Jo Reynolds talks to Father David Matthews, vicar of the parish.
How do you prefer to be addressed?
David. When I’m in robes, I’m happy to be “fathered”, but otherwise David. Only my sister calls me Dave.
Why did you leave Canada?
I did some research in the UK for my master’s degree at the University of Toronto and I was based in Swansea for a while. In my undergraduate degree I studied political philosophy and politics of the mass media. Before I was ordained I worked in publishing and journalism and did a five-second stint as a talking head before I decided I’d rather work for an invisible boss. I finished my master’s in Toronto and worked for a summer at the Cathedral church in Halifax (Nova Scotia), my hometown, and then was invited back to be ordained in Newport (south Wales) by the then Bishop of Monmouth.
How long have you been here?
I’ve been the incumbent of this parish since July 2003.
Was it a post you applied for or were given?
I was invited here by the Bishop of Kensington acting on behalf of the Bishop of London (the patron of this parish). The Bishop of Kensington knew me through my work as the Bishop’s Chaplain to the Homeless. I was involved with the Upper Room project (soup kitchen and charity) in Shepherd’s Bush. I never planned to be a parish priest. My ministry had always been with charities, social justice groups, the church in action rather than a local residential community.
When were you ordained?
I was almost as young as you can be: 25. I was brought up in a church-going family, a very musical family, a community-minded family in rural Nova Scotia. The church was very much the gathering place for the community, for events and charitable work. I lost my father to cancer when I was a teenager and that was a test.
How did you manage to keep your faith?
I believe faith is a gift. Some say you have it or you don’t. You can foster aspects of it in intellectual ways: you can read; you can explore. You don’t have to have faith to find the history of theology one of the more fascinating journeys for the human animal, but faith is more about the heart than the head. It’s like learning a language of holiness, where prayer is vocabulary and the liturgical and sacramental life of the church is grammar; a language necessitates a need for communication and relationship. Regardless of its failings, the church of all human institutions still has one of the better records for actually bringing goodness into the world. It’s not a self-interested institution. On a local level like this community, it’s about ordinary people trying to live their lives with a sense of togetherness while struggling with the big questions.
Have you forgiven God for taking your father?
I wouldn’t look at it that way. It’s not about forgiving: it’s about the unfolding of a life and accepting that death is part of a life. Each death is unique because each life is unique. It’s not something we have any right to control. The adventure of faith is not solving the problem of suffering, it’s recognising that suffering is an essential part of how life unfolds.
If you hadn’t been born in a Christian country, might you have followed another faith?
I think we too often talk about the differences amongst faiths but communities tend to flourish where any faith is expressed and diversity of faith is expressed with mutual understanding. In this sense, I have much more in common with people who express another faith than I do with people who have no faith. All the great celebrations of all the great faiths are about goodness and gratitude and mutual support. If we can live in a world where our governing principle is that people don’t have to be isolated or shamed or poverty-stricken or thrown out, then we’re moving in a direction that I would recognise as reason for celebration.
You rarely wear a dog collar. Does this informality signal your support for gay marriage and women bishops?
I don’t always wear a collar because sometimes it can be a barrier. To some it symbolises a certain formality and authority which is not well placed for people who feel rejected by society. Holy Innocents is an inclusive church. I’ve worked in two different provinces in Canada with women bishops. It’s not a new thing for me. But, the Church is like any family. People have disagreements and they have to work out how to move forward. There are heated debates and that leads to conflict, but conflict does not have to lead to separation and divorce. Faith issues get to the very heart of who we are as beings so of course they’re going to stir up deep emotions which aren’t easy to deal with or pleasant to experience, but faith should give us the resources to feel uncomfortable emotions and be okay with them. We’re talking about emotional and spiritual maturity. Individually and corporately we’re still growing up. The General Synod has now approved women bishops and for a lot of people that’s a real blessing for the Church. My experience in Canada is that this will bear fruit.
Why is the parish church called Holy Innocents?
It refers to the passage in St. Matthew’s Gospel where Herod learns of Jesus’ birth and sends out a decree that boys, two and under, shall be killed in the hope of ridding himself of this rival. The Holy Innocents are the children who were sacrificed so Jesus could live. The dedication was chosen because this church was the mission church for the children of the neighbourhood who were living ten to a cottage. There are 12,000 parishioners here now. It’s interesting that the population of Hammersmith is half now what it was when this church was built.
One of your priorities is to raise funds to repair the church roof. Some unbelievers may say this is not their problem, but what does the community risk losing?
There are very few significant listed buildings in the borough. Fulham Palace is the only grade one-listed building and there are a handful of grade two-star-listed buildings of which Holy Innocents is one. Although the entrance on Paddenswick Road is well disguised, it is one of the largest buildings in the area and it’s so widely used. The footfall is over a thousand a week, be that for our music concerts, the Jordan’s nursery school, other children’s activities, fitness classes upstairs, art classes, theatre and music rehearsals and, of course, voting. It’s one of the few public spaces to have disabled access throughout the ground floor. It’s a well-loved space and really a church for modern times. Where else can we meet people without spaces like this? We meet like-minded people through networks of friends and associates and schools, but how do we meet people who aren’t living our life, people who are different? Sadly, the upkeep of this meeting place, because of its vast scale, is expensive. Changing a lightbulb is expensive. It involves tower scaffolding because this church predates electricity. We have to wait for a certain number of bulbs to go before we can justify the cost. The roof has not been looked at since 1990 and, a generation later, we need to raise £100,000. For me, what’s important is that people cherish the heritage of this building and the opportunity to use it as their gathering place. I hope people will come and explore it, come to a concert, or join one of the classes, or come on a Sunday morning, or come and have a member of their family baptised if that’s what they’re called to. But, please participate. That’s my hope.
With so many people offloading their problems on you, how do you stay calm? Is selflessness a learnt skill or a born trait?
Growing up in a place like Nova Scotia I’m used to space and silence, so I’m really grateful to live in a part of London where there’s so much green space and the river is so close. I’m also very grateful that I share this ministry with some absolutely wonderful people in the congregation, people who have a lot more wisdom and experience than I have. The people who have been working in this parish for the past generation are an exceptional group. They’re enthusiastic, they’re organised, they’re caring and they take delight in the quality of life, even in the face of adversity. There’s something about the war generation. They make time for each other. They make time for conversation. They slow down for each other. They inspire me. After all, a life well shared is a life well lived.
Thank you, David. It’s been a real pleasure.