Bishop Victoria Matthews of Christchurch has lost her cathedral and its dean, her home, a number of her churches and her diocesan insurer – all in a city she arrived in less than four years ago, one which continues to endure the trauma of earthquakes and a series of other tragedies that have told heavily on New Zealanders.
But the Canadian, the most experienced woman bishop in the Anglican Communion, is made of stern stuff and, it seems, of an even more solid faith.
“It’s full-on and it’s still exhausting,” Bishop Matthews told TMA during a brief visit to Melbourne in late November when asked how she was faring after a series of earthquakes since September 2010, the most damaging of which was on 22 February last year.
“At this point, I would say... we can only wonder what is coming at us next.
“If ever we needed to attract clergy, good clergy, to Christchurch, it’s now.
“Having said that, we are in good hands. We are still proclaiming the Gospel and we have good outreach and God is with us and will see us through.
“One wonderful consequence is that in all the communities affected, people are reaching out to one another.
“So we have certainly not despaired and we are nowhere near giving up.”
Bishop Matthews – who was at Whitley College, Parkville, for the Australia-New Zealand Association of
Theological Field Educators biennial conference on “Movement and Change in Field Education” at which she delivered a keynote speech and conducted a workshop on “Earthquake Spirituality” – had just heard the previous week that the Church’s insurer, ANSVAR, was withdrawing its coverage from the end of December.
Soon after her return to NZ, Dean Peter Beck announced his resignation to run in a byelection for Christchurch City Council amid media reports of friction between bishop and dean (Bishop Matthews told The Press, Christchurch’s daily newspaper, that this was “fiction” and that she had been treated “pretty shabbily” by critics), endured another substantial quake/aftershock on 23 December, forcing Christmas services to be held outdoors and with torches rather than candles, and on 30 December, lost the house she had been unable to occupy for 10 months.
Bishop Matthews said while some suburbs had been rendered uninhabitable by the quakes, 18 new suburban subdivisions were planned and the Church had to consider how to have a presence in these new areas of a rebuilt Christchurch, the second most populous city in NZ.
But this was amid fears that 70,000 people – about a fifth of its total population – could leave the city permanently, while there were difficulties attracting clergy, who feared bringing their families to a city and the Canterbury region still traumatised by the quakes.
She forecast that about this time, as schools return, the picture would be clearer about how many people had left.
“We went from being an extremely comfortable, beautiful place to being a very broken community, so the Gospel is needed even more that it was before,” Bishop Matthews said.
“It’s a different place than it was before and it’s an even more caring community and people look after each other.
“It’s an extraordinary privilege to be the Bishop of Christchurch.”
Bishop Matthews had been in the episcopate for 14 years – as Assistant Bishop of her home city, Toronto for three years from 1994 and then as Bishop of Edmonton from 1997-2007 before being enthroned as eighth Bishop of Christchurch on 30 August 2008. A year earlier, she narrowly missed being elected Primate of Canada.
She described being elected bishop of a city at the other end of the Earth as “the surprise of a lifetime”, having decided in 2007 to resign as leader of Edmonton’s Anglicans and “wait for God to let me know what came next”.
“What on earth was the Diocese of Christchurch doing electing a woman, sight unseen, from the other side of the world?” she said. “Then, two years on, all this happened.
“If I was a new bishop in a brand-new country, I’m not sure I would have had the ability to meet the challenge.”
Bishop Matthews said Archbishop Peter Jensen of Sydney, who opposes women’s ordination, had been very supportive of her since the earthquakes. He had called her “three or four times” since the initial quake in September 2010, invited her to Sydney if she needed to get away for a time and been generous in helping her Diocese at a very difficult time.
It perhaps helps explain her confidence about the future of the Anglican Communion: “I still am full of hope for the Anglican Communion... It is suffering stresses and strains but I have no reason to think for a moment that it’s going to break in two.”
Bishop Matthews said her family was Anglican but not churchgoing, though she attended Anglican schools.
But the death of her mother from cancer, when Victoria was 13, prompted her and the brother closest to her “to ask the big questions”.
In her mid-teens, she said she had an overwhelming experience in which she believed she would become a priest and that God would not forsake her. This was years before the first Anglican women were ordained in Canada in 1976.
“I really do believe that God, Jesus, called me to be a priest and gave me the grace of obedience,” she said.
After studies at Yale in the United States, she was deaconed in 1979 and priested a year later, serving in parish ministry and in theological field education.
She described herself as “single and happy” and notes that she hopes to return to Canada this year for her nephew’s wedding, her visit to her homeland since her move to NZ almost four years ago.
“I think it’s sheer grace that I have been given the gift to be able to pick up and move and in a very short time, the new place is home,” Bishop Matthews said.