How Matt Woodcock changed an empty church with real ale, camels and humour

Matt Woodcock: From news to pews, from York to Hull and back again

THIS is not a good time to be infectious, but Matt Woodcock is exactly that. In a good way and in a God way.

Back in the day at The Evening Press, his cub-reporter enthusiasm brought him exclusives that escaped all others. He loved a story, he loved people, and he had a gift, shared with his journalist dad John, for easing his interviewees into opening up before they knew it.

He was Woody, Oasis fan, York City fan, and suddenly, to his own surprise – and even more so to his “extremely non-religious” father – Jesus fan.

His Damascene conversion came on the road to Selby [Magistrates Court], forced to pull into a layby when struck by dizziness, brought on by “an overwhelming sense that God had something urgent he wanted to tell me”.

The priesthood is a vocation, and Woody had been called. Exit journalism, enter a new path for the rookie Rev that has taken him to Hull and back to York as the Reverend Matt Woodcock, C of E curate, daily diarist, book writer and Pause For Thought broadcaster on Zoe Ball’s BBC Radio 2 show.

John was so furious at Woody “throwing away his career”, he refused to attend his leaving party – as Matt recalled with fond laughter this afternoon – yet if journalism and the priesthood overlap, it is in the mutual ability to communicate, to use words, in impactful ways.

The difference is putting those words into action, his flock Revved up by the curate’s egging-on. Then add Matt’s boundless honesty, humour, even irreverence, to his love of God, and Dr John Sentamu, who ordained him when Archbishop of York, is moved to say: “Spirit dwells in him, taking him on an adventurous Jesus-shaped journey.”

That quote can be found on the sleeve of Being Reverend, Matt’s diary book follow-up to his 2016 bestseller, Becoming Reverend, out today (29/10/2020) in paperback, eBook and unabridged audiobook, recorded by Matt over two days.

“It’s already sold out on Amazon on pre-orders,” says Matt. “People have been ringing me to say they can’t get it.” Demand will grow even higher after the Daily Mail runs extracts, likely to be in Saturday and next Monday’s editions.

In a nutshell, Being Reverend is the story of newbie vicar Matt Woodcock trying to breathe new life into Britain’s biggest yet emptiest church, the 700-year-old Holy Trinity in Hull’s Old Town, while trying not to ruin his home life with Anna and their teething twins. It is a story of faith, real ale…and camels.

What a first posting post-training for Reverend Matt, who had earlier made his mark at St Paul’s Holgate in York, when running The Lounge nights with such guests as Dr Sentamu and booking Shed Seven for their first gig after re-forming.

Out today: Matt Woodcock’s diary of a vicar at “God’s Aircraft Hangar”

“Holy Trinity is the largest parish church by area in the country. I called it ‘God’s Aircraft Hangar’,” he says, at a socially distanced meeting at Dyls, sporting an Oasis face mask in vicarly black and white. “It’s so massive, I used to go for a cycle ride around the aisles on the way home from the pub!”

From the start, he named his dislikes as pews, dull sermons and organs, and his philosophy is constantly uplifting. “I just think my job is to raise a few smiles, make people think and spread the joy that faith can enrich your life,” he says.

“I’m on a mission to stop making church and faith a thing of dullness. We’ve done dullness in the Church of England for centuries, but I say, ‘make it interesting, make people respond, even make them angry, make them think about their faith’, when somehow we’ve made it dreadfully dull.

“I think Jesus would be turning over tables now, not because of money lenders, but because church is dull.”

Being Reverend collates Matt’s diary entries from his first 18 months at Holy Trinity. “I’ve written a diary every day since 2009, when all this ‘From News To Pews’ stuff happened,” he says. “I was told do so by Sister Cecilia Goodman at St Bede’s [Pastoral Centre in York], where I’d sit in a room for six hours and I’d come out floating.

“She’d give me questions to think about and I’ve kept a diary ever since, 650 words every day, good, bad or ugly.”

His growing passion for poetry, fuelled initially by the works of University of Hull librarian Philip Larkin, has informed his own writing. “I love the pithy way poets write: there’s so much power in a sentence with a real directness to it. That’s why some people said reading my first book was like being hit by a blunt instrument because you’re not prepared for it.

“My style works for quips but when I write about sadness or tragedy, there’s no warning.  I go straight in. Journalism taught me that the editing part is the most important, deciding what to take out.”

In younger days, Matt had written diaries, but never sustained them through a year. “I started a few but it was all about girls and my terrible failures, so they always ended pretty quickly.  But now I couldn’t let a day go by without doing my diary. It’s become an obsession.”

