After gliding across the chancel and sliding smoothly into my seat, John Bluck, then dean of Christchurch Cathedral, leaned across and whispered, "I'm fascinated how you can preach and never mention God". I gasped. Rookie priest caught like a possum in the headlights!
Like pedestrians that never make it inside, I'd assumed that the cathedral with its brooding gothic intensity and soaring bell tower would be too grand, too conservative and way outside of my reality. A single visit, to try something different, was all it took to be hooked by the processions, the ritual and the choir.
It took longer for me to realise that this cathedral welcomed everyone, of all religious traditions and none. While grounded in a particular set of ancient church rituals, the theology was free flowing, adventurous and challenging. No wonder I was petrified of mentioning God. The possibilities were endless.
As services of every kind spilled out onto Cathedral Square, the majestic bells tolled like admiring but elegant supporters. The bells are silent now, their tower tragically entombing its last visitors.
Simon Jenkins of The Guardian reckons that restoring the bell tower is a first step to restoring Christchurch's trauma. "A readiness to restore, to make amends, to gather up the nerve-endings of history to help a community resume normal life, these are surely the best future for a devastated past," he says.
I think he's right about restoration but it may not be the tower that's most important yet.
Gathering up nerve endings and living in uncertainty is the daily bread of a cathedral behind the façade of a heritage building. Peter Beck, the current dean, offered this menu after the September earthquake by hosting a service of thanksgiving in the square.
The demands are different this time but there will still be a moment when a sensitive combination of words, music and movement will be needed. Ritual anchored in the agonies of this tragedy but sitting separate enough to allow pain to be touched and held. This is the place where the sacred, the mystery in our midst, may sometimes be glimpsed as creative inspiration for restoration.
John has no memory of catching me in his headlights that Sunday night but it was one of the formative moments in my training. That instant of knowing I would always have to always edge up to God as mystery within, rather than certainty out there. Bell tower or not, the Cathedral's job is to help Christchurch walk this uncertain path.
Christchurch earthquake prayer:
God – the world is in an uproar.
While ordinary people in the Middle East
call for justice and a fair way of life,
the ground rolls beneath Christchurch again.
It's incongruous that I sit here looking out at green trees
and a still horizon beckoning me to hope
while troops are opening fire on demonstrators in Libya
and the Cathedral tower shatters.
Life is not fair - life is not just.
Nor is it able to be taken in measured doses.
Chaos can mean there is nowhere else to go
and nothing left to do
but to cry out to you
as though you are the silent ear,
hearing our cries
absorbing them into yourself
and crying with us.
Even as bullets fly and buildings disintegrate,
may compassion rise in all of us
to be the God that walks and talks in the world today.
(c) Sande Ramage, from Wairarapa, New Zealand, is an Anglican priest who explores spirituality in a way that is "not restricted by institutional religion". She is an Ekklesia partner. This article is republished with grateful acknowledgements from her blog: http://www.spiritedcrone.com/ Sande can also be followed on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/spiritedcrone
Also on Ekklesia: Christchurch's reasonable hope - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14204