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Never one to choose the conventional path, Reverend ‘Woody’ Woodcock certainly believes in ploughing his own furrow – and that includes welcoming everyone into his church, whether they are actually religious or not.
“I just get stuck in,” says Matt, matter of factly.
Getting stuck in so far has involved him joining a boxing club, setting up a football team, a men’s support group, holding a sermon in his neighbouring pub, addressing early morning revellers at a nightclub – where the church collection was conducted by a man dressed as a condom – and moving the local beer festival into the house of God.
It is all part of Matt’s mission to shake up the Church of England and drag it kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
“Religion was all about going to church on a Sunday morning and it has been done like that for hundreds of years,” says Matt. “But it’s like sticking with a Kodak camera when everyone’s gone digital – the world’s moved on and in some ways, particularly with younger people, the way we do church doesn’t speak to their lives any more.
“So I try to make sure that the message of our little community is of love, hope and forgiveness which are more relevant than ever now. I want people to explore those things and it doesn’t necessarily have to be in a cold, uncomfortable church building on a Sunday morning.”
The star of Radio 2’s Pause for Thought has published a sequel to his first book, Becoming Reverend: A Diary, which charts his ordination and two years in Britain’s largest parish church – minus a congregation.
Matt grew up in a suburb of York, the son of well-known local journalist, John Woodcock, who worked on our sister paper, the Sunday Express, and the Yorkshire Post.
As his parents were both churchgoers, Matt – himself not a believer – dutifully, but reluctantly, went to Sunday school and the church’s youth club on Friday nights.
“I was a wayward kid,” says Matt, 45. “I brought shame on my mum because I got into a fight, I was the clown. We had an incredible, amazing vicar, Derek, who knew I hated going to Sunday school.
“One Friday we were playing pool and I knocked one of the youth leader’s front teeth out with the cue. I was sent home and all the leaders stormed into Derek and demanded he ban me for life. But he forgave me and he let me come back the following week.”
Perhaps Derek saw some hidden promise in the young lad – which is just as well because a few years later Matt became his son-in-law when he married his daughter, Anna.
After reading politics at Portsmouth University, Matt followed his father into journalism, a job he took to like a duck to water.
He got a job as a reporter on the York Press and along with the human interest stories beloved of local newspapers which Matt – or Woody as he’s widely known – brought in, he was also passionate about campaigning on behalf of the voiceless.
He wrote about bullying in school; and treatments for Alzheimers. He fought long and hard to keep York’s iconic Odeon cinema open.
And then one day, on his way to cover Selby Magistrates Court, Matt had what he can only describe now as a “kind of spiritual moment”.
“My stomach turned over and my head started swimming,” says Matt. “I have never felt like it before – or since. I pulled over into the lay-by and all I could think of to do was to start praying. I just knew.
“After it had passed, I ran to Derek’s house and told him what had happened. He said, ‘Matt, do you think you should be working for the church?’ I said, ‘Yes and I have never been so sure of anything in my life. But I have to get to Selby Magistrates Court first and file my story.’”
Matt didn’t receive quite such a positive reaction from Anna when he broke the news to her of his Damascene conversion on the A19 that evening – and announced he was chucking in his job.
“The colour drained from her face,” says Matt, turning serious for once. “I was on good money, we’d just got a mortgage and a new house and were desperate to start a family. She was not at all happy.”
Matt’s editor, when told, couldn’t talk for several minutes because he was laughing so hard. He had tears of mirth rolling down his face at the notion that Woody, his hard-nosed news hack had been called by God.
But, true to his word, Matt handed in his notice and started training as a community minister. His life was transformed when he met John Sentamu, who was, until his retirement this summer, Archbishop of York.
“I did media work for him for two years and he pushed the door for me to be ordained. He was amazing, he thought I was energetic but he never stopped.
“I learned from him that the church doesn’t call you to be someone you’re not. He told me to be myself and have faith in my ability.”
At home, however, all was not well. Anna was trying to get pregnant but nothing was happening.
“We went for all the tests and as a stupid male I assumed the issue must be with Anna but it was me.
The urologist said, ‘Matt, the average male has 40 million sperm – you have 30 and they’re all crap swimmers’. I was firing blanks big time,” says Matt with typical candour.
“It was a really dark time. It was my wife’s greatest longing to have children. We went through a
round of IVF, it cost us £5,000 and it failed.”
The couple couldn’t afford to pay for any more treatment and had resigned themselves to never having children when John, a local retired vicar who heard of their plight, offered to pay for a second round. Again it failed.
“You can’t imagine the tragedy and the pain when it didn’t work. I cried my eyes out,” says Matt. “I felt so guilty.”
Just as Matt was sitting there at his desk feeling despondent an email popped up.
“It was from John saying he’d budgeted for a second round.”
It was third time lucky for Matt and Anna and she gave birth to twins, Esther and Heidi, who are now nine, and, says Matt, ‘turning me grey’.
Matt is reverend of St Barnabas and Paul’s Church in York now but he spent two years in the UK’s largest parish, Holy Trinity in central Hull. “The building was the size of a cathedral with a non-existent congregation,” says Matt. “They were thinking of mothballing it as it cost £1,000 a week to keep open.”
He set about pulling in new punters. “I am a very excitable person,” says Matt, “and I love people so I just stuck my dog collar on and started walking round Hull talking to strangers. I’ll talk to anyone.”
By the end of the first week, Matt had signed up to a music festival and enrolled in the boxing club across from the church’s huge, unused car park.
“They asked if they could start using it as they had always been refused permission by the church. I said yes, of course and turned up for Tuesday night sparring sessions. I’ve never been so scared in all my life.” He was invited by the owner of the nightclub opposite the church to see it in full flow and he started a 4pm Sunday service in the pub round the corner.
Slowly but surely, his hard work paid off and the hundreds of people he had talked to started taking him up on his invitation to come to church on a Sunday morning.
“I don’t know how my wife stayed with me, it was relentless, but I turned things around.”
Soon the pews were filled with painters and decorators, boxers, bodybuilders and plumbers, single mothers with five screaming children and the odd hungover nightclub dancer who had nowhere better to go and sober up.
And Matt loved the noise and the mess because that, he says, is what life is about – not solemnity, ostentatious robes and hush.
“The best churches are the messy ones with all their human dramas and people who really need help. Churches have got to be a place where people can come.
“I love it when you’re fighting to be heard over the people texting and chatting. Weddings and funerals are the most special times in people’s lives. The church should be about making people’s lives better. “Gone are the days of forcing religion down their throats.
“There are many people who are desperately lonely and so the church should be about being
part of a community of others who can help.”
Matt’s mission is accomplished every time he sees a newcomer in the church on a Sunday morning.
“During that hour I am giving people the space to think and explore their faith and it doesn’t have to be Christianity. There is music and beautiful singing and moments of silence peppered with fun and laughter and joy.
“A church service has got to make you feel better about yourself and the world and your place in it. If you feel worse, or you feel judged or bored, I have failed.”
- Being Reverend by Matt Woodcock (Church House Publishing, £9.99) is out now. Call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310 or order via expressbookshop.co.uk UK delivery £2.95, orders over £12.99 free UK delivery. Delivery may take up to
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