Matt Woodcock: Keeping the faith in power to change life

IF Hull’s recent Freedom Festival was anything to go by, its new-found status as the UK City of Culture for 2017 is fully justified.

Record crowds of more than 115,000 poured into the historic former fruit market and impressive marina area for a dazzling potpourri of music, dance, art and theatre.

Since its birth in 2007, the Festival has always found creative ways to honour Hull-born slavery abolitionist William Wilberforce, and those other great heroes of freedom like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and, most notably this year of his passing, Nelson Mandela.

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From my priest’s-eye perspective, however, this cultural extravaganza was missing one thing, and it’s another f-word – faith.

As far as I could see, there was no official mention of it, or recognition of it as the key motivating factor behind the great efforts of Wilberforce, Dr King and others. For these men, the fight for freedom and justice was inextricably linked to and an outworking of, their Christian faith. Perhaps something for the festival organisers to ponder, then, but they are not alone.

Faith has become something of an awkward word in large swathes of public life. Political, civic and cultural leaders seem far more reluctant to bring it into the conversation. It can have consequences – as the Prime Minister knows only too well.

There was an outcry in some quarters when David Cameron recently described Britain as ‘a Christian country’. It followed much scoffing and scorn from his opponents when he earlier admitted that his ‘Big Society’ initiative of volunteering and civic responsibility was inspired by the Bible and teachings of Jesus.

Cameron aside, it seems to be the safer option these days – certainly in the maelstrom of political and public life – to say ‘we don’t do God’ as Alastair Campbell once reportedly told an interviewer on Tony Blair’s behalf.

Well, as a man who does God for a living, I think a far more interesting question to consider is why people do God in the first place? What difference does faith actually make?

From our perspective at Holy Trinity, we seldom encounter a reluctance or nervousness from people when it comes to faith matters. Far from it. Rarely can my clergy colleagues and I get a haircut, do a shop or order a pint in Hull city centre without someone asking something like: What happens when I die? Why does God allow suffering? Will you pray for Hull City? Our dog collars are like magnets for the big questions of life.

Attempting a coherent answer with a mouth still full of pattie and chips is a skill I’m yet to master.

Interestingly, the question I’m most often asked is not “does God exist?” but rather “does God work?”

Just last week a young mum who is currently dipping her toe in the waters of faith, told me: “It’s not so much that I don’t believe in God, but why should I? What difference would it make?”

Another guy I met recently revealed that despite earning a good living, owning a big house, and enjoying the company of his dream woman, he felt empty and lost inside. He had no sense of purpose or inner peace.

“I’m wondering whether God might be able to help?” he asked me. These are not isolated cases.

Ironically, for many spiritual seekers, the prospect of finding answers inside a church on Sundays is just too daunting. They can be intimidating buildings and sometimes, sadly, what’s found inside can be more so. Yet for all its flaws, and on its best days, the church is for many people a community of hope. A place where thirsts for truth, meaning, comfort and peace are sated. A place where ordinary people meet with God – and are transformed.

Don’t take my word for it, however.

In his new book, Hope Stories, the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, presents 20 compelling examples of faith in action and the power of hope.

He is more than qualified to write such a work as his own hope story is in itself remarkable. Sentamu was forced to flee to Britain after suffering torture and imprisonment as a consequence of speaking out against the brutal regime of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. He is now one of our most refreshing, vocal and inspiring leaders and defenders of the Christian faith.

The book (which follows the success of his first offering, Faith Stories), features the account of 20 people who have suffered all manner of trials and tribulations, ranging from drink and drug addiction to cancer, bereavement and debt.

What unites them, though, is that no matter how daunting, or desperate their situations became, their faith – to quote Dr King –was able “to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope”.

Shaun’s story reads like a modern-day parable. Living a relatively normal life with a steady job in a warehouse, by his early thirties he had become an alcoholic and was sleeping rough in York. Constantly on the move between the streets, and psychiatric hospitals, Shaun attempted suicide several times. Redemption gradually came after he was offered a place at a Salvation Army Hostel. Shaun regained some inner strength and self-belief and began to turn his life around. He also found faith and was baptised earlier this year.

Shaun – and the 19 others in this book – believe they are living evidence that faith works. It has given them a renewed sense of hope and purpose.

Faith-filled hope, Sentamu argues, “is much more than a vague longing about how the future might be. Hope is the certainty that comes out of an encounter with Jesus Christ”.

Relegating faith to the shadows of public and cultural life, dismissing it as too awkward or potentially incendiary, surely fails to recognise how it can ‘work’ – for the individual and society as a whole. Look no further than the likes of Wilberforce, Dr King, Sentamu and now Shaun. In finding faith they found hope, and, to quote the poet Robert Frost, “that has made all the difference”.

* The Rev Matt Woodcock is a minister at Holy Trinity Church, Hull. Sentamu’s Hope Stories is published by Darton, Longman & Todd. The book launch and signing takes place with the Archbishop on Friday, October 10, from 1-3pm at St Michael-Le-Belfry Church, York.