As a non-churchgoer, former Daily Mail and Yorkshire Post journalist John Woodcock was baffled and angry when his son Matt revealed he was leaving his successful career as a newspaper reporter to work for the church. This was John's perspective.
At some point in his mid to late teens, and without much hope of a positive response, I suggested to Matthew that as a possible career he might consider following me into journalism. My pessimism was well founded. He didn’t disappoint. “What, and become as messed-up as you,” was the gist of his reply. The stress of meeting deadlines, the disruption to family life in response to breaking news, the over-indulging with like-minded colleagues which became an excuse for dealing with the pressures….yes, I could see his point.
Several years later, and after the experience of drifting in and out of humdrum jobs following university, Matthew saw the light. Being a newspaperman might not be so bad after all. He joined a journalism course in Sheffield and I well remember our Saturday mornings in a café in York discussing what he’d learned during the week. Invariably we argued because within a week or two he was rejecting my advice and telling me how best to write notional articles based on information supplied by his tutors.
I like to think that some of what I suggested took root because he completed the course successfully and on the strength of it got a job, initially for a trial period, on the evening paper in his home town. I will be forever grateful to the woman editor and her female news editor who gave him that chance, though my joy was muted by doubts that he had the temperament for the demands of the job. At that time he was a complicated mixture of naivety, communication skills, excessive enthusiasm, anxiety and good sense. As it turned out, becoming a reporter was the making of him. He was helped considerably by being sent to a branch office serving an earthy town where, without the emotional input of father, he learned much from a no-nonsense but generous hack of the old school.
Once he’d grasped the basics I saw Matt’s self-confidence flower as he confronted and coped with a range of situations few people experience in the course of their working week. For example: thinking fast on how best to handle a roomful of bereaved relatives, stepping through the legal minefield involved in covering a court case, interviewing the German ambassador, and being summoned by the city’s most influential company boss who arrived in his chauffeured car to give the favoured young upstart with a dodgy shorthand note yet another exclusive article.
It wasn’t just about news-gathering. A newspaper office is a diverse collection of individuals from all backgrounds. In those days, certainly, it was the richest of workplaces, not in terms of financial rewards, but in providing an almost unique form of social democracy. The public school and Oxbridge-educated covered the latest dramas alongside those from comprehensives. If you could get the facts and write them, background counted for nothing. Matt also discovered the value of local contacts. He recruited and encouraged many of his friends as unofficial correspondents. They became his eyes and ears on their streets, producing an endless stream of stories for the paper, many of which made it into the national media. As he continued to flourish, eventually he was given a weekly column. Imagine a young man having the freedom to write about almost anything that takes his fancy, subject to the laws of libel, and knowing that thousands will read it and sometimes react accordingly.
It seemed to me that Matt could go as far as he wanted in journalism, which is why I was mortified when he announced that his ambition was taking a wholly different direction. His Christianity had never been a secret and 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. To sacrifice so much potential for the sake of what sounded to me like an obscure role in his local church was to me a grotesque backward step. An abandonment of real life. How could he discard such promise in the wider world for something so ill-defined and limiting? And, if I’m honest, I was hurt that he was turning his back on a job that had brought me great benefits too. In a way I saw his decision as a kind of rejection of my own values. It wasn’t my finest moment. I was so upset I refused to attend his leaving party at the paper, regarding it as anything but a celebration.
As things have turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. He’s used the skills and gifts which found an outlet in his journalism to promote his faith in many positive ways – not least in helping to establish an annual beer festival in Hull’s principal Anglican church. A perfect example, perhaps, of how a one-time reporter and God can work together in – almost – perfect harmony.
I don’t begin to understand the depth of Matt’s spirituality. All I know is that his story and the journey he’s taken is a kind of personal parable: the son who teaches the father.
Becoming Reverend: A diary is out now priced £9.99. To buy a copy log-on to www.becomingreverend.com Follow Matt on Twitter @revmattwoodcock