When former journalist Matt Woodcock was appointed minister at Holy Trinity Hull, known as ‘God’s aircraft hangar’ because it’s the largest parish church in Britain, it had a dwindling congregation and was losing £1,000 a week.
Radical action was needed to turn its fortunes around — but not everyone found his methods easy to accept, as this honest and humorous account of his first 18 months reveals…
As a Church of England minister, there are probably some things I should never admit to.
Like the fact I sometimes don’t particularly like going to church. Or the clothes we wear, the traditional hymns we sing, and the prayers written for us to pray.
Too often the C of E’s ways, rituals and culture feel as alien and uncomfortable to me as accountancy or wearing a monocle. At least I actually believe in God. That often seems to be the only thing I have in common with my clergy colleagues.
Novice minister Matt Woodcock is pictured above. A couple of hours before the curtain went up on our Live Nativity, I stood outside the church in pouring rain, thinking ‘B****r, what have I done?’
I’d do things differently, I thought. I’d be an agent of change. I’d do Jesus with bells on.
That was the theory anyway. After leaving theological college, I was given the chance to put my dreams into action in the centre of Hull at Holy Trinity Church (recently renamed Hull Minster).
It wasn’t easy to persuade my wife Anna to move to Hull. She’d put up with my two years’ training at vicar school.
Then there was our infertility and multiple rounds of IVF. And, suddenly, more fertility than we’d ever dreamt of — our twin girls Esther and Heidi.
Year 1: Tuesday, July 5
My first day as a fully licensed, fully frocked, fully clueless ordained Church of England ‘pioneer’ minister.
My new boss, the Rev Dr Neal Barnes, greeted me at the church door with a beaming smile.
My other colleague, the Rev Irene Wilson, is an unpaid priest in her 60s. Three reverends with nothing in common except our Christianity. It could be disastrous.
Thursday, July 7
I was introduced to one of Holy Trinity’s welcomers today — volunteers who stand at the church door and greet people.
He was a spindly, elderly chap called Selwyn, straight out of the pages of David Copperfield. The conversation went like this:
Me: ‘Hi Selwyn. I’m Reverend Matt Woodcock. Pleasure to meet you!’
Selwyn: ‘I know who you are Mr Woodcock! I’m an atheist — you won’t convert me!’
Selwyn is one of our key Welcomers. He makes a point of telling visitors that the very notion of God is entirely ridiculous. We have a long way to go.
Our church council just keep saying ‘yes’ to me. In one meeting tonight, they approved the church beer festival, the possibility of rock bands playing in the nave and the launch of a new service in a pub — on the grounds that I need to go where the people are, rather than naively think they’ll just come to us
Saturday, July 9
My dog collar is a magnet for interaction and conversation. As I strode round the Old Town’s indoor market, people were keen to give me their thoughts on dire rugby league referees, the afterlife and ‘the f*****g council’.
I noticed a battered sign on a building down the north side of church: St Paul’s Boxing Academy. I could hear pumping dance music and bags being pummelled, so I swallowed down my fear and walked in.
Kids were sparring in a ring watched by their parents. Huge tattooed men in red and blue vests were dotted around the place in various states of pugilistic exertion. No one noticed me at first.
I’m cringing now, but eventually I shouted out: ‘Hello everyone! I’m one of the vicars from the church next door. How are you all?’
The gym was suddenly transformed into a Wild West saloon. The music cut out. Everyone seemed to stop and stare fiercely.
Mercifully, a voice finally sliced through the silent tension. It was one of the coaches, Paul. ‘I’m so glad you’ve come in, Reverend! I’ve been wanting to speak to someone from the church. We need somewhere to park and wondered if you could help?’
Tension lifted. The music came back on. People went back to hitting things.
Monday, July 18
Anna and I had a row in the kitchen. The constant stress of Esther’s wailing is causing big tensions between us. Anna said I was useless. I said she could be doing a better job. We didn’t mean it.
Monday, August 1
Keeping my promise to do circuit training at the boxing club tonight, I chatted to a fierce-looking guy between agonising planks and sit-ups. He had several gold teeth and an array of alarming scars. One of the coaches shouted over: ‘Don’t listen to his confession, Rev — you’ll be here all night!’
As a Church of England minister, there are probably some things I should never admit to. Like the fact I sometimes don’t particularly like going to church
Thursday, September 8
I excitedly pitched an idea to Mark, the organist, about the forthcoming harvest service. The church will be packed with kids from the local boys’ secondary school, all bored to within an inch of their young lives. I want to get a couple of them up at the front to play an icebreaker game — ‘Name That Tune’ on the organ.
‘Please can you learn the Match of the Day theme and that new Lady Gaga song?’ I asked hopefully. Mark’s eyes rolled into his forehead.
Tuesday, October 4
I’ve had another idea for the bored schoolboys. I’ll be preaching about Zacchaeus, the crook who climbed up a tree to get a better view of Jesus.
