecture.

The Diocese meanwhile has decided to refurbish its sanctuary. It hired Jackie Gillies to make a conservation plan and has commissioned some concept drawings and models. These can be seen on its website and involve the use of some fairly strong colours. There is also to be a “labyrinth”, set in the floor at the back of the sanctuary and intended as a tool for modern worship. There are labyrinths in ancient cathedrals and increasingly now in more recent ones. One could say they are in vogue in ecclesiastical circles and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I certainly feel that Mr McCoy is right and that the re-decoration would still benefit from the replacement of his cross.

It is curious how aesthetics and liturgical change interact. The high altar was removed from the Catholic St. Joseph’s cathedral, in 1970, ostensibly to accommodate a liturgical change although it was really the expression of anti-Victorian iconoclasm. It sat in the art gallery for thirty years before being restored eventually. It would be a pity if we had to wait so long for the restoration of Ted McCoy’s cross.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times