19 March 2023

Some reflections on the death
of Canon Anna Matthews,
a priest friend in Cambridge

Canon Anna Matthews … she was ‘a priest’s priest

Patrick Comerford

The death of Canon Anna Matthews in Cambridge ten days ago (8 March) is tragic and sad, and has come as a shock to all her friends and all who knew her.

Even among those who did not know her, there has been an outpouring of grief on social media by clergy and theologians trying to wrestle with the meaning of the death by suicide of a much-loved, caring and pastoral friend.

I cannot say I knew Anna well, but that was because of distance. I think we first met when she was an ordinand in Westcott House, and we got to know each other better when she returned to Cambridge as the priest at Saint Bene’t’s Church. When I was a student on courses at Sidney Sussex College organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Saint Bene’t’s became effectively my parish church: I would slip in there for the early Eucharist each morning before breakfast and lectures, and occasionally I was there on Sunday mornings on my way to the USPG conference in High Leigh.

We kept in touch, we have a high number of mutual friends on Facebook, and there was an invitation to return and preach in Saint Bene’t’s, an invitation that is now going to remain unanswered.

Anna was a priest’s priest, and her death leaves many of us with pain and dealing with many unanswered questions.

The language surrounding suicide has changed in recent years, so we no longer use the word ‘committed.’ No crime has been committed, and all involved and caught up in the tragedy are victims and are suffering.

There has been a parallel change in attitudes in the church too. Until recently, people who died by suicide were refused a proper funeral services and burial in consecrated ground. A rubric preceding the burial services in the Book of Common Prayer declared in stern, harsh, judgmental and unloving words: ‘Here is to be noted, That the Office ensuing is not to be used for any that die unbaptized, or excommunicate, or have laid violent hands upon themselves.’

The rubric was repeated in part by Canon 68 of 1603, which denied Church funerals and burials to those who ‘being of sound mind have laid violent hands upon themselves’. Roger Beckwith reflected many evangelical Anglican theologians of his age when he declared that a person who died by suicide ‘is a person who has committed so grievous and notorious an offence that, if he could have been, he ought to have been excommunicated for it. He is, therefore, as it were, excommunicated posthumously, being denied Christian burial.’

For centuries, the lack of understanding of suicide was reflected in the English civil law, which condemned suicide as homicide. But Canon 37, as it became, was often ignored sensibly by pastorally sensitive priests, who knew that funerals are for the comfort of family members, loved ones and friends. What was ‘sound mind’? What was meant by ‘violent hands’?

This canon came under increasing scrutiny in recent years as society's attitudes towards suicide became more understanding and compassionate, and the General Synod of the Church of England voted to amend this canon in 2017.

A report from the Board for Social Responsibility in 1959 noted that most people believed that anyone who attempted suicide must have been experiencing a degree of mental distress and deserved special sympathy and understanding. The canon was honoured more in the breach than in the observance.

Of course these were restrictions that were never found in the Bible in the first place. Indeed, the word suicide is not found in the Bible either.

I remember a tragic funeral for a teenager, where the evangelical preacher in his sermon, in presence of the bishop and the grieving parents referred to suicide as the unpardonable sin.

In the Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures refer to five events that are often interpreted as suicide:

1, When Abimelech was mortally wounded by a woman who dropped a millstone on his head, he cried to his armour-bearer to kill him so his death would not be credited to the woman (Judges 9: 54). But this is about male dignity in battle and, as death was inevitable, it was not a case of suicide.

2, The mortally wounded King Saul fell upon his own sword lest the Philistines abuse him further (I Samuel 31: 4). But, once again, this is about male dignity in battle.

3, Saul’s armour-bearer then took his own life as well (I Samuel 31: 5).

4, Ahithophel hanged himself after his advice was no longer followed by King David’s son Absalom (II Samuel 17: 23).

5, Zimri set himself afire after his rebellion failed (I Kings 16: 18). These three examples are also about male dignity and pride.

Additionally, some commentators ask whether Jonah attempted suicide (Jonah 1: 11-15).

When Samson destroyed the Philistine temple, he killed himself and all those with him (Judges 16: 29-30). Many see this as an act of military bravery rather than suicide as such.

The death of Judas is regarded as the only example of suicide in the New Testament. But there are two different, conflicting accounts of his death (see Matthew 27: 1-10, and Acts 1: 16-20).

Later, Saint Paul prevents the suicide of the Philippian jailer (see Acts 16: 27-28).

Looking out onto the world from Saint Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The word suicide is never used in the Bible, and is only found in cross-headings inserted by translators and editors. Indeed, the word did not exist in the English language until the 17th century, and tortured phrases, such as referring to people who ‘have laid violent hands upon themselves,’ failed to grasp or understand what was happening.

