The Anglican iron lady

Victoria Matthews, Anglican Bishop of Christchurch.
Victoria Matthews, Anglican Bishop of Christchurch.

She polarises and perplexes as many as she charms. PHILIP MATTHEWS meets Christchurch's Iron Lady.

Is this the monster? If you were to believe the worst of everything you ever heard and read about Victoria Matthews, Anglican Bishop of Christchurch, you would expect to meet a terse and autocratic figure, dismissive of contrary opinions and impatient with the public.

In person, Matthews is none of those things. Instead, she is charm itself. She is funny, unpretentious and refreshingly direct. Perhaps it is her tendency to be direct and certain that has got her into trouble. Her easy sense of humour may not always come across either.

Not every reputation squares with reality, of course. But how did this relationship go so wrong?

A year on from the worst of it, Matthews reflects on the vilification that she went through as one of the "lightning rods" for Christchurch anger.

"It's been a time of raw emotions right across the city," she says. "I keep saying it, but I still believe it: You can't get angry at an earthquake. It's just not satisfying. I know that people have been shaking their fists at the heavens since time immemorial but you can't kick God and you can't kick an earthquake. You can weep and you can shout, but you're more likely to focus on a human being and so I've become one of the lightning rods, and along with that has come a number of accusations. And it's actually become quite personal."

She hears things directly and she hears other things second-hand. One of the latter - without naming any names - was a threat by her opponents to "keep her in the courts for 10 years".

What did she make of that? "It's a funny way to spend your life."

On a warm Wednesday morning at the end of Canterbury's long summer, Matthews is in a small office in Riccarton. Before the earthquakes, the Anglican Centre was in offices on Hereford St. Now it is in a cramped suburban church hall with makeshift partitions and the noise of photocopiers. Before the earthquakes, Matthews' home was a large, beautiful wooden house in St Albans. That house has gone the way of so many others, and now she lives in the sleepout.

Imagine that home and work are two corners of a triangle. The third corner is the one most of us are more concerned with, or at least have an opinion about - the quake-damaged Christ Church Cathedral.

Last March, the Anglican Church announced that it intended to demolish the cathedral. Public perceptions of the bishop were at their lowest. It was not the church people were mad at, the process or the institution - it was one very easily identified person. Criticism was ugly and, as she says, often personalised.

During a notoriously frosty interview on Newstalk ZB, broadcaster Mike Yardley spoke for the anti-bishop sentiment when he asked Matthews if she even understood "the pulse of Christchurch". Did she even understand "us"?

His implication was obvious. How could a Canadian who had been in Christchurch for just four years have any understanding of what this building meant to true Cantabrians?

Five or six seconds of silence passed, an eternity in radio time. Then Matthews replied, sounding wounded: "I think that is one of the rudest questions I have ever been asked." The interview was over.

Looking back, did criticisms like those strike her as misogynistic and xenophobic?

"I guess the way that I would prefer to put it, and this is not being Pollyanna- ish, is that if the worst you can do is call me a woman and a Canadian, I don't feel too badly.

"There was some of that - 'It's time that you went home'. Well, I'm here to do something I feel called to do by God and I do it to the best of my ability. I'm not for a moment saying I always get it right. None of us always get it right."

Where does Matthews encounter the public - the non-church going public? She thinks of supermarkets.

Even before there were polls in The Press saying that a slim majority favoured demolition of the cathedral over restoration, she was "noticing that more and more people were open to whatever comes". People in supermarkets would approach her, talk about what they had lost, and then tell her they thought she was doing OK, that they appreciated her leadership.

"I'm not boasting about that, but those are people I listen to because they were really there to buy their tomatoes," she says. "So when I see a highly organised attack, I ask: What are you really about? If I wanted to do an organised attack - I hope I wouldn't, but all things are possible - would I choose the Anglican Bishop? Would I not go after someone who I didn't think was looking after the people on the east side well? The insurance companies? I want to say, 'What actually makes you tick, that I'm the lightning rod?' "

The idea that Matthews doesn't get "us" still resurfaces from time to time. As recently as February, former MP Jim Anderton suggested Matthews "doesn't understand the culture of Christchurch".

That was his response to her view that the cathedral was wasting away in a slow death, dying without the dignity it deserves.

Anderton, who has worked with former MP Philip Burdon on a legal challenge to fully restore the cathedral, said her comments were "tasteless".

The Wizard of New Zealand also made it personal. He devised an advertising campaign that compared Matthews to a damaged building.

"She is in a very dangerous state, being seriously cracked, and I can see no evidence that she can be made safe. Even if it were possible, there would be no point restoring her as she is as dull and bland as her beloved cardboard cathedral."