His life was transformed when Jesus called him down. I think I could act that bit out — transform our tall pulpit into a tree and climb down it. I’ll try to persuade the organist to play the Mission Impossible theme tune.
Sunday, October 9
A 700-strong congregation packed Holy Trinity for the harvest service — including hundreds of fidgety schoolboys. The organist launched into Mission Impossible. I swung a leg over the side of the pulpit and tried to lever myself down.
For a few horrible seconds, I got stuck, dangling and stranded over the Lord Mayor’s head. The congregation thought it was part of the act and were going nuts. I thought I was going to die…
I excitedly pitched an idea to Mark, the organist, about the forthcoming harvest service. The church will be packed with kids from the local boys’ secondary school, all bored to within an inch of their young lives. I want to get a couple of them up at the front to play an icebreaker game — ‘Name That Tune’ on the organ. ‘Please can you learn the Match of the Day theme and that new Lady Gaga song?’ I asked hopefully. Mark’s eyes rolled into his forehead
Tuesday, November 29
Our church council just keep saying ‘yes’ to me. In one meeting tonight, they approved the church beer festival, the possibility of rock bands playing in the nave and the launch of a new service in a pub — on the grounds that I need to go where the people are, rather than naively think they’ll just come to us.
Thursday, December 22
One of the lads I trained with has emailed me a round-robin family Christmas newsletter. I hate these things. They never fail to make me feel bad, and Christians send the worst ones.
Toby’s daughter already seems to be fluent in two languages and can play the viola. She spends her lunchtimes ministering to her friends in the playground and praying for healing. She’s four.
Anna had to physically restrain me from sending back our own version. Something like: The twins are driving us insane, our poor excuse for a marriage is barely functioning beyond wine and nappies and life is horrible. Merry Christmas! The Woodcocks x
Year 2: Saturday, March 17
One of our elderly church welcomers lambasted me for making a homeless bloke a cup of tea this morning. ‘You’ll only encourage them, Matt,’ she said. Unbelievable.
Friday, April 13
I’m hopelessly addicted to Game Of Thrones. It’s full of sex, power games and mindless violence. Not unlike the Old Testament, then. I can’t sleep for worrying about the beer festival. It could end in disaster: drunken, bearded men throwing up in the choir aisle after too many pints of Trinity Ale. Have I gone too far?
Friday, April 20
People were queueing to get into the beer festival. Queueing to get into our church! My head is swimming with the numbers of people I spoke to about church, God and real ale.
Wednesday, April 25
What would have been my first wedding has been cancelled. Turns out the groom has run off with another woman.
Thursday, April 26
Note to self: always read people’s funeral tributes before the service. A close friend of the deceased (Marion, a lady in her 80s) was supposed to read out a tribute. But when it came to her moment, she was too overcome with emotion. I stepped in — and quickly wished I hadn’t.
‘Marion liked to help me with my Ann Summers deliveries,’ I read. ‘She couldn’t wait to get her hands on the latest battery-operated merchandise.’
There was a collective gasp, followed by the most awkward of silences. Except for the sound of Marion’s friend. She’d stopped crying and was laughing her head off.
Wednesday, May 16
I met with Archbishop Sentamu so he could assess whether I was fit to be ordained a priest after my rookie deacon year. To be fair, I talked his face off for half an hour. He looked weary and bamboozled by the end, stifling episcopal yawns. I think he was prepared to make me a bishop if only I’d shut up a bit.
Friday, July 13
Anna had some choice words for me tonight — I probably deserved them. She was up to her neck in babies, nappies and mess, so it wasn’t the best moment for me to ask what time tea would be ready.
Thursday, August 23
Conducted my first wedding today. When I asked, ‘Does anyone know any legal impediment why this couple may not be married?’ the air was filled with a tense silence. Then the bride blurted out: ‘At least I know he’s not gay, then!’
At the end, I boomed: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you the bride and groom, Mr and Mrs Sampson!’ Awkward pause, a few nervous coughs, a frantic look down at my notes … ‘Sorry Mr and Mrs Roehampton!’
Wednesday, August 29
Jokingly, I told Neal and Irene that it could be a game-changer if we walked real camels through the city centre as part of a live Nativity. Thousands would come. They both laughed as if I’d lost my mind.
Tuesday, September 4
One of my baptism mums has found me some camels at an East Midlands farm! They specialise in providing animals to TV and film crews.
Monday, September 10
The farm has quoted me just over £3,000 for three huge camels and their handlers (who’ll dress as Wise Men), a donkey and three sheep.
Friday, September 14
An animal rights group called Animal Defenders International have got the hump (sorry) about us using camels. ‘Strange sights, sounds, touches or odours, and changes in temperature can cause stress in camels,’ their email said.
Thursday, September 20
Hallelujah! Hull City Council has agreed to stump up most of the cash for the Live Nativity! They had a few concerns about walking camels down a busy shopping street but think it can be done without killing anyone.
