As the festive season approaches, we meet Fr Christopher Wood, who talks about his prestigious career in inner city London and his move back to the North
Delighted to have returned to his Lancashire roots and looking forward to his first Christmas as vicar of Waddington and West Bradford, Fr Christopher Wood is a larger than life character, who has become a central figure within these small rural villages and their communities.
Having spent 12 years in Norfolk and many years previously working in central London, Fr Christopher moved to the Ribble Valley earlier this year: “When I saw the job advertised in Waddington, I thought it sounded just perfect!” says Bury-born Fr Christopher who, as a boy, recalls family outings to the Ribble Valley. “I am so pleased to be here,” he says.
Fr Christopher, who studied theology at Oxford, went on to embark on a fascinating career that has seen him work with the homeless in inner city London, with ‘lifers’ and prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs and counselling bereaved families affected by some of the UK’s worst disasters.
His empathy and understanding, his talent for offering sage advice and the total belief that his mission in life is to help people, has given him a unique skillset.
“When I went to Oxford 40 years ago I never thought I would come back to Lancashire,” says Fr Christopher. “I was not 100 per cent sure what I wanted to do at that point. I went up to read law but was offered a scholarship in theology. How different life might have been.”
On leaving university, he worked in central London helping the homeless, initially working for Lord Soper, a Methodist minister who had been radicalised by inner city poverty. Renowned for his soap box speeches at Speaker’s Corner in London, Lord Soper was the first Methodist minister to sit in the House of Lords.
“I worked for him in the middle of London and then I decided I would work in prisons and got a job at Wormwood Scrubs.”
“In the gospel there is a very well-known verse,” he quotes: “‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me’.”
“So, that’s why I decided I would work in a prison. At Wormwood Scrubs I was running workshops for the inmates. I would have to interview every new ‘con’ to find out what their skills were so they could be assigned to one of the workshops. I did it for four years, it was very interesting.”
His work at Wormwood Scrubs led Fr Christopher into the probation service running a hostel for ‘lifers’ in central London: “They were all under curfew so at the end of each day I would lock each of them in their rooms. It was a huge responsibility – you had to be very careful in your judgement as I was working with murderers and hardened criminals.”
Occasionally ‘lifers’ would be released on a special ‘life licence’ by the Home Secretary: “I would visit prisons all over the country interviewing prisoners and making submissions and recommendations,” recalls Fr Christopher.
Returning to working with the homeless, Fr Christopher was made head of hostels at St Mungo’s Association – the UK’s largest provider of homelessness outreach services.
“To be honest, I saw more of the inside of the Treasury! One day, when I was working on a £12million budget, I thought, this is not what I want to do. That’s when the ministry stuff started.”
While still working in London Fr Christopher was on ‘disaster call-up’ – dealing with single incidents where there are 10 or more fatalities. He was responsible for delivering bereavement counselling to the families involved.
He was seconded to the King’s Cross fire in 1987, in which 31 people died, and the Marchioness collision on the Thames in 1989, which killed 51 people.
“My job was to work with the families, I would support them and get them through the inquest process. It was harrowing work.”
Around this time the Foreign Office asked Fr Christopher and the head of the Samaritans to set up a support organisation during the first Gulf War in the early 1990s.
“A lot of people don’t remember the first Gulf War – people were seized as human shields under Saddam Hussein. There was a lot of counselling involved and we also set up a self-help organisation for the families.”
His work in bereavement counselling pushed him further into thoughts of the ministry and in 2005 he was ordained and assigned to running six churches across the Norfolk coast – a far cry from inner city London.
“It is a wealthy part of the coast with lots of society weddings – a bit like the Ribble Valley!”
“One of the churches I had in Norfolk is very well known as it has a cell occupied by Julian of Norwich who, in the Middle Ages, wrote the earliest surviving book in the English language, written by a woman.”
“She is famous for her quote, ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well’.”
“There would be organised pilgrimages to the church, almost every day, from all over the world! It was a very busy time, but it was lovely.”
Earlier this year Fr Christopher decided to make his move north to be nearer his elderly mother, and in February he arrived at St Helen’s in Waddington, where he has become a hugely popular character.
“I always say I am the vicar from ‘central casting’! I look like a vicar I keep my collar on when I go out into the community and into schools.”
“In rural communities like Waddington and West Bradford they understand what a vicar is. A vicar should be very much a central figure within the village. I am very clear that I am here for everyone in my villages, not only church goers. The vicar is one of the elements that holds community together.”
“It’s like that seasonal car sticker, ‘A dog is for life…’ Well, as I see it, the vicar is there for all the important points in your life, not just for Christmas.”
“I hope that Live Ribble Valley readers will find the Christ child reaching out to them this Christmas. My life has been enriched be responding to Him.”