On it went. But this week, Matthews may have silenced her critics. The church released three options for the future, with varying price tags and timeframes. The most expensive is a full restoration. Matthews calls it "the Philip Burdon/ Jim Anderton dream".

It can be done? "There is no question about that, but at great expense."

The church's estimates for full restoration range from $104 million to $221m, with a timeframe that could stretch out to 22 years.

In the second option, a timber interior, is inspired by Sir Miles Warren's sketches while the Gothic exterior is recreated in modern materials. This has been seen as a compromise option, and is priced between the other two choices.

The third option is new, inspired by a trip to Europe, Britain and the United States last year (see sidebar). It is also the cheapest and quickest option, priced at $56m to $74m and taking 9 1/2 years at most.

Does Matthews have a preference?

"I have lots of strong opinions but I'm not going to get into that because at this point, we're going for a public engagement."

However, she adds that she "would genuinely have questions about human safety" if full restoration was the winning option.

She hardly needs reminding that the cathedral was strengthened before the quakes and people still almost died in it. The narrow escape was "mind-boggling". It was thought tourists were in the tower when it collapsed, a belief that lasted until an Urban Search and Rescue team searched the rubble for bodies and found nothing. It was an anxious time.

"The strengthening did its job in that it allowed people to get out, just," she says. "But I stood there and watched them looking for bodies. As I say that, I'm instantly right back there watching.

"It's not that I don't want to do that again - I don't want any Bishop of Christchurch or any other diocese to have to do that. It's horrible. And that's without finding bodies."

? ? ? It can seem that every comment by the bishop is scrutinised by her opponents. Last year, a letter to The Press quoted Matthews' editorial in the in-house magazine Anglican Life. The bishop wrote that "many people believe the Anglican Church is a type of museum and exists to maintain heritage buildings" and that "the more we learn to live the Christian life, the more the unchurched population will understand we are not a museum or heritage society".

The correspondent saw that as Matthews "taking an uncharitable swipe" at those who believed the damaged cathedral should be repaired.

Or was she just talking about a very real problem? The Anglican church has dwindling congregations and ageing buildings. Should they all be maintained indefinitely? Or should some be closed, sold or merged?

In the same week that three options for the cathedral were released, the church put out a proposal for restructuring the wider diocese.

If the church was to restore every damaged building, it would be short by $31m, Matthews says. And that figure excludes the cathedral. But if the newly released proposal was followed, the church would have a spare $12m, as insurance brings $22m, sale of property brings $25m and the rebuilds and new builds cost $35m.

Two years ago, Matthews sounded keen to rebuild everything. Since then, demographic shifts have made that pointless. Proposed mergers include making Fendalton, St James Riccarton and Merivale one parish. The land and building at St Thomas, Fendalton, would go on the market. St Anne's in St Martins would also be sold if the parish merges with Opawa. St Luke's in Yaldhurst would disappear.

The valuable city site of St Luke's, on the corner of Manchester and Kilmore streets, would retain a vicarage but no church would replace the demolished one. The land could be sold or could house commercial development.

Some parts of Christchurch are shrinking, other parts are growing. Matthews says the church at Burwood has survived the quakes but everyone around it has moved.

Sites would also be sold in Linwood, New Brighton, South New Brighton, Hornby, Templeton, West Melton with new churches replacing them in some cases. All new designs will be by Warren and Mahoney, the diocesan architects.

The proposal goes to a Synod this month and hopefully a decision will follow in September. Is that fast?

"It's moving fairly quickly but we're not rushing it."

Matthews recognises there is also a human cost to consider.

"I'm not suggesting for a moment that all our congregations are elderly, because they're not, but some are. Some of them are so elderly that they know they won't actually see the next phase. That's very sad. How do you minister to someone who is in that twilight and they are not going to see the new dawn? We're trying to look after them the best we can."

At the end of the conversation, Matthews returns to the first subject - the personal attacks, the intensity of raw emotions.

"To be absolutely honest, nobody gets training for this," she says. "But I have to say, it's a privilege beyond all measure.

"Yes, there are times when you really get down. You read something in the paper, and you think 'that's not me'. You would never ask for it, but what a privilege to be in a place where people have acute need and you are there, able to respond and to offer love and care."

Was she ever prepared for Christchurch factionalism?

Even before the earthquakes, almost every conversation about building or restoration became a civic dispute.

"Let's be honest, the human community is never simple. The only time it's simple is if it's truly defeated. And you never want that."

Equally, it could be argued that part of belonging to Christchurch is having strong opinions.

"By chance, I have spent time in the last few months at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Auckland," she says.

"That's an incredible building. And I get the feeling that most of the people going by couldn't care less.

I never got that feeling in the presence of the cathedral in Cathedral Square."

The Press