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Taking a personal call

by
11 November 2016

Former newspaper journalist, Matt Woodcock tells the story of his call to ordination

Jerome Whittingham

Pioneer minister: Matt Woodcock puts on a sell-out beer festival in his church every year

Pioneer minister: Matt Woodcock puts on a sell-out beer festival in his church every year

FOR St Paul, it was the Road to Damascus; for me, it was the A19 to Selby. Why God chose that day, that moment, that stretch of carriageway, I don’t know. I wasn’t feeling particularly spiritual or anything.

I was on my way to cover a case at Selby Magistrates’ Court for the York Press. I don’t remember exactly what I was doing when everything went weird. Probably picking my nose, or flossing my teeth with a fingernail. I do that a lot when I’m driving. Suddenly my head began to swim and my stomach turned over. My Ford Fiesta became difficult to control. I pulled into a layby to try to compose myself. As strange as it sounds — and as hard as it is to convey in words — I felt an overwhelming sense that God had something urgent he wanted to tell me. Either that or someone had spiked my Pot Noodle.

This was new territory for me. I thought that such encounters were reserved for enlightened monks in the wilderness. I got out of the car, sucked in some breaths and prayed. I expressed my confusion, my fear, but also my openness to what God might be trying to communicate. I instinctively knew it was something important — potentially life-changing. I prayed for calm until the shaking subsided. Then I remembered my copy deadline. Newsdesk had high hopes for this court story. I drove on to Selby.


I WAS converted to Christianity in my late teens. I woke up one morning determined to discover if God was real, and if I could know him. Some of the people I admired most in the world were believers. They said they loved God. Not in a weird way. They were so “normal”. That’s what confused me. They liked York City and snogging and Regal Kingsize just like the rest of us. But they were different. They had something. Something deeper. A way about them. A different kind of attitude to life and people. A joy, a peace, a generosity, a surefootedness. It annoyed the hell out of me.

Eventually, I decided that whatever they had, I wanted it. They said it was faith in God. In Jesus Christ. So I went on a quest to find him that day. I wrestled with deep questions, sought counsel from deep friends, prayed, and waited for something to happen. Nothing did. I sat moodily on my bed that night, faithless and frustrated. In a fit of pique, I ranted that if God was real he had “one more chance” to let me know he was there. I grabbed a Bible and randomly opened it. It spoke back to me. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7.7).

Coincidence? Fortuitous? I don’t know. But nothing has been the same since. The veil of unbelief was lifted there and then. It all made sense. I fell in love with God. His love fell on me. I ran downstairs to tell my sister. “Amy, I’ve become a Christian!” I spluttered. She looked over at me with a withering glance only lads with older sisters would understand. “I give it two weeks, Matt. Now b****r off, I’m watching EastEnders.” But Amy was wrong. It lasted. Lots of peaks. Lots of troughs. But it lasted.



POST-Selby Magistrates’ (case adjourned, as usual), I rushed to my vicar John’s house to seek guidance. Before I could open my mouth, he smiled knowingly at me from his enormous study chair. “Have you ever thought about working for the Church?” he asked. That was it. That’s what God wanted to tell me. I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. I knew God was calling me to leave journalism and work for him. What that looked like I didn’t know or care. I was all in.

I sprinted home to tell my wife, Anna. She was less sure. In fact, all the colour drained from her face. We loved our jobs. We’d just got a big mortgage on a dream three-bedroomed semi within waving distance of her mum and dad. We were trying for kids. Our upwardly mobile life was humming along nicely. A massive pay-cut and a crazy step into the unknown wasn’t part of the plan. Picking awkwardly at our lasagne that night, Anna eventually said: “If you’re sure it’s God telling you to do this, then what else can we do? He’s God. You’ll have to do it. We’ll make it work. Just be sure.”

My dad, a successful journalist himself, was furious. “You’re throwing your career away!” he raged. Mum was worried. Everyone else thought I’d lost the plot. My editor and colleagues cried with laughter — until they realised I was serious. Then they swore. “You’re doing what?!” was a common response. These reactions were understandable. I wasn’t exactly the archetypal Christian. Newsroom life was intense, fast, and thrilling. Bawdy, too, at times. I thrived. My faith was always there, but sometimes you might not have known it. Particularly on deadline. So the gear shift from news to pews wasn’t ever going to be entirely smooth.



ST PAUL’s, my local Anglican church, took me on as their community outreach worker. I looked up at the pained face of Jesus in the stained-glass window on my first day wondering what to do. No one ever really told me. Stuff just happened. In my first week I helped a painter and decorator find God. Such was his apprehension about the church, our first meeting was on neutral ground — a bench in the local park. He told me he felt lost inside. If God existed, he wanted to be found. Could I help him? He wasn’t alone. Spiritual seekers began to surface in the strangest of places looking for help. Sometimes even in church.

I also soon found myself combining my church work with a part-time role on the Archbishop of York’s media team at Bishopthorpe Palace. Just months before, I’d interviewed Sentamu for the York Press about his enthronement as the UK’s first black Archbishop. Sentamu inspired me to believe that the Church of England could find a dog collar to fit someone like me. I was encouraged to push the doors of ordained ministry — or “test the calling” as important clergy in cashmere jumpers kept telling me. The doors kept swinging open. Meeting after meeting. Form after form. Test after test. Until I found myself in Ely for that crunch three-day selection panel.

I remember the phone call a few days later. “You’ve been accepted for ordination training, Matt!” my church liaison trilled. “The decision was emphatic — congratulations!” Anna sobbed when I told her. Then we both did. We were afraid.

I got a place at Cranmer Hall, a respected centre of theological training in the heart of St John’s College, Durham. Anna decided to keep working in York. I would come home at weekends. The thought of leaving her wasn’t easy. The timing wasn’t great.

Our efforts to have children had floundered after years of tests and two failed attempts of IVF treatment. Emotions were running high.

 

AFTER my A19 encounter, I sought someone to help me make spiritual sense of it all. Sister Cecilia lived and served at a local convent. She became my inspiration, my guide, my revealer of holy mysteries. She encouraged me to write stuff down. It would stop me doubting the truth of what was happening. I started a diary. At least an A4 page a day of musings, reflections and nonsense.

I get asked all the time how I actually became a priest. What was it like? What did I do? I suppose you’d ask it too if you knew me. This book — these diary extracts — are my attempt to answer those questions. I wanted to show — if you didn’t know already — that faith in God is rooted in the good, the bad, and the ugly of real life. Becoming a reverend was no different. For me, anyway. If nothing else, I hope this book proves that God doesn’t call a particular type of person to work for him. He calls people like me. He might be calling someone like you.

 

This is an extract from Becoming Reverend: A diary, by Matt Woodcock, published by Church House Publishing, £9.99 p/b (CT Bookshop £9).

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