We think we are in control’

Published April 1, 2011

A helping hand Bishop Victoria Matthews comforts a Christchurch parishioner.
Photo: Lloyd Ashton/Anglican Taonga

She may be living out of a sleeping bag after the devastating Feb. 22 earthquake, but her spirit is unbroken.

In a telephone interview, Victoria Matthews, Bishop of Christchurch in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, said that as of March 3, more than 160 bodies had been recovered and about 200 people were still missing.

Bishop Matthews, who became the first female bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada in 1993, told the Anglican Journal that it has been assumed some remains may never be identified.

Miraculously, no victims were found in the rubble of Christchurch Cathedral, whose tower and spire collapsed in the quake.

Q: How are you? Are reports about your home being
destroyed accurate?

A: I am fine, thank you. I wouldn’t say [my home was] destroyed, [but] it is badly damaged, no doubt about that. And it is deemed unsafe. I’m sleeping out behind the house.

Q: You’re living outside?
A: Not in a tent. There is a separate structure, where I have a sleeping bag, but there’s running water and electricity so I’m camping out there. I can still pick up wireless Internet from the house. Few places have that, so it’s advantageous.

Q: During the early days after the disaster, you said people were enormously anxious. Has the mood changed at all?
A: People are traumatized, but the desire to help one another is extraordinarily strong and that gives people hope.

Q: How’s your spirit?
A: It reminds me that life is precious and never should be taken for granted. I happened to be in the restaurant when it hit. I was in mid-sentence and the next thing [I knew], we were under the table taking shelter. Within one minute we went from totally normal to total chaos and destruction. We walked outside after it stopped. We saw that the building right across the road had completely collapsed; it was on the ground.

We think we’re in control of our lives in the First World, and in actual fact, life is every bit as fragile here as it is in the Third World. But we ignore that. If it’s not an earthquake, it could be a tornado or hurricane, a forest fire or a flood. Nature is much, much stronger than humanity and every once in a while, we become victims of the force of nature. But living in First World cities we forget that.

Q: Are pastoral centres operating?
A: We’re asking every priest and the lay leaders to go door to door checking on neighbours. One huge concern is the rise in domestic violence. When people feel they have lost control, they often become violent towards people they love.

You can strengthen community and relieve tension by dropping in on your neighbour and having a cup of tea, and asking, “How are you doing? What can I do to help you?” Isolation is one of the great, great dangers at this time.

Q: What message would you like to convey to Anglicans here in Canada?
A: It’s the same message I’m giving here, which is with the sense of total loss of control and a sense of helplessness comes a strengthening of faith and hope in something that is beyond the human. We had record-breaking attendance at church across the city on Sunday. We had huge numbers for the memorial on Tuesday and people are saying, “I can’t control what happens in the next hour, but I can have a relationship with the God of love, and love is stronger than death, love is stronger than any earthquake. If I can re-establish a relationship with God and neighbour, that relationship with God and neighbour will see us through whatever the next hours, weeks, months and years bring.”

Q: What can Anglicans in Canada do?
A: We will be doing a fundraiser to rebuild the city of Christchurch. Virtually all our Anglican schools in the city have been badly damaged and roughly 26 churches. Plus there will be ongoing pastoral care and emergency services needed for people who are living right at the edge. I know the world is praying for us and I would say, “Please, don’t stop.” We need the prayers of Canadians and those around the world so that we keep our hope and our determination.

Q: How has this experience changed you personally?
A: I think the real answer will probably [come] a year from now. At the moment, there are some very, very basic changes.

I don’t go anywhere without a wind-up torch, that’s a flashlight in Canadian terms. It’s self-generating. I don’t go anywhere without a bottle of water. I always have my mobile phone charged because, if there’s another earthquake, it may be my way of telling people where I’m trapped. I don’t sit under a light fixture. I don’t sit near a bookshelf that could come down on me.

You tend to sit in a room if the weather’s good, which it has been, with the door open, in case you need to get outside quickly. [Also] one of the first things I learned in New Zealand is [to] have my shoes right beside the bed because one thing that happens [in an earthquake] is broken glass.

You need good strong shoes if you’re going to get out of the house without lacerating your feet. Ω

An unabridged version of the interview with Bishop Matthews can be read online at anglicanjournal.com


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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