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Rector calling time on colourful career

PUBLISHED: 15:04 16 April 2009 | UPDATED: 13:41 03 July 2010

Long link with town: Canon Michael Woods has his final service at St Nicholas' Church, Yarmouth, on Sunday.

Long link with town: Canon Michael Woods has his final service at St Nicholas' Church, Yarmouth, on Sunday.

THE dream of becoming a fighter pilot with the RAF sparked a quarrel with God over a career path, a minister from the Church of England admitted this week.

Canon Michael Woods in full voice for the Nelson Cantata.

THE dream of becoming a fighter pilot with the RAF sparked a quarrel with God over a career path, a minister from the Church of England admitted this week.

Canon Michael Woods, who after 17 years as rector of St Nicholas' Church in Great Yarmouth retires on Sunday, said that while Christianity had been a part of his life from an early age, he wasn't always so devout.

“I went to Sunday school but I found it boring, I was forever being sent out of class,” he said. “Then at some point in my teenage years the whole Christian message suddenly became clear to me and I thought 'people need to know about this'.”

However, another goal in his life would leave him quarrelling with God, and he revealed: “I wanted to be a fighter pilot with the RAF.”

Canon Woods gets a taste of life inside during a trip to Yarmouth Magistrates' Court.

But after seeking the advice of a curate, who had endured a similar battle between God and architecture, the teenager was told it was no good struggling with God “because he has all the cards in his hands.”

Born in Repps, near Potter Heigham, Canon Woods later moved to Yarmouth with his family when his father got a job as a bus driver and went to Yarmouth Grammar School.

His 48-year links with St Nicholas' Church comes to an end on Sunday when he gives his final service. And he recalls with fondness when, at the age of 17, he had led a procession at the re-consecration of St Nicholas' in 1961 after it had been extensively restored after a German bombing raid in 1942.

Next week, Canon Woods, who also leaves his role as chaplain for the Territorial Army, will leave Yarmouth to set up home in Borneo, an island he first visited as a teenager as part of voluntary service with the church.

Canon Michael Woods pictured in the early 1990s

And that trip into the then unknown had left him feeling daunted by challenge - after researching the island at Yarmouth library.

He remembered: “The books mentioned deadly spiders and poisonous snakes, so I hid them underneath my bed, my mother would never have let me go if she'd have seen them.

“But the people there were very friendly and I can remember thinking at the time, I want to spend the rest of my life here.”

After the voluntary service he returned to the UK and to university in London but after completing his studies he went back to Borneo for four-and-a-half years, returning to England in 1975.

Despite wanting to stay on the island, he found himself returning to England and served in parishes at south Norfolk and north Suffolk but soon got itchy feet.

“I felt it was rather idyllic,” he recalled, and applied for a placement in a highly deprived area in Leicester, where during his seven-year stay he was burgled 38 times!

“It was different, but I feel clergymen should have as wider experience as possible,” he said.

During his time in Leicester, he played a fundamental role in building a new church which bridged two communities on an estate plagued by vandals and he also established an army cadet unit.

In 1991, he returned to Yarmouth to become Rector at St Nicholas' Church, where over the last 17 years he has conducted thousands of weddings, baptisms and funerals - and become well known for sharp wit, droll humour and a readiness to laugh out loud.

He recalled: “At the time, the church had fences all around it to stop people being hit by falling masonry. Every time it rained the church looked like a moated castle.”

He said he felt the church's sorry state at the time reflected the feeling in Yarmouth - one of disillusionment.

“Yarmouth had lost its way. The fishing and holiday industries had gone and all the young people wanted to leave the town.”

But pointing to improvements in housing provision and regeneration projects at South Quay, the Golden Mile and the building of the £50m outer harbour, Canon Woods said a new wave of enthusiasm had swept across town.

“Yarmouth has a much greater sense of purpose and the re-establishment of the mayoralty has been very important.”

Recalling some of the events St Nicholas' has hosted in recent years, Canon Woods said the memorial service to Princess Diana and the visit by soldiers from the Royal Anglian Regiment were poignant in his memory.

And he said he could see society's take on the Church changing.

He said: “There has been a gradual decline in Church membership but it's exactly paralleled to voluntary organisations and political parties. It's about an unwillingness of people to commit themselves.

“I have noticed there has been a turning of the tide. The Church has got itself sorted out and society itself is realising the spiritual dimension to life.”

Canon Woods' final service is at St Nicholas' Church on Sunday at 6.30pm.


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