Michele Hewitson interview: Helen Jacobi

By Michele Hewitson

St Matthew's new vicar has stirred up the parish with her views on same-sex marriage -- and she's unapologetic

Helen Jacobi doesn't mind those down on their luck who hang around her inner-city church but draws the line at cleaning up any mess. Photo / Greg Bowker
Helen Jacobi doesn't mind those down on their luck who hang around her inner-city church but draws the line at cleaning up any mess. Photo / Greg Bowker

'It's pretty neat," said the Rev Dr Helen Jacobi, the new vicar of St Matthew-in-the-City, of her new church. She still comes in every day, she said, and thinks: "I get to play with this!" She is 51 and a sensible sort but St Matt's has that sort of effect on people, because it is pretty neat.

It is also pretty odd that a place of worship which is so traditional in look -- all gloomy grey Gothic stone and soaring arches and stained windows and lovely old wooden pews with red velvet cushions -- has long been the place where the hotheads of Anglicanism seem to congregate.

St Matt's has a history of standing up for minority rights and gay rights and is of course known for those controversial stunt billboards, designed to provoke. It is, said its new head and first woman vicar, "in its DNA".

It is a city church and a church next door to the City Mission and it attracts, I said, uncharitably, bums and nutters. The vicar doesn't mind the bums and nutters. The not minding is probably in her DNA. But she is, as I say, a sensible sort so she doesn't plan on cleaning up some of the less neat offerings often found in the doorways, in the mornings: She calls the cleaning company.

Besides, she has more pressing matters to deal with, such as marching straight into the fray that is the church's stance on gay marriage and ordination. She barely had her feet under the pulpit, so to speak, before she was living up to the reputation of past vicars of St Matt's, which is what I call making trouble and what she would call making change.

On Thursday, her feet were clad in pointy, witchy shoes which managed to be both slightly eccentric and practical. They were a bit fancy, but flat. You can't imagine her getting about in six-inch heels. She is trim (she said, when asked, that going to the gym was one of her hobbies, which seems to be a self-improving sort of hobby) and tidy, with short grey hair and you can tell that she doesn't go in for fripperies or flamboyance. She is pretty neat herself.

She has a nice, pleasant, friendly face but she has a no-nonsense air of not suffering fools about her. The worst thing she has ever done, she said, was to lose her cool and shout at people. "I've done it once or twice." She regretted this but only, I suspect, because she'd regard losing her cool as a bad look. To run a church you have to be able to manage a community, and yourself. She is one of the most self-controlled people I've met and yet you'd think she was a hot head. She is supposed to be hell-bent on splitting the church -- which is one of the accusations made against her for her support of "same gender blessings and ordination in the Anglican Church".

She took this to the General Synod two weeks after she took over at St Matt's, so 10 minutes in and she was causing trouble. "Well, not causing trouble." I'd have thought that causing trouble was part of the job description at St Matt's. "Yes, I suppose so! We haven't actually written my job description yet." It just so happens, she said, that the synod date fell so soon after she took up the job, and the issue is there and so: "I had to get straight into it."

I read her a message from an "orthodox" Anglican, posted on a newspaper website which accused her of mischief over a "very serious matter which has every possibility of splitting the church in half ..." The gist of which is, surely: Why is she an Anglican?

"Yes, well, the Anglican Church is a very broad church and includes people from all parts of the spectrum." She gets this sort of stuff from people at the other end of what is her spectrum, and it doesn't worry her. She is pretty tough. "Well, I can be quite tough and, you know, I'm not going to be interested in any kind of conversation that is personal or accusatory. I'm interested in a conversation about how we move things forward."

Those in the church who hold the view that it should not marry gay couples are also "perfectly entitled to question" and "these two views can be held within the church and we can still be in the same church", she said. I suspect she is pretty certain her view is the right and reasonable one, and that people will come around to her way of thinking. She has a determined set to her jaw. She said: "I'm pretty strong-willed."

The Bible, she said, "says a couple of very tiny things about homosexuality ... and in a couple of places that homosexuality is wrong, but that was in a context of 2000 years ago".

I wondered which bits of the Bible she found to be literally true, but that is a completely daft question to ask of an Anglican, and she laughed like anything at the very idea. She does not, of course, believe that the virgin birth is literally true. God is not Him, or Her, but "a creating, loving presence in the world". Can you fall out with a presence? "Oh, we have some conversations sometimes!" Jesus was human, though. I said I was glad to hear that she believed that, because, God, I said, Anglicans! She laughed and said: "Yes! Anglicans!"

