THE Vicar of St Bene’t’s, Cambridge, Canon Anna Matthews, has died suddenly, the diocese of Ely announced on Wednesday night. On Sunday (12 March), it was confirmed that she had taken her own life.
The Bishop of Ely, the Rt Revd Stephen Conway, wrote on Wednesday: “It is with profound sadness that I share the news with you all that the Revd Anna Matthews, the Vicar of St Bene’t’s in Cambridge, died suddenly and tragically today. We commend her to the boundless love of the Lord she served so faithfully.
“Please pray for Stephen, her husband, for her close family and friends, for each of the communities which she has served, and particularly for the clergy and the people of St Bene’t’s. We bear one another in this great loss.”
A statement on the the website of St Bene’t’s, published on Sunday, read: “Anna’s death was tragic and sudden, and we are now able to confirm that she took her own life. We are awaiting the findings of the coroner’s report to know more, and this will follow an investigation and inquest, which will take many weeks.”
A statement issued on Thursday by clergy and PCC members at St Bene’t’s read: “This will be a difficult time for us as a congregation as we navigate the tremendous chasm in the life and worship of St Bene’t’s that Anna’s sudden loss brings and the feelings of deep grief we all share.” Canon Matthews died at home, it confirmed. Prayers were said at the eucharist on Thursday. On Sunday, Bishop Conway presided at the 10 a.m. eucharist, and the sermon was preached by the Dean of Chapel at St John’s College, Canon Mark Oakley, a friend of Canon Matthews’ and her spiritual director.
A message to the congregation from Canon Matthews’s husband, Stephen, published on Sunday, read: “Having received communion at the 12:30 service on Thursday, as I prayed for Anna, I was given an image that has been of great comfort to me: Even as she fell, God lifted Anna up. She was shining in the light of the resurrection as the hurt that overcame her fell away, along with her body. So, I pray to merciful God with hope that she was spared the final anguish, and in death she was cleansed and resurrected with Christ, rising in his glory.”
Canon Matthews, who was 44, had served at St Bene’t’s, a church in the centre of Cambridge, for ten years. From 2012 to 2019, she served as the diocese’s director of ordinands. She studied theology at Robinson College, Cambridge, before training for the priesthood at Westcott House. She was ordained in 2003 and served her title at St Lawrence’s, Abbots Langley, before spending six years as Precentor at St Albans Cathedral.
In his sermon on Sunday, Canon Oakley described Canon Matthews as “a priest’s priest . . . reminding us of the seriousness of our vocation, never allowing the irony and jaundice that we can too often trade in to shadow the great privilege and charge of our vocation.
“I always felt I had renewed my ordination vows after a conversation with Anna; she had a knack for calling me back to my first love of God. She was also one of those rare people who, when you felt like walking away, just to know she was there and part of the Church, made it all the more bearable somehow.”
On Thursday, the Chancellor of St Albans Cathedral, Canon Kevin Walton, described the news as “devastating. She totally loved and served this place and its people, as it loved and still loves her. We remember and miss Anna sorely as a holy priest, a trusted and sought-out guide and mentor, a witty and convivial colleague, and a dear and loyal friend. May St Alban pray for her, and may she rest in peace.”
Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, is the patron of St Bene’t’s. On Thursday, the Revd Dr Andrew Davison, the Dean of Corpus Christi and a long-time friend of Canon Matthewss, described her as the “consummate all-rounder. She was a great preacher, a very gifted pastor. She was a great organiser, a great intellect. And a great cook, as well.” When she took up her post at St Bene’t’s, it had been in a half-time capacity, with the rest of her time allocated to her work as a DDO, he noted. Far from being a “sinecure,” St Bene’t’s had grown to the point at which a third service on a Sunday was contemplated. “That was because she really devoted herself to old-fashioned parish-priest pastoral availability and contact,” he reflected.
Dr Davison was in a “cell-group” with Canon Matthews and the Revd Dr John Hughes, who died in 2014, aged 35 (Obituary, 11 July 2014), during their time at Westcott House. “I will miss her advice and counsel,” he said. “She was so perceptive. . . She was very much devoted to Ignatian spirituality . . . and there was a sort of spiritual perceptiveness that came out of that deep investment of time in Ignatian spirituality.”
“I shall miss Anna very much,” said Bishop Paul Bayes, who was Bishop of Hertford during Canon Matthews’s time at the Abbey. “When she was Precentor at St Albans Cathedral, her insistence on quality in worship was wonderful, if a little bracing. As a vague bishop, it really helps if someone will look you in the eye and point firmly to the place where you should be standing or kneeling; but Anna is the only priest to have done that to me with such splendid confidence. Her theological intelligence, and her pitch-perfect pastoral and liturgical instinct, greatly enriched the whole Church.”
During her time as Vicar, many vocations emerged from St Bene’t’s. She also served as a spiritual director. On Thursday, the Revd Alice Jolley, Team Vicar of the Langelei Benefice in the diocese of St Albans, described her as a “wonderful spiritual director. She was serious, and wise, and deeply kind. She was always there, and always ready to talk when I needed advice. Her faith was so deep and real; she knew God so profoundly and his love and mercy shone through her, It was easy to trust her when she spoke of God’s love. She made the Church of England somehow make sense, and the loss of that good sense is incalculable. I love her and will miss her always.”
Among a wave of tributes online were reflections on the part that Canon Matthews played during the discernment process of young ordinands and priests.
“Many years ago I’d dropped out of discernment with one of the reasons being that I just didn’t see women like me under 30 leading church services,” wrote the Revd Melanie Stanley, Curate in the Benefice of Chalgrove and Berrick Salome. “At St Albans Cathedral Anna proved otherwise.
“It was seeing Anna so capably leading services at St Albans Cathedral that allowed me to see that young women did have a place in ordained ministry. Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and Anna was one of the women upon whose shoulders I stood. I’ll be forever grateful for her example.”
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Canon Matthews was among the contributors to the Church Times “Lift Up Your Hearts” series. She had been returning to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and included a section in which the narrator, the Revd John Ames, looks back on his life and on a sermon that he had preached: “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”
In her own final sermon, preached in the second week of Lent on Sunday, she explored the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus:
“What is settled becomes unsettled. Our certainties get shaken as the Spirit of God blows where it wills, upending convention, expectation, and habit as it goes. Lepers can be touched. The condemned are given a future. Hearts shrunk in grief can swell again. Captives can go free. Respectable Pharisees might just become disciples. The dead can live. That’s the sort of new life the Holy Spirit will give as it makes of us new creations. The places and things we are so certain are fixed, immutable, just the way things are and the way things have to be — these can unfold through the gentle breath of the Spirit into a newness we’d neither imagined nor expected.”
Read the full sermon here.