Faithful to the Call: Bishop Victoria Matthews

In considering possible titles for a tribute, I cheekily proposed ‘Soaring Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling’ and “When Women Came into the House… of Bishops’. But Bishop Victoria didn’t like either of these options. The first she thought too hierarchical. She preferred what has been chosen: ‘Faithful to the Call’.

And that, right there, says a great deal about Victoria Matthews, the first woman ordained to the episcopate in the Anglican Church of Canada, and only the fourth in the Anglican Communion. Faithful to the call. In all that Victoria has been called on to do, and has accomplished, often at great personal cost, she has above all sought to be faithful to her God. It has never been about her.

But Victoria deserves praise and thanks – not only from the 4 dioceses she has served, but from the Anglican Church of Canada, from the Church of Aatearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, as well as from the Anglican Communion and the whole ecumenical world. Not to mention Trinity College.

If Victoria had written an essay in grade 7 or 8, as many of us had to do about ‘what I want to be when I grow up’, bishop would not have been on the list. Not only was that almost impossible for women to imagine in the 1960s, but Victoria did not come from a religious family and the category would hardly have been what she had in mind. It was in high school, at an Anglican private school, that she came to her faith, much to her family’s bewilderment. With a BA from Trinity College in the University of Toronto and an MDiv from Yale and Berkeley Divinity Schools, Victoria was ordained deacon and priest and served in the customary rural parish before being elected suffragan bishop of Toronto in 1993. She was consecrated on February 13, 1994, making this the 30th year of consecration.

It was an electric day. The press was present, anticipating disruptions and protests that did not occur. Many bishops were present because the consecration date had been intentionally chosen while the Canadian House of Bishops was meeting – this event was recognized as an act of significance beyond the Diocese of Toronto. But also present, at Victoria’s request, were a number of members of the L’Arche Community, differently abled people who were dear to her heart.

From Toronto, Victoria was elected as Bishop of Edmonton in 1997, another first – the first female diocesan bishop in Canada. Understanding her own role as mentor, during her time in Edmonton, and in her other dioceses as well, Victoria made it a point to nurture the vocations of young women. She also sought to strengthen the devotional and theological life of her clergy. Her own deep devotional life is exemplified by the fact that she has now made 13 pilgrimages on the Camino de Santiago, often accompanied by young people.

In the midst of all this, Victoria was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she bore the pain and anguish of treatment with her usual dignity and grace.

The Primate’s Theological Commission created in 1995, was a diverse group of theologians who worked on contemporary questions within the Anglican Church of Canada.  Serving as Chair, Victoria had the opportunity to engage in one of her favourite undertakings: deep theological discussion and reflection. At first, this group of theologians from a wide variety of disciplines and perspectives tackled questions they felt pressing: the nature of God, the authority of Scripture, and revelation. But in 2004 the Commission was asked by the General Synod, through the Primate, to consider whether the blessing of committed same-sex unions was a matter of doctrine.

The resulting small consensus report outraged some, but placed the matter clearly as a theological, not merely a pastoral question. This was followed up by the Commission debating the theological question of whether the blessing of same-sex unions is a faithful, Spirit-led development of Christian doctrine and “Scripture’s witness to the integrity of every human person and the question of the sanctity of human relationships.”

In 2007 Victoria left Edmonton and was elected Bishop of Christchurch, New Zealand in 2008. Managing to navigate New Zealand’s immigration procedures for herself and her dog, Victoria occupied a beautiful art deco former bed and breakfast – an ideal place of hospitality for a bishop. In February 2011, this house, along with her cathedral and her city, were devastated by a series of earthquakes and aftershocks. It was this experience that inspired Victoria to make a recent gift to the Trinity College Health and Wellness Program – she understood the need to have supports in place to help young people and the difficulty of overcoming challenges.

For the rest of her time in Christchurch, Victoria was consumed with the struggles over the future of the cathedral. Many secular people wanted it rebuilt as it had been, a symbol of their city. Victoria’s primary concern was that it be a safe building and home for the church, not a mere symbol. She stood her ground at great personal cost.

As a bishop of the Anglican Communion, Victoria was a participant in the Lambeth Conferences of 1998 and 2008. In 1998 there were only 11 women and because the presence of women bishops was controversial, especially in England, the bishops in the official Lambeth photo of 1998 wore only cassocks – no signs of office. What a sea of purple it was! But Victoria was trusted by the Communion, and she served on the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity Faith and Order for the whole of its first term, from 2008 to 2022. Beyond the Communion, she has also been an active participant in the Global Christian Forum, the widest most inclusive ecumenical body in the world, meeting with Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, Pentecostals and members of the World Council of Churches in Kenya, Indonesia and Colombia.

On leaving New Zealand, Victoria entered into a process of discernment that led to her being invited by the Bishop of Algoma and Archbishop of Ontario to serve as bishop in residence in Thunder Bay and now in Timmins. I have heard Victoria say that this time in northern Ontario has been one of the happiest times of her life.

God’s calls to Victoria have been many and various. No one other than our whimsical God could have written such a script for her life. But she has in every instance been faithful to the call, and no doubt there will be more of them still.

Our deepest thanks and appreciation to Victoria for all she has done and all that she is: Christian woman, bishop in the Church of God.


This article is an adaptation of remarks by Rev. Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan at a webinar celebrating the 30th anniversary of the consecration of The Right Rev. Victoria Matthews. The webinar was recorded and can be viewed online at this link.


Leave a reply