FOR Saul of Tarsus, it was on the road to Damascus that divine revelation struck.

For Matt Woodcock, it happened a little closer to home. On the A19 to Selby, to be precise.

The cheeky-chappie young York Press reporter was on his way to cover a case at Selby Magistrates Court.

Suddenly he was overcome: not by a flash of heavenly light exactly, but by a dizzy feeling.

He pulled into a layby to try to pull himself together.

“And as strange as it sounds, I felt an overwhelming sense that God had something urgent he wanted to tell me,” he writes in a new book, Becoming Reverend, that will be published next month. “Either that, or someone had spiked my pot noodle.”

Why God chose that day, that moment, that stretch of road, he doesn’t know. But he knew he had been called. “I felt this great wave of love for people, and of God for me,” he says.

His colleagues at The Press thought he was joking when he said he was quitting to devote his life to spreading the word of God. In fact, we thought he was bonkers.

Woody, as everyone knew him, was the office prankster: a bundle of hyperactive enthusiasm and puppyish eagerness who was always getting into trouble but who also won a legion of friends.

It was Woody who cut a colleague up on his bike during a race on the way to work, and who rushed into the office yelling: “She’s going to come in through those doors in a minute, and she’s going to go ga-ga!” Sure enough, she did.

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Prankster: Matthew 'Woody' Woodcock in his days as a young Evening Press reporter

It was Woody who used to celebrate as though he’d won the Premier League every time he scored a goal for The Press’s five-a-side team (which admittedly wasn’t known for scoring many goals). And it was Woody who, using his extensive network of local contacts (OK, his old school mates), would come up with some of the most oddball stories probably ever published in the pages of the newspaper.

There was the one about Jackson the Labrador, who wouldn’t go upstairs because he was afraid of ghosts. “Jackson the Labrador is driving his owners potty - by refusing to go walkies up the stairs,” Woody wrote, under the headline Haunted Hound.

And there was the one about The Domestic Fowl Trust’s cruelty warning to the owners of noisy cockerels.

“Don’t put socks on those cockerels! That was the advice today from wildlife organisations,” Woody wrote, explaining how the owners had previously been advised to put socks on the birds’ heads to muffle the sound they made.

It was also Woody who broke the news that Gladiator star Russell Crowe had been spotted in York – a story he got hugely excited about, running from desk to desk in the newsroom to tell every reporter individually what a great exclusive he’d got.

But he was also, as it happens, a natural journalist. “He had a real eye for a story,” says Chief Reporter Mike Laycock, who was himself the butt of many of Woody’s practical jokes.

“He would pick up more human interest stories than anybody else – mainly because he knew more people than anyone else! He had this huge network of friends in Acomb.”

One of Woody’s most famous exclusives was the story of Ratty the bus-hopping terrier. Ratty used to regularly hop on to a Number Ten bus to ride to the Black Bull pub in Hull Road, where a barmaid would feed him sausages. The story made global headlines – and a Japanese TV station even sent a crew to York to film Ratty making his journey.

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Hardened newshound: Matthew Woodcock took the Evening Press campaign against 'Son of Star Wars' all the way to Washington

But Woody could also tackle the serious issues.

He wrote about bullying in school; and proposals to stop providing certain drugs to people in the early stages of Alzheimers. He campaigned long and hard to keep York’s iconic Odeon cinema open. And he flew to Washington, to take the Evening Press’s campaign to ‘Say No to Son of Star Wars’ – the US missile defence system in which Fylingdales was to play a key part – all the way to the Pentagon.

This was the young man who suddenly, in 2007, told us he was quitting to join the church.

We couldn’t believe it. And neither could his dad, the former Daily Mail and Yorkshire Post journalist John Woodcock, who still lives in York.

“It seemed to me that Matt could go as far as he wanted in journalism,” John wrote in a blog.

“When he told me he was abandoning a career that was giving him so much in earthly terms to work on behalf of God, I felt it almost as a slap in the face. My face.”

We needn’t have worried. Because what we should have known was that Woody was always going to remain Woody, whether writing about haunted Labradors for The Press or, as the Rev Matt Woodcock, hosting a beer festival in his church in Hull.

Yes, he believes passionately in spreading the word of Christ, he says. But he also believes in having a laugh. In fact, he thinks the church could do a much better job if it was willing to loosen its stays occasionally.

The Church of England can be a bit Radio 4 and Gardener’s Question Time, he says. There’s nothing wrong with that. “But it doesn’t speak the language of my mates, who are into Coronation Street, the X-Factor and Oasis.”

He was determined that, if he went into the Church, he wouldn’t lose his sense of humour.

“Charlie Chaplin said a day isn’t a proper day without a few laughs,” he says. “What does it say about me and my faith if I have a face like a slapped backside?”

Still the same Woody, even if he does wear a dog collar these days.


Becoming Reverend tells the story of Matt Woodcock’s journey from journalist to very unconventional C of E vicar.

Quitting The Press proved an enormous wrench, he admits. “I loved being a journalist – the drama, the newsroom atmosphere. I had some of the happiest years of my life on The Press.”

It wasn’t only his dad who took it hard: his wife Anna was deeply upset at first – though both came around.

Matt told Anna on the night of his ‘road to Selby’ moment of revelation, and after talking things over with the vicar of his local church, St Paul’s in Holgate.

“She was furious,” he says. “We’d just got a mortgage, we were trying for kids, things were going along very nicely.”

But that call from God was too strong to resist. He left The Press in 2007. For a while, he did community work for his church, St Paul’s. Before long, he was combining that with a part-time role as new media editor for the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu.

Eventually, he went to ‘Vicar School’ – Cranmer Hall in Durham. After completing his training, he was ordained by Dr Sentamu at the Minster in 2012.

Today, he is ‘Pioneering Minister’ at Holy Trinity Church in Hull.

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Rev Woodcock hosting a beer festival in Holy Trinity Church, Hull

It is physically the largest parish church in England, he believes. But while it was big, when he was appointed five years ago the congregation was rapidly declining, and nowhere near able to fill the huge building.

“It was like a sleeping giant,” he says. “The congregation was very elderly, and had dwindled to a handful.”

He was given a licence to try new things – and that’s exactly what he did.

He found himself standing on podiums in nightclubs at 3am, asking people to come to church – and now has rock bands performing in Holy Trinity.

When it became clear that Hull City Hall was both too small and too warm to host the city beer festival, he offered to hold it in the church. “I said, ‘come and do it here, because the church is freezing!’ The festival is now a massive success. We have people queuing outside the door!” he says.

And when he and his colleagues were looking for something different to do to celebrate Christmas, he suggested a “living Nativity” – complete with real camels. Everyone laughed. But guess what? He only went and found a company which could hire out a camel; and it was the star of the living nativity which walked through the middle of Hull’s busiest shopping street.

Even today, some people are shocked at the way he does things, he admits. But he believes he has to be true to the person he is. “That’s who God called.”

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Camels on the streets of Hull for the 'Living Nativity'

Becoming Reverend is essentially an edited version of the diary he kept throughout the two-and-a-half years between starting at what he calls “vicar factory” and taking up his job at Holy Trinity. It is a typically hilarious and yet at times quite poignant read. Because the thing about Woody – sorry, The Rev Matt Woodcock – is that he never holds back.

“Meet Woody,” says the blurb on the back jacket. “Former journalist. Die-hard Oasis fan. High energy. Low sperm count. Training to be a vicar. Obviously.”

And yes, he really does write about his low sperm count.

He’s now the proud father of two five-year-old twin girls, Heidi and Esther. But it wasn’t easy for him and Anna to conceive. There were two sessions of IVF, and at one point he was taken aside by a doctor with what he calls a “terrible bedside manner” who told him: “If I was a betting man, I would say you will have to do without children.”

Too much information about that low sperm count? No. “If I’m having a bad day, I will write about it,” he says. “For me, God only does real life.”

  • Becoming Reverend by Matt Woodcock will be published by Church House Publishing on November 3, priced £9.99

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