From Great Yarmouth to Borneo

Stephen PullingerPerhaps slightly embarrassed by the fact, Canon Michael Woods admits that it was always going to be a farewell of dramatic proportions after his lifetime connection with Yarmