Matt Woodcock was driving on the A19 to Selby when he heard God’s voice calling him.
As it happens, I was driving on that same road when I heard a voice calling me, although it wasn’t God speaking but Matt.
One moment the Reverend Richard Coles was on BBC Radio Four, and the next Reverend Matt had shouldered him out of the way thanks to the hands-free Bluetooth connection with my mobile phone.
Matt was phoning to arrange a time for this interview. We used to work on the same newspaper a while ago. In those days, Woody was a good reporter, adept at prising out quirky stories.
He was a boisterous presence in the newsroom: loud, quarrelsome and competitive, a footie-loving Oasis obsessive, tiring but great fun. Mostly he kept his thoughtful side hidden.
His Christianity was no secret but nothing much about Matt stays secret for long. In his new book, Becoming Reverend, A Diary, Matt spills all sorts of truths about his trials as a trainee vicar, while also attempting against the odds to become a dad – “High energy. Low sperm count”, as the publicity material puts it.
Matt’s “road to Selby” moment is recounted early on and recalls a day when he was driving to Selby Magistrates’ Court and experienced “an overwhelming sense that God had something urgent he wanted to tell me. Either that or someone had spiked my Pot Noodle”.
His diary is like that – devout and raucous, funny and serious, earthy and spiritual. It charts events in 2009 as Matt moves between his vicar training at Cranmer Hall in Durham and the heartache he and his wife, Anna, were suffering at the time.
“We couldn’t have kids and it was an awful time and we were really, really struggling, and then the Selby moment happened and it was just surreal,” says Matt, as we sit down to chat.
Matt’s mother is friends with a nun from the Bar Convent in York. “Sister Cecilia [Goodman] pops up now and again,” he says. “When I am in crisis, I go and see her.”
Sister Cecilia suggested Matt should record some of his experiences in a diary. “There will be periods in your life when you doubt all this calling stuff,” she told him.
Becoming Reverend duly presents the wobbles and the triumphs, the highs and the lows of his daily and spiritual life. “The lows to me are as important as anything else because it’s real life,” says Matt.
He has enough self-knowledge to acknowledge when he has been wrong. “I am very aware of mistakes that I make and stupid things that I say and ways I’ve messed up,” he says.
Two pieces of advice he received before starting stick in his mind. A congregation member said: “If you are not willing to tell the truth, to go there when it’s awful and difficult and embarrassing, then you shouldn’t be writing this book.”
And a priest he trusts asked if his book would bring glory to God. “I hope it does, but it might not be what people expect a vicar to write, but it’s true to me.”
He is anxious about how his diary will be received. “I know this will get knocked, I know there are people within the church who will hate this book. What I would say to those people is, ‘This is my truth so you tell yours’ – the old Manic Street Preachers thing.”
This tale of priesthood and fatherhood has a happy ending, in the sense that Matt is now a vicar at Holy Trinity Church in Hull and father to five-year-old twins, Heidi and Esther. He says being a dad is the hardest thing he’s ever done because he knows that the job he does, and loves, can push family into the background. “Doing ministry like I do, it’s 120 per cent and a 100mph and often your family can get the dregs.”
His book casts the twins as a miracle from God. But, to ask a sceptical question, was that miracle from God or science?
“That’s a very good question,” Matt says. “I’ve reflected on this. It’s a big word, miracle, isn’t it? All I do know is our IVF had failed twice and we were in the pits of despair and all seemed lost. At that point the one hope we clung to was our prayers and other people’s prayers.
“The miracle for me wasn’t just that we had kids, but that somebody was prepared to pay for that.” A donor who wishes to remain anonymous paid for two courses of IVF treatment.
Matt is a pioneer minister at Holy Trinity, the largest parish church by area in the country.
“It’s huge, I call it God’s aircraft hangar, it’s massive,” says Matt. “And it’s a stunning place to be in. William Wilberforce was baptised there. It’s 700 years old and it’s full of history. But five years ago, it was like this massive blind-spot in the middle of Hull.”
Congregations had dwindled, there was little community impact and this huge church wasn’t being used. Matt was sent in as “a last throw of the dice” to see if things could be turned around.
In this role, he works with the Rev Canon Doctor Neal Barnes – his boss – and the Rev Irene Wilson, “Those two have loved me and protected me and shaped me,” he says.
The church in Hull’s old town is now on the up, and helping to revive its fortunes has been a “huge adventure” for Matt. “My role was to get the building used by the community and to start getting out where the people are.”
That’s where the similarities with reporting lie. “I look back now and see what God was doing. My whole job was going out and foraging for stories and meeting all kinds of people and trying to engage them and find out about their lives. And that’s been the same at Holy Trinity.”
One of his early successes was bringing beer into the church. “The Camra people were lamenting about how the City Hall was too hot for the beer and too small,” Matt says. “One of the landlords I’d got to know said, ‘Have you tried asking that new crazy vicar at Holy Trinity?’”
Now the annual beer festival attracts 4,000 people over three days. “It put us on the map.”
In newspaper terms, the 41 year-old is what you might call a tabloid vicar. He believes that the Church of England has ordained a generation of “wonderful clergy” who “speak the language of Radio Four and Question Time and Gardeners’ World brilliantly.
“Unfortunately, we are not so good at speaking the language of Coronation Street and Ant and Dec and Match of the Day, and that’s the language that I kind of speak and the people around me. That’s why there can be this disconnect between the church and the people.”
In his diary, Matt takes his first steps as a vicar – a role he is learning still about. “This job has aged me,” he says, indicating his grey hair. “I had lovely nut-brown hair at the start of this journey, now I look like Moses.”
Becoming Reverend, A Diary, published by Church House Publishing, is out now priced £9.99.
Reporter turned man of the cloth
Matt Woodcock comes from York and worked for seven years as a reporter on the Press newspaper.
He is the son of John Woodcock, a former feature writer on The Yorkshire Post, who also worked for the Daily Mail.
Holy Trinity Church will be renamed Hull Minster next year and is being transformed thanks to an ambitious £4.5 million project. It will host around 80 events as part of Hull UK City of Culture 2017.
Matt is married to Anna and has twin daughters, Esther and Heidi.
Talking about his inspiration, Matt said: “I try to do ministry like Jesus. That sounds so crappy to say. But I see how he related to people and try to be a bit like that every day. And that’s very simplistic I know.”