Bishop’s life a work in progress

Bishop Victoria Matthews and Bishop Michael Bedford-Jones emerge from St. Paul, Bloor Street after their consecration in 1994.
Bishop Victoria Matthews and Bishop Michael Bedford-Jones emerge from St. Paul, Bloor Street after their consecration in 1994.
 on April 2, 2024
Diocese of Toronto Archives

Call from Holy Spirit came early

Bishop Victoria Matthews gave a candid and moving account of her faith journey at an event marking the 30th anniversary of her ordination to the episcopate, becoming the first woman to be a bishop in the Canadian church.

The event, held online on Feb. 26, was hosted by the national church and included a panel discussion with Archbishop Linda Nicholls, Primate, Archbishop Kay Goldsworthy of the Anglican Church of Australia, Archbishop Anne Germond, Metropolitan of the Ecclesiastical Province of Ontario and archbishop of the dioceses of Algoma and Moosonee, and Bishop Ryscilla Shaw, a suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Toronto.

Bishop Matthews said her sense of call from the Holy Spirit came in her early teens, long before the Anglican Church of Canada ordained women to the priesthood, let alone the episcopate.

“My mother had died, my family didn’t go to church, but I had been introduced to the gospel in worship in the chapel of Bishop Strachan School, and one night, lying in bed as you do as a teenager, looking at the ceiling, wondering what life really was about, I heard a voice,” she recalled. “And the voice said, you are my beloved daughter. I will never leave you or forsake you, and you will be my priest. And I realized at that moment, my life had changed enormously.”

Bishop Matthews in 2018.

A shy teenager, she didn’t tell anyone about that experience for fear of being “laughed out of the room.” Seven years later, on St. Andrew’s Day in 1976, the first female priests in the Anglican Church of Canada were ordained. Two years later, Bishop Matthews herself was ordained to the priesthood.

“That started a conversation with God that was quite extraordinary because I did feel the Holy Spirit wasn’t finished with me yet,” she said. “We’re all works in progress, and there’s still so much to be done by God in our lives for the sake of the gospel.”

By the time she was in her early thirties and working as a parish priest in the Diocese of Toronto, she was embarrassed to find people asking her if she would let her name stand as bishop. “I thought that was absurd; I laughed a lot. I remembered in a youth group a child had asked me, will there ever be females in the House of Bishops? And I said, absolutely, but not in my lifetime.”

Things moved faster than she expected, and one day Bishop Arthur Brown, a suffragan bishop in the diocese, invited her to lunch. “He said, ‘Look, you don’t have to do it, but a lot of us want you to accept nomination. So just think about it.’” Around the same time, she attended a conference at Trinity College that featured a presentation by Bishop Frank Griswald, then the Bishop of Chicago. “Somebody came up to me and said, ‘You could be a bishop like Frank. You have to let your name stand.’ She had tears in her eyes. I wasn’t laughing any longer.”

She made her decision during a walking holiday in the highlands of Scotland. “I was pretty worked up by this point, and I remember blurting out – there was no one around, thank goodness – ‘It’s a lot to ask, you know.’ And at that point I had the only vision I’ve ever received from God: it was Jesus on the cross, and he said, ‘I beg your pardon?’ And I realized what I was being asked was nothing compared to the one who died that I might live. And I let my name stand.”

She and Bishop Michael Bedford-Jones were elected in 1993 and consecrated bishops together at St. Paul, Bloor Street on Feb. 12, 1994. With her consecration, Bishop Matthews became the first female bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada and only the fifth female bishop in the Anglican Communion.

After serving as a suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Toronto, Bishop Matthews was elected diocesan bishop in the Diocese of Edmonton, where she spent the next 10 years. “I fell in love with western Canada and a call to a very different type of diocese,” she said. “That was absolutely magnificent, and I realized the potential of a culture of vocation as more and more young people started to come forward seeking ordination – wouldn’t we love that today? It was such a privilege to be in Edmonton, and they will also have a place in my heart.”

The next turn in her journey took her by complete surprise. After leaving Edmonton and waiting to see what would happen next, she got a phone call from New Zealand, asking if she would let her name stand for election as diocesan bishop in the Diocese of Christchurch. She agreed and was elected.

“My very first morning in New Zealand, I was at the most exquisite retreat centre overlooking the ocean and the southern alps, and I said in my prayer to God, you’ve gone to no end of trouble to call me here. This is extraordinary. What would you have me do? And I got a strong sense that I was being told, I’ve brought you here that you might become the person I’ve created you to be. And that told me again that I’m a work in progress, and this is not what I can do for others, but what God wants me to become as I try to help others in the power of the Spirit.”

Two years later, a series of powerful earthquakes damaged Christchurch and the surrounding communities. Under her leadership, the diocese supported an effort by Anglicans that visited more than 81,000 homes. “That was quite a ride, but what a privilege it was to offer leadership in a time of natural disaster,” she recalls.

Today, Bishop Matthews is the episcopal administrator of the Diocese of Moosonee and bishop in residence for St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Timmins, Ont. She is having fun in northern Ontario and enjoying being a bishop in a diocese, not of a diocese.

She concluded her remarks with some reflections on her life. “All this time, I’ve lived deeply in prayer, and I have to say I think that is the calling of the episcopate: not to think it’s about us but to rely deeply and heavily on God.

“As I look forward to goodness knows what else, I say simply: I am grateful. I give enormous thanks. And to God be the glory.”


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