Damaged Cathedral becomes a rallying point for the people of a hurt and devastated city.

The Christchurch Cathedral has stood tall through more than 100 years, a proud symbol of the community of Canterbury.

Its collapse in Tuesday's earthquake was a body blow to that community. Up to 22 people were feared buried beneath the tonnes of grey masonry that tumbled down the belltower.

The first and only priorities now - for the Anglican Church, for civic leaders, for the whole country - is the citywide search for any last survivors, and the grim task of recovering the bodies of those who did not make it.

But as the focus begins to shift to rebuilding the community, the Cathedral has emerged as a rallying point.

There is a gentle groundswell for the Cathedral to be rebuilt - not just as a symbol of restoring the brick-and-mortar heart of the city, but as a symbol of restoring the human soul of the community.

Christchurch mayor Bob Parker said the city should aspire to that target.

"We can't let it go," he said. "It does deserve to be rebuilt, stone by stone.

"It is a symbol of all those that have gone before. We've lost a lot of things, but that is one we should not lose."

Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe has added his voice to the calls.

"As a Christchurch boy the Cathedral has always been part of my life and has huge spiritual and physical symbolism for this city," he said.

"When the time is right there is a place for it to be a new symbol of this city's recovery.

"Whether it is repaired, rebuilt, or replaced, the space it occupies in Cathedral Square will always be a focus of this city's hope and pride."

Structural engineer John Hare, who inspected the Cathedral this week, said: "It's been horrendously damaged, anyone can see that. But there's hope for it. There's enormous willpower and determination to save it. We'll do our absolute best."

But the first priority, before anyone can consider starting to rebuild, is recovering the bodies of the dead.