Seeking beauty to uplift least, last, lost

The moment Lynda Patterson spotted the snow-covered Southern Alps from a plane, she knew Canterbury would be her home.

That was 11 years ago. Patterson was making her first visit, on sabbatical leave from teaching theology at Oxford University.

Now she is the first woman dean of Christ Church Cathedral, appointed on November 1. Her ceremonial installation, led by the first woman bishop of the diocese, will take place next month.

The concept of women in power in the Church of England is a mere trifle to Patterson.

"I arrived after the end of the ‘women in the church' debate in England," she says. And her smile seems to add: "Now let's move on".

There will be other issues to address. Patterson has been in Christchurch long enough to understand how people are polarised by debates: a cathedral for Cathedral Square, differences between high and low church factions, ordination of people in same-sex relationships.

If the sparkling personality of the Northern Irish farm girl cannot carry her through such controversies, then her ability to see all sides and bring reconciliation to them should do it.

Is she high-church or low-church? Answer: "I am liturgically fairly catholic and theologically fairly liberal - a liberal catholic," she says.

Does she favour restoring the damaged cathedral, building a new cathedral in the traditional style, or building to a contemporary design?

Answer: "A contemporary cathedral, but the option that has been shown is not ideal. I don't know what form to take but I want it to be very inspirational."

How does she get on with Bishop Victoria Matthews? "Very well. She is terrific and courageous. We need more people of her calibre and degree of courage."

Patterson had her first inkling of a religious vocation as a 6-year-old at a communion service in Dromore, County Down. She remembers feeling the "sense of the priest in the service binding the people together" in the liturgical rite.

The inkling became a purpose at her confirmation seven years later when "I got this overwhelming sense of love of God and of calling".

She studied theology at Oxford and then lectured in theology there, for a total of 12 years. She had intended doing a doctorate but enjoyed the teaching so much she took on extra classes instead.

"It was a highly entertaining place to be. I got a sense of call to ministry there," she says. She became a lay chaplain in her Non-Conformist college but was drawn more strongly to high-church Anglican traditions, liturgies and sacraments. "This shaped my sense of vocation."

On applying to do a course towards church ministry, she was advised to take a sabbatical first and to travel. She had been fascinated by New Zealand since seeing an old mercator-projection world map which showed New Zealand at both ends. Surely a country that appeared twice on the map must be worth visiting. So she came.

Within six weeks she made lifelong friends in Christchurch and saw much of the South Island. It reinforced her feeling this would become her home.

New friends then visited her in England. They urged her to come back.

"Find me a sympathetic bishop and I would come back tomorrow," she said. She was put in touch with then Christchurch Bishop, David Coles. He said if she were accepted for the ministry, he would give her a year's trial. That was all she needed and, 10 years ago, Patterson was back in Christchurch.

Her first year involved becoming "acclimatised to New Zealand culture", learning Maori and studying for church ministry. Coles ordained her as a deacon in 2004 and a priest in 2005.

She was attached to Theological House in Merivale and acted as curate to the cathedral. She became theologian-in-residence at the cathedral and assistant to the then dean, Peter Beck. When Beck resigned in 2011, Patterson became acting dean.

Among her first impressions of the local church was "the huge well of talent, much of it self-effacing, and the commitment to quietly get on and get things done, with no great self-promotion". She finds this "one of the most appealing attributes of many New Zealanders" and part of the "No 8 wire mentality".

She was equally impressed by the church's recognition of cultural differences and its determination to find ways for diverse groups to work together. She sees this as "a great gift" and "genuinely exciting".

Living in Linwood, she was deeply moved by the resilience of parishioners of St John's, Latimer Square. Their church was destroyed by the earthquakes but they remained a committed congregation.

When the transitional cathedral rose on the the site of their lost church, the first service was held for them - unadvertised, so the parishioners would not be crowded out. The service attracted more than 400 of the faithful. The atmosphere was one of pure joy, she says.

She senses the transitional cathedral has already begun to break down some of the anger roused in church debates over the last two years.

Patterson sees the cathedral as "the mother church", a home for everyone, a refuge and sanctuary for all. As dean, she regards her role as one of bringing reconciliation to all. She harks back to Britain's medieval cathedrals, which fulfilled many roles as centres of their communities.

Patterson holds dearly to the hope that work will be underway on a permanent cathedral within her second 10 years in Christchurch.

She believes the church has a dual role. In its cathedral it must provide a beautiful and inspiring place dedicated to the glory of God and upholding traditional rituals and liturgies in all their theatrical wonder.

"Beauty is important and inspiring, especially in time of tragedy," she says.

The church must also, and always, honour its responsibility to "the least, the last and the lost". It must minister to the material, as well as spiritual, needs of the poor and oppressed.

Some people see these dual efforts as contradictory. Patterson admits "they sometimes do not sit comfortably together". But she insists each can boost the other.

A vision then? How about a man who has nothing, leaving the City Mission in the morning after a hot meal and a bed in the night shelter?

He stumps up the street and slips humbly into the cathedral. He sits among the well-off, many of whom give generously to the City Mission, and the curious tourists. And all are as one, communing with their God, prompted by age-old symbols in stained glass and tasselled vestments. Could she be happy with that?

Her smile seems to say she could.

The Press