Big church. Tiny congregation. Freezing cold. Welcome to Holy Trinity, Matt, taking on a church in the last-chance saloon. “They were about to mothball the church; the congregation was only ten to 15; they were losing £1,000 a week,” he recalls. “You have to remember it was right in the middle of Hull, so it would have been like mothballing York Minster, but it had become a blind spot to the city.”

Enter Reverend Matt, in the role of “pioneer vicar”. “My job was two-fold: Engage with the community outside the church and start using this building in a creative way,” he says. “For Holy Trinity not to be at the centre of the community was a travesty.”

“They said, ‘how about asking that nutty vicar at Holy Trinity?’,” recalls Reverend Matt Woodcock

Gradually, the church became both a cultural and spiritual hub, home to a theatre group as much as prayers in the chapel. The first headline-making big hitter was the Real Ale Festival, drawing 4,000 pint punters. “Hull CAMRA had previously held it at Hull City Hall but said ‘it’s too hot in there, it’s ruining the beer’,” says Matt.

“They said, ‘how about asking that nutty vicar at Holy Trinity?’, and when I told the church council it would generate £3,500 in three days, all their hands went up! That put us on the map, so did the theatre shows, artisans’ markets, and Ralph McTell played a concert there too.”

Holy Trinity participated in Hull’s year as the City of Culture, further momentum for the church. “At the same time, the congregation started to grow because people were thinking, ‘hey, what’s going on here on Sundays?’,” says Matt.

“What I learnt was that when you have the courage to make changes, beautiful things happen.”  So much so that Dr Sentamu re-dedicated Holy Trinity as Hull Minster in 2017.

Matt would leave his “labour of love” after seven years to return to York. “It was the wildest, most beautiful time. We were part of this revolution in Hull,” he says, but it came at a cost. “At times, I barely saw my wife, and it could have ended in divorce.

“The irony in those first 18 months was the people closest to me saw me least. Anna nearly left me during that time. She’d had enough, and I’m ashamed to say that. There was a massive cost to my personal life in the work I was doing.

“I wasn’t around enough for my children, but I wouldn’t change anything in the world for being a dad. Anna is a real saint in all this. I now realise you have to find a balance in life and I’ve learnt about that.

“I always promised Anna, who’s a real family person, that one day we would move back to York to be close to her family, and we have done that.”

Matt is now employed as a “Multiply Minister”, charged with building church participation for the under-50s at St Barnabas, Leeman Road, and St Paul’s, Holgate.

 “I always say my calling is to bring the average age down from 108,” he says. “I have to build a new church community of 20 to 40 year olds, to do church in a new way.”

From mountain-walking to volleyball, pub gatherings to theatre trips – before Covid restrictions – Matt has built up a sense of belonging to a community that turns into an exploration of faith.

Camels alert: Holy Trinity Church’s Travelling Nativity Play in Hull city centre on December 22 2012

“The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is that being cautious gets you absolutely nowhere. Jesus calls us to the full life and that means being brave enough to take risks and to be people-centric,” he says.

“I just love people. They are a constant fascination. They are my oxygen. They are why I get up in the morning. Every morning, I read a bit of Jesus and every day I try to be a little more like him. Keeping it simple.

“If I’ve got this faith thing wrong, I still believe trying to live life like Christ brings you the most joy, the most fun, but sometimes we’ve lost that simplicity of purpose.”

Matt describes the task facing priests as “being like a tragi-comedy”. “But if you don’t have positivity, what’s the opposite? It’s minus four in the church, the average age is 108, and I’ve been in a pulpit looking out at a dozen people trying to sit as far from each other as possible.

“So, you have to have positive vibes, hope; hope goes a long way. So does humour; being given permission to laugh.

“I know I’m a loudmouth and I’m too much for some people – I remember kicking a ball around the aisles at a baptism and trying to kick it into the font…that was going too far! – but I love getting alongside people and trying to enrich their lives, and loving people is a non-negotiable part of being a vicar.”

Becoming Reverend closes the diary after 18 months because it is always good to go out on a high, that high being the day the “nutty vicar” excelled himself by arranging for camels to participate in a Nativity Play through the streets of Hull on the busiest shopping day of the year.

“I realised no-one was coming to the church at Christmas, so I said ‘let’s take a Nativity Play out of the church with actors, and why don’t we have camels?’,” says Matt. “I think the council gave us £5,000 and someone found this place where you could hire camels, sheep and a donkey. It became this massive thing, parading through the streets – and we made the pages of the Hull Daily Mail.”

Matt is already planning his next book. “It’ll be about male friendship, how buttoned up we are, how we struggle to open up to each other about our soulful side,” he says. Who better to stir up that discussion than the frank and fearless Reverend Matt?

Being Reverend, A Diary, by Matt Woodcock is published today by Church House Publishing.

Final word to Matt:

Boredom threshold: low.

Excitement threshold: high.