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.

No old folk as Kate Rusby covers up in lockdown for home-made Hand Me Down

“As a folk singer, it’s what I do, re-interpret existing songs, but usually the songs are much, much older,” says Kate Rusby of her new album Hand Me Down

AFTER covering Oasis’s Don’t Go Away on Jo Whiley’s BBC Radio 2 show five years ago, the thought of doing more contemporary covers did not go away for Barnsley folk singer Kate Rusby.

On her second visit to Jo’s studio, Kate picked The Cure’s Friday I’m In Love for the cover treatment.

The lonesome, pining Don’t Go Away found its way on to Kate’s 2019 album, Philosophers, Poets and Kings, and now Friday I’m In Love is one of three digital singles – along with the wistful, wishful stand-out Manic Monday and a banjo-powered Shake It Off – at the heart of Hand Me Down, her album of a dozen covers out this week. 

“As a folk singer, it’s what I do, re-interpret existing songs, but usually the songs are much, much older,” says Kate, 46. “After playing Don’t Go Away on Jo Whiley’s show, it dawned on me that not just the very old songs are handed down through the generations, but also favourite songs of any age, of any generation. Songs are precious for many different reasons.”

Started before but completed during lockdown isolation, the recordings with musician and producer husband Damien O’Kane have, in Kate’s words, a home-made feel. “That is how a ‘lockdown’ album should sound, I suppose,” she says. “We could only use what we had to hand – it just so happens I have a very talented multi-instrumentalist husband, yey!

“So, bar the odd part from a band member recorded remotely, it’s all myself and Damien, but that was actually our plan all along.”

The artwork for Kate Rusby’s album of cover versions, Hand Me Down

Hand Me Down emerges this summer as balm for these pandemic times. “Just forget the world for a moment and let the music in,” says Kate. “Music is such a powerful potion, it can’t heal the world but it can heal the heart, even for a fleeting moment.”

Here Charles Hutchinson has everything covered in a series of questions for Kate on recording Hand Me Down; the art of the covers album, making Singy Songy Sessions home videos; life in lockdown and home-schooling her daughters.

Was this album already in the pipeline or did lockdown and the Covid-19 scenario prompt you into recording it now, Kate?

“We had already started the album in February. In fact, I’ve been working on it since January, as it was very much our plan anyway. It was the plan since about two years ago!

“It’s a very bizarre world is the music world; plans and plots have to be sorted so far in advance, which does mean that sometimes I have no idea what year it is!!

“I’ve wanted to do this album for about five years, ever since we first went to do the BBC Radio 2 Jo Whiley Show.

“On Jo’s show, everyone plays a live song of their own and then also a cover of another artist. We had a list of about 300 options but we chose Don’t Go Away by Oasis.”

Not just another Manic Monday: Kate Rusby recording her Singy Songy Sessions home video for Manic Monday with daughters Daisy Delia and Phoebe Summer

How come that particular song, as featured on your studio album Philosophers, Poets And Kings last year, was the one that made you think, “Right…let’s do a whole album of covers”?

“I’ve covered a lot of other artists’ songs over the years, but I think with Don’t Go Away it was the first time we’d done such a well-known song.

“We were on tour at the time and we had enjoyed playing it on Jo’s show so much that we wondered how it would fair if dropped in the set list amongst all the other more folkie songs.

“It worked perfectly and, what’s more, when we introduced the song there was a lovely buzz of nostalgia and recognition of the song before we played it. It was then I thought, ‘ooooh it’d be so lovely to do a whole album of songs like this’, so the plan was formed in my mind then.”

Covers albums have an erratic history: the highs of John Lennon’s Rock’n’Roll, Johnny Cash with Rick Rubin more than once, and Tori Amos’s female re-interpretation of songs written and sung by men, Strange Little Girls, but the lows of Duran Duran’s Thank You, Kevin Rowland’s My Beauty and Simple Minds’ Neon Lights!

Is it a dangerous minefield to tread through or can it be an orchard full of fruit ripe for picking?

“She said she’d watched the video and loved it, it had made her day and made her cry! ” says Kate Rusby, recalling the reaction of The Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs to Manic Monday

“Well, I think it’s a bit of both in equal measure! So many fabulous songs to choose from but then a lot of pressure to not upset too many people along the way. There are the fans of the original songs who may well hate someone attempting to re-interpret a song, but then also, and more importantly I think, there is a chance the original artist may hear it! Eeek!!

“This actually happened with Susanna Hoffs (original actual lead Bangle!) when we released Manic Monday as a single back in May. We made a homemade video to go along with it and it filtered its way along the tendrils of Twitter and she sent me a lovely message.

“Oh my word, I nearly fell of my chair when I saw it. An actual Bangle! She said she’d watched the video and loved it, it had made her day and made her cry! I wish I could go back in time and tell my 12-year-old self an actual Bangle would write to me one day. So, yey, that was a happy outcome. But I do feel the pressure of hoping people like our interpretations.”

Do you have a favourite covers’ album. If so, which one and why?

“I do, I can’t quite recall the name but it’s an album of covers in a Bossa Nova style! It’s so perfect for a party, there’s covers of Coldplay and all sorts of stuff on there, I know it doesn’t sound like it’ll work on paper, but trust me, it’s lovely!!”

Editor’s thought: Bossa Nova covers? Could Kate be referring to cult French covers combo Nouvelle Vague?

“Folk singers instinctively get deep into the lyrics and that becomes the key thing when we start working on a song,” says Kate

You have a long history of re-interpreting the folk songbooks of old, often with new tunes, or new words, but how does a folk singer doing pop and rock songs differ from rock artists? Do you bring something different to it; maybe the interpretation of the lyrics, so crucial to folk songs?

“Absolutely, I think folk singers instinctively get deep into the lyrics and that becomes the key thing when we start working on a song. Folk music is all about telling the story, communicating the emotion.

“That’s actually been one of the great things about working on these songs; I realised how many words I’d got wrong listening in my youth! It was fab to get right inside the song and rework them from the inside out.” 

How did you go about choosing the songs?  Did you discuss it with husband Damien and maybe even those two young Manic Monday backing singers from the Rusby household, daughters Daisy Delia, ten, and Phoebe Summer, eight? 

“I kind of whittled the original 300 down to about 40, then kept circling them for a couple of weeks. Then ultimately I had to choose which 12 would complement each as a collection on a CD.

“I also had to choose which songs would suit the way I sing, and also which songs we felt we had good ideas for to make them completely different to the original. So, there were a few different factors, but mostly it was down to me to choose.”

Kate Rusby, Damien O’Kane and daughters Phoebe Summer and Daisy Delia in a still from the Manic Monday home video

Some of your song choices have been re-interpreted more than once before, The Kinks’ Days and True Colours, for example, but Lyle Lovett’s If I Had A Boat and Coldplay’s Everglow, not so.

Others have had a “definitive” re-boot (The Bangles’ take on Prince’s Manic Monday; Paul Young’s Love Of The Common People; arguably Ryan Adams’ shake-down of Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off).

Galaxie 500’s Dean & Britta glided through Friday I’m In Love on an obscure Cure covers’ set, Just Like Heaven. Overall, it looks like you just went with your own instincts on what would make a good cover…Discuss…

“Yes, I mostly just went with my instincts and also chose the songs that I have a connection with, either from my childhood or more recently, like the Coldplay cover and Taylor Swift cover. So, it’s an album of covers that are all relevant to me.

“The songs that have been covered a few times before only went on there if we had ideas to make them totally different with what’s gone before, ‘cos they’re still fabulous songs, no matter how many times they have been covered.

“In the not-so-distant past that was the way the music industry would work: a bobby dazzler song would appear out of the writing factories, then someone like Ella Fitzgerald would sing it, then other artists of the same calibre would all sing it too, because it was a great song. It’s only more recently it’s become a bit less fashionable.”

“I have always had overwhelming urges to cheer people up at times of sadness,” says Kate. Picture: Lieve Boussauw

Which cover version you did surprised you the most…and do you have a favourite?

“Oh no, I can’t choose!! That’s like having a favourite child! I think the one that surprised me the most was Manic Monday, we had that one finished early on and we were sat listening to it and I said to Damien, ‘We should release it digitally now cos I think it’ll cheer people up!’.

“It was early May and as a nation we were all so fretful and fearful. I have always had overwhelming urges to cheer people up at times of sadness. I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse, but it’s always been part of my genetic make-up.

“Anyway, we released it, and the response was unbelievable!! So many kind, warm, gorgeous messages, and it was even picked up by BBC Radio 2 and ended up climbing up the playlist, up to the A-List no less. The response it got us completely by surprise. There were tears!”

What drew you to Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds to be the album’s closing song?

“Aw, a little bit of sunshine from Bob Marley is never wasted. It was a given we had that song on the album because on Mothers’ Day this year, which fell days before lockdown, me and my girls made cardboard beaks and wings and fab husband Damien brought his guitar.

“We knocked on my mum’s door, left her a bunch of flowers from our garden, stepped back and we all sung this to my parents. Since that day, and all the way through lockdown, every morning in our house has started with Bob singing that song, Bob has filled our house with sunshine every morning. And you know what, I fully believe him, it might take a while but ‘every little thing IS gonna be alright’.”   

The Cure’s Friday In Love, as covered by Kate Rusby on Hand Me Down

Many a slow cover for a John Lewis Christmas advert has risen to the chart summit. Why does slowing down a familiar song have such an impact, time after time?  

“Yes, it’s a funny one isn’t it? The songs are generally also stripped back – perhaps it’s that that resonates with people? The fact you can take in the lyrics easier makes it more emotive.”

 How did the Coronavirus lockdown have an impact on recording Hand Me Down?

“As I mentioned earlier, I’d been working on the album since January, and me and Damien started working on the songs together in February, then started recording at the end of February.

“Then, of course, lockdown happened mid-March. Luckily for us we have our own studio with no-one else there, so we could carry on mostly as normal, Damien plays most instruments and also engineers and produces, so we just got on with it.

“I think lockdown did alter slightly the way we approached the recordings, as usually we would have the rest of the lads from my band in, one by one, and work on the parts with them to build each track, but none of that was possible this time due to Covid.

“So, almost everything on there has been played/generated by Damien. Then we sent tracks up to our bass player, Duncan Lyall, who played Moog (a retro synth-type keyboard) for us in his own studio, then sent them back.

Manic motion: Kate Rusby on the move in the Manic Monday home video

“Our usual engineer, Josh Clarke, has his own studio, so when we were finished, we sent them all down to him, he mixed them, and then we sent them on to band member Nick Cooke, who has his own mastering studio, so he mastered the album. I’ve been very lucky to have all that to hand, really.”

How did the Singy Songy Sessions in lockdown come about? These impromptu videos of you and Damien performing at home have been a big hit online and a comfort too…

“Again, it goes back to that in-built desire to cheer people up! So, I decided to set up a corner of our sitting room and send a song out each week. ‘Singy Songy Sessions’ came out of my mouth before I knew it on the first one we did; the name just stuck!

“So, we have done 20 of those so far over 19 weeks. We’re having a little break from them as we’re taking our girls camping, but hopefully we’ll be back at them, especially if there are no gigs for a while to come.”

Your Underneath The Stars Festival turned into virtual event this summer? How did it go?

“Aw, it was so lovely. The feedback from the two festival directors, Pete Sharman and my big sister, Emma Holling, was fabulous. Lots of people engaged with the day of activities.

“Myself and best friend Sally Smith did a live pub quiz from down at the festival site; myself and Damien did a song for the end. It was rounded off with the BBC Radio 2 Virtual Folk Festival, so it was a gorgeous day of people coming together to celebrate festivals.”

“It’s been very precious to spend so much time as a family; we have loved it,” says Kate of life in lockdown

What are the good things you have learnt in lockdown? How has the home-schooling gone for Daisy and Phoebe?

“We’ve learnt how to make videos! Oh, what fun we’ve had! Damien is amazing now at editing them all up; he’s really enjoying it. 

“The home-schooling was OK actually. I’m not a natural maths teacher, let’s say, but fortunately my big sister is a qualified maths teacher and maths genius, so there were a few times she helped out on the old FaceTime chat thingy.

“We just bought a few National Curriculum books and got on with it. It was slightly tricky on the days we were at the studio, home-schooling with the left foot whilst pushing packed lunches to them with the other, whilst the head was concentrating on the recording, but we all adapted and found our flow with it.

“Everyone has had to adjust, haven’t they? It’s also been very precious to spend so much time as a family; we have loved it. The girls even sang on two tracks as well; it’s been a very special family time.”

What did you miss most in lockdown?

“Hugs from my family. Aw, and Mallorca! We’ve been lucky enough to have had a family holiday there every year since our oldest, Daisy, was born. It’s not even just the actual being there, it’s also having the build-up, the excitement and that lovely warm light at the end of a very busy and, recently, emotional tunnel! That bit I’ve missed. I’ve deffo missed the hugs more though!”

Christmas sparkle: Kate Rusby at Christmas…booked for York Barbican on December 20. Picture: Mike Ainscoe

It is too early to predict, but if the Kate Rusby At Christmas concerts can go ahead, how will you feel to be performing once more?

“Well, due to the Singy Songy Sessions, we have felt like we’ve kept on performing despite no gigs. It’s been lovely to keep that connection with our audiences. It will be totally brilliant to play with our band again though. We’re planning a couple of live streamed concerts, so that’s going to be just fab to see everyone again.” 

Kate Rusby’s new album Hand Me Down is out this week on Pure Records on CD and digital formats; a vinyl version will follow in November.

Kate Rusby At Christmas is booked into York Barbican for December 20, 7.30pm. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Track listing for Hand Me Down

  1. Manic Monday (written by Prince; a hit for The Bangles in 1986)
  2. Everglow (Coldplay)
  3. Days (The Kinks, covered by Kirsty MacColl, Elvis Costello)
  4. If I Had A Boat (Lyle Lovett)
  5. Maybe Tomorrow (from The Littlest Hobo, a Canadian TV series, performed by Terry Bush)
  6. The Show (theme song for TV series Connie, written by Willy Russell, performed by Rebecca Storm)
  7. Shake It Off (Taylor Swift)
  8. True Colours (written by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly; a hit for Cyndi Lauper in 1986 )
  9. Carolina On My Mind (James Taylor)
  10. Love Of The Common People (written by written by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins; a hit for Paul Young in 1983)
  11. Friday I’m In Love (The Cure) 
  12. Three Little Birds (Bob Marley)