IN HIS book Being Reverend, Matt Woodcock keeps a diary of his hyperactive first 18 months as a Pioneer Minister in Hull city centre. He works the same mean streets through which I walked to school, and then ran collecting debts for Barclays Bank — we visited in pairs, à la Luke 10, adding an old-fashioned dowel-shaped ruler up our sleeves for protection. Woodcock catches Hull’s culture and people perfectly, with a tender heart for its drunks and down-and-outs, treating them to meals and hot drinks in Wetherspoons.
He aches for the Church and its gospel to thrive, and is baffled when clergy, congregations, and antiquated bishops woefully undersell their Lord, straining at the gnat and missing the camel. Speaking of which, he features actual camels in a live nativity, with an outreach that also includes staging a beer festival and an erotic fashion show in Hull’s ancient Minster, launching a church football team, becoming the local boxing club’s chaplain (and having his nose bloodied in a sparring session), taking church into the bar of the roughest pub in Europe, and then bringing it back again because the numbers are so massive. Archbishop Sentamu tells his protégé whirlwind to calm down and see God in the still small voice.
Actually, there is plenty of stillness, as Woodcock grapples with Michael Ramsey, R. S. Thomas, Philip Larkin, and searing Quiet Days with Sister Cecilia, his hard-talking spiritual mentor. Woodcock informs the Bishop of Hull (whom he berates for living in a mansion) that he doesn’t do failure, but fail he does as ventures come to nothing and people of high promise let him down. His ministry to a young couple who have lost a baby and a dying woman is masterly understated — and massively moving. His fragrant wife and unfragrant newborn twins are the loves of his life, neglected for Christ.
The diary’s genre is essentially Adrian Mole with a clerical collar, doing God very well indeed, simultaneously self-deprecating and triumphalist, edgy and tender, scatological and eschatological, seasoned with shedloads of righteous anger and humour that both shocks and debunks. His mother seeks his advice about shacking up with her boyfriend. “You need to ask Jesus what he thinks: maybe he can make an exception for you!” Yet non-judgemental Woodcock makes everyone the exception by treating them as exceptional and treating us to laughter and tears — and challenges — along the way.
The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is an hon. assistant bishop in York diocese.
Being Reverend: A diary
Church Times Bookshop £9