She also believes in Hell, sort of. "I think Hell is more probably some people!" I don't know whether she meant Anglicans in particular, but dealing with Anglicans is rather an occupational hazard for a vicar. It is, of course, a funny sort of job, but like any other management job in that there are always people trying to undermine you, and whispering in church corners about you. There will always be, she said, parishioners who are hard to like and those that don't like her. "And manage to make life difficult. That can happen and that can get under your skin sometimes." She can be short with people, presumably, particularly under-mining people. "And that's just normal human interaction."

The thing about being a priest is that you don't stop being a priest when you take off the robes and go out into the world beyond the church. I thought it might be tiring to have to always be a good person, or at least to be always seen to be a good person. "It's not so much being a good person as being someone who is, I would say, like a good leader." But it is more than that, surely. She has to be judged to be a morally good person, all the time. "I haven't thought about that very much, but I guess we do."

She hasn't thought much about that because she is naturally good. She was a good kid and good at school and at university (she has a BA in French and Spanish, a diploma in social work, is a bachelor of divinity and has a doctorate of ministry in preaching). "I save my rebellion for the church." She drinks a glass of wine most nights but has never been drunk -- except, she thinks, possibly once or twice when she was a student, but I'm not sure I believe it -- because it's not "pleasant". She has always been a Christian and an Anglican: "From the cradle". The only thing she is judgmental about is intolerance. She has atheist friends and doesn't attempt to convert them. "Well, no. I respect people." This had me oh, Godding about Anglicans again. Because, honestly! Isn't it her job to convert people? "Ha, ha. Well, yeah, I mean if someone wanted to have a conversation about faith, I'd be happy to do that." Has she actually converted anyone? "Well, it's not me that converts people. I've had plenty of conversations with people about coming to faith ..." She swears she swears, but, hmm.

She once went to a week-long workshop in strategic leadership in which nobody was allowed to tell the other participants what it was that they did -- until a dinner at the end of the course. They then played a guessing game and when it was gradually revealed that she was a priest: "The first words out of one of the other participants' mouth was, 'Oh God! I'm just thinking of all of the things I've said this week!' He was terrified he'd sworn or something. And I said: 'Welcome to my life!' People have these expectations and feel like they've got to behave around me, and feel like I've got a certain way of behaving." She said, perhaps a little wistfully: "That week was a really fun week because I didn't have priest labelled across my forehead. People just reacted to me as me." Also, once people learn that you are a priest: "They feel they have to tell me their life story!" How awful. What does she do? "I listen politely and try and change the conversation."

She grew up in Lower Hutt, in a loving Anglican family. Her father was a civil servant and her mother a social worker. Her mother had polio as a child. She was on crutches and is now in a wheelchair. "That's probably part of my formation: Her determination and focus on leading a normal life." Her sister, her only sibling, died of bone cancer at 16. "I was 17, so that was pretty terrible. Oh, well, I mean, that first kind of deep grief and coping with that and the knowledge that life can be really lousy and it's tough to live with as you move on." She still misses her. "Yes. Yes."

She met her husband, Stephen, at varsity in Auckland. They were both studying French and were in a French play in which he was the lead and she was in the chorus. It was pretty much love at first sight and he is lovely, "of course!" she said. He was a diplomat and private secretary to Jim Sutton when he was the Labour minister for trade negotiations. He now has a consultancy business which he "valiantly" ran from Napier for the nine years his wife was the dean of the Anglican cathedral there. She likes to joke that: "He took me to Paris and Canada. And I took him to Napier. So I say that's a fair exchange!" They have two daughters; Hannah is 22 and at law school; Miryam is 19 and at drama school. They are all Christians. There is no prize for guessing that her politics are left-wing.

I thought she must be a fairly ambitious sort of vicar because St Matt's is a high-profile, presumably prestigious sort of posting. "I don't know whether I'd call it ambitious, but I enjoy leadership." Nobody goes into the church if ambition includes financial reward; all Anglican priests get the same pay, no matter which parish they lead: About $48,000 a year, and housing. She is a keen frequenter of second-hand designer clothing shops. A bishop gets a bit more dosh; she's not sure she wants to be a bishop but, again, that has little to do with ambition. "They have a hard role ... You have to balance all the different views of the church and kind of hold it all together. Whereas I don't have to do that here."

No, here at St Matt's she is free to stir things up -- in a sensible and friendly but strong-willed way, of course.

- NZ Herald

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