Before becoming Dean of Saint Paul’s, the poet-priest John Donne, wrote Biathanatos, an extended essay on suicide, in 1608.

One school of interpretation sees Biathanatos as an epiphenomenon of Donne’s morbid condition, others see in it an attempt by Donne to overcome temptation.

Biathanatos is a long and extremely difficult work with a challenging and, Donne says, ‘paradoxical’ thesis. It undertakes an exhaustive analysis of both secular and religious arguments against suicide, and argues that suicide is ‘not so naturally sin, that it may never be otherwise.’ He argues that suicide is justified when, like submission to martyrdom, it is done with charity or done for the glory of God.

In Donne’s unconventional view, Christ, in allowing himself to be crucified and in voluntarily emitting his last breath on the cross, was in fact a suicide.

Donne recognised that his unconventional thesis was ‘misinterpretable,’ and probably for this reason did not allow Biathanatos to be published during his lifetime. It was not published until a decade later, in 1647, after his death, by his son.

The word Biathanatos comes from the Greek Βιαθανατος, meaning ‘violent death’. The word suicide meaning ‘deliberate killing of oneself’ does not enter the English language until 1651 and is coined from Modern Latin. The timing of its first use is crucial to understanding its place in English culture: Charles I had been executed two years earlier; when his execution and those who signed his death warrant were condemned, the words used were ‘regicide’ and ‘regicides.’

The word suicide entered the English language alongside words such as regicide, fratricide and patricide. The word suicide had become established as a noun and a verb in the English language by the mid-18th century, when it was included by Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary.

The word is not, and has never been a Biblical term.

‘The Passion,’ a sculpture by Enzo Plazzotta in Saint Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the classical world, what we now know as suicide was often associated with personal dignity or accepting personal responsibility.

Socrates was put on trial in the year 399 BC, charged with corrupting the youth and with impiety. The primary sources for his trial are provided by his friends Plato and Xenophon. His accusers cited two impious acts: ‘failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges’ and ‘introducing new deities.’

These two charges arose from Socrates asking philosophical questions. Citizens of Athens were chosen by lot to serve as jurors, and a majority voted to convict him. They took another vote to decide on his punishment and Socrates was sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. Instead of fleeing when he has the opportunity, Socrates, uses his death as a final lesson for his pupils, and faces the end calmly.

In the painting, ‘The Death of Socrates’ (1787) by Jacques-Louis David, Socrates is seen as an old man in a white robe who sits upright on a bed, one hand extended over a cup, the other gesturing in the air. He is surrounded by other men of varying ages, most showing emotional distress, unlike the stoic old man.

Socrates is being handed the cup by a young man who looks the other way, with his face in his free hand. Another young man clutches the thigh of the old man. An elderly man sits at the end of the bed, slumped over and looking in his lap. To the left of the painting, the wall becomes an arch, with more men in the background.

However, this depiction of the death of Socrates contains many historical inaccuracies. For simplicity, David removed many characters, including the wife of Socrates. On the other hand, he included Apollodorus, the man leaning against the wall just within the arch. But Apollodorus was sent away by Socrates for showing too much grief.

In his painting, David examines a philosopher’s approach to death. Socrates is stoic and calm because he sees death as a separate, actual realm, a different state of being from life but not an end to being.

In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates seems to be more concerned with how Crito will handle his death than with his own wellbeing. In the painting, the gesture of Socrates indicates he is still teaching, even in the moment before his death.

The only words Christ is recorded as writing are words in the sand when a woman is about to be stoned to death. When he was asked why he did not commit his words to writing, Socrates replied: ‘I would rather write on the hearts of living men than on the skins of dead sheep.’

Like Christ, Socrates left behind no great writings. We know of Christ’s words from the Gospels and the other writings in the New Testament, we know of Socrates’ thoughts through Plato’s works.

Many writers have compared Socrates with Christ, and some of the early Church Fathers even considered Socrates a pre-Christian saint or something of a prophet. Yet Tertullian asked: ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, or the Academy with the Church?’ (De praescriptione, vii).

Do Christ and Socrates share any ethical precepts? Or are those similarities shared by all great teachers of the past?

Is there a similarity between the way Christ and Socrates sought out the common people to teach them?

Christ and Socrates were both accused of ‘corrupting society’ and were put on trial. Do Socrates and Christ pose similar challenges to the prevailing religiosity and idolatries of the age?

Can you find similarities between the two in Socrates’ claims to be just a humble person trying to figure things out?

In Plato’s Crito, Crito visits Socrates on the night before his death, he questions why Socrates is content with remaining in prison and he offers him an escape route that would allow Socrates and his followers to leave the country and live in exile. Does Crito pinteracts with Socrates in a role similar to that of Judas with Christ?

Can we draw parallels between the dialogue between Socrates and Meletus, the judge at the trial, and the dialogue between Christ and Pilate?

Is there a similarity or a difference between the way Socrates is willing to accept his trial and sentencing, and the way Christ faces his trial and crucifixion?

Some consider Jesus’ death to have been a kind of suicide, as suggested by John Donne. Could we even talk about his willing acceptance of death as the ‘Suicide of God’?

After death, the person who dies by suicide continues to need the pastoral care of the church. That includes allowing that person to rest in peace. The dead person continues to retain human rights, and the right to respect, privacy and personal dignity.

There is, perhaps, too much speculation by people who did not know Anna Matthews about her and about how she died.

In a statement shared at St Bene’t’s in Cambridge last Sunday, her husband Stephen said: ‘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.’

And that is probably all that needs to be said for now.

Canon Anna Matthews offered a warm welcome at Saint Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


SUSAN HILL said...

I am one left stunned & bewildered by the death of someone I did not know. I have been much exercised by it and this is quite unexpected. I doubt if I am alone. There's a difference between prying interest about intensely private matters, & this. A priest,esp a popular, much loved, high profile parish priest is a public figure & in this context even more so. Such an act is usually not undertaken by anyone without knowledge of the impact their death will have..though it's probably not even near the forefront of their mind. We never truly know how valued & loved we are and by whom or how many. But in a close Christian community and in the wider church family an event like this is bound to shock, bewilder, appal, and inevitably people will flail around, searching for comfort in answers to 'Why?' If the answer is 'they were no longer able to bear extreme, intractable physical pain any longer' that is an easy explanation to understand. Few others are. I don't think people should be rebuked for flailing, questioning, asking, trying to find out more. Many things are & should remain private. None of our business. But although mere gossip & spreading rumour is unacceptable in this as in many other contexts, I don't think that is what people are doing here. Like Anna, perhaps, they are hurt & suffering and bewildered and above all desperately seeking answers that may lead to some sort of peace & resolution. I am one of those. Please don't dismiss us.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for considered, considerate and thoughtful response. Of course, I do not mean to be dismissive, and I hope I am showing an effort to understand this pain and struggle. I am always available to talk if you send me a private message through my Facebook page. Patrick

Tiger said...

Thank you, Susan. What you say is entirely in line with my own thoughts. While idle and wild conjectures are inappropriate, in a case like this it seems to me that we have almost a duty to work out some sort of understanding of - and accommodation with - what has happened.

As Patrick's analysis has shown, the older attitudes to suicide are now generally recognised as profoundly unhelpful. It is no longer considered a crime (it hasn't been on the statute books in England since 1961, and never was in Scotland), nor is it specifically a sin. Warden Beckwith's harsh pronouncement, made some years ago, not only sounds out of tune with today's more compassionate views but seems to pre-empt the judgement of a higher court from which no secrets can be concealed. But from both religious and secular perspectives it still appals us and we instinctively recoil from it as something that is intrinsically and absolutely wrong.

Yet the person who in some unknown and unimaginable torment takes her own life is not the perpetrator of that wrong. Rather, she is the victim - and we, her friends, suffer with her as lesser, collateral victims (that word "collateral" is important because it fixes us in a context where we are not intended victims, as we might be in the event of a suicide bombing).

So who, then, is the wrongdoer? Against all the grain of modern positivism, we here find ourselves dragged to a reluctant acknowledgement of the traditional Devil. Baudelaire wrote that "la plus belle des ruses du Diable est de [nous] persuader qu’il n’existe pas"; but here that deception is unmasked and our adversary appears in plain sight, going about like the roaring lion of old and seeking to devour.

And as Patrick has also argued, there is a very fine line to be drawn between "taking" one's own life in desperation, and "giving" it for friends, country or a noble cause. Indeed, it may even sometimes be difficult to differentiate. In some languages the verbs for giving and taking are the same, distinguished only by prepositions.

In her last sermon, given just three days before her death, Anna said: "Hearts shrunk in grief can swell again... The dead can live... 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." In retrospect it's impossible not to speculate whether those thoughts might be veiled allusions to an intention she had already formed, but we can't be certain. If she was suffering extreme and intractable pain she did not show it, but bore it courageously, stoically and uncomplainingly to the last. And the large congregation assembled in Ely Cathedral for her funeral, some openly weeping, showed something of the extent she was valued and loved by so many. As we commit our sister to the divine mercy I think of her as giving her life back to the Creator, as a small child whose toy is broken might run to her kind parent pleading "Can you mend this? And in faith we must trust that the God who wondrously created Anna in His own image, whom she loved unfeignedly and served so faithfully, can and will mend her, and that thus restored, she will meet us (likewise mended) in the kingdom that has no end and which she so confidently prefigured in her preaching and in her life.