Sunday, September 23
A retired priest has emailed me after seeing an article about the camels in the Church Times. He encouraged me to read the Gospels and discover that camels aren’t mentioned.
One of our elderly church welcomers lambasted me for making a homeless bloke a cup of tea this morning. ‘You’ll only encourage them, Matt,’ she said. Unbelievable
Sunday, October 21
Today I asked the congregation to shout out the top five reasons why they thought people stay awake at night. ‘Sex!’ someone shouted, with annoyingly brilliant timing.
The word echoed around the 700-year-old walls. I’ve unwittingly created a stag-do culture in the house of God.
Thursday, October 25
We have a real baby Jesus for the Live Nativity! He’s a two-week-old called Sidney. His welder dad, Gareth, and barmaid mum, Lyndsey, are dead keen on being Mary and Joseph.
Sunday, December 2
I had a really difficult conversation with Anna tonight. She spoke some truths about our marriage that were hard to hear. Hard, because I knew she was right.
‘I’ve had enough, Woody,’ she said between tears and blowing her nose. ‘We see so little of you that I may as well be a single parent. You give that church everything and we’re left with the dregs. I won’t go on like this.’
I’ve been so oblivious to Anna’s feelings. So selfish with my time. I’m filled with dread that she’ll leave me. I don’t know what I’d do. My life wouldn’t make sense without her.
Thursday, December 4
Things are better between us. Every day — no matter how busy or preoccupied I am — I’m trying to be more present with her and the girls.
Thursday, December 20
It was the Live Nativity dress rehearsal tonight. The sight of boxing coach Paul dressed as a shepherd, grim-faced and holding a toy sheep, will make me smile for a long time. He gave me murderous looks.
Friday, December 21
Gareth has had the crazy idea of kneeling down in front of hundreds of people while dressed as Joseph and proposing to his girlfriend (dressed as Mary) in their stable.
‘That’s fine, Gareth, but are you sure she’ll say ‘yes’?’ I asked.
‘Well, we’ve been getting on just lately.’
Saturday, December 22
A couple of hours before the curtain went up on our Live Nativity, I stood outside the church in pouring rain, thinking ‘B****r, what have I done?’
My shepherd’s costume was already soaked, and the sodden streets were empty. But I knew I’d walk those ****ing camels through Hull city centre if it ****ing killed me.
I arrived at City Hall — aka Nazareth — just as a massive articulated lorry was turning in. It took my breath away when three huge, glorious camels trotted out, followed by the sheep and a donkey.
I herded the Live Nativity cast into City Hall. Our wise men were hungover. The shepherds — coaches from the boxing club —were bickering. Outside, Queen Victoria Square was full.
The people looked drenched but expectant, and Neal — in headdress, hessian robe and fingerless gloves — stepped out onto the balcony to begin the narration.
The Angel Gabriel — his gold costume flapping all over his face — sang the first song, Ave Maria. Mary and Joseph acted out all the Nazareth scenes and then we set off to Bethlehem. The boxing coaches led us out, their sheep on leads.
Carving a path through the crowds was precarious — everyone wanted selfies with the camels. The Christmas story was alive and incarnate on the streets.
The procession stopped outside The Bonny Boat pub. Joseph banged on the door. Mary, next to him in a pregnancy suit, going for Oscar glory, was hamming up the contractions. Colin, the landlord, came out at the top window, looking like a grumpy Yasser Arafat.
‘We’d like a room for the night, please — my wife’s about to have a baby!’ Joseph shouted.
‘There’s no room at the inn. Now be on your way!’ Colin shouted back.
Then it was landlord Lee’s turn to appear at the top window of another pub. Looking sick with nerves, he told Mary and Joseph he had a stable round the back.
So we processed into the church car park along with a massive crowd. The second Holy Family — Gareth and Lyndsey and baby Sidney — were already huddled in a makeshift stable. Our choir led us in some traditional carols, and I invited the crowd into church for a cake, a hot drink and a service led by Irene.
‘That leaves just one more thing,’ I said. ‘Joseph has something to ask Mary.’
I passed the mic to Gareth. His hands were violently shaking, like those of an alcoholic in search of his next dram.
He got down on one knee next to the manger, pulled a ring out of his smock and said: ‘This bit’s not in the Bible but could be added in … Lyndsey, I love yer. Will you marry me, please?’
She said yes and burst into tears as he put the ring on her finger. Then this rough-faced, granite-hard welder from East Hull publicly cried his eyes out. The crowd went nuts.
Sunday, December 23
Our candlelit service was packed out tonight. Afterwards I went home and watched It’s A Wonderful Life with Anna.
We wept in each other’s arms. The power of human kindness and generosity never fails to move us.
Sunday, December 30
Gareth and Lyndsey have asked me to marry them next Christmas. They want a Nativity-themed wedding — with live animals…
Adapted by Corinna Honan from Being Reverend by Matt Woodcock, published by Church House Publishing, £9.99. © Matt Woodcock 2020.
To order a copy for £8.49, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £15. Offer valid until November 11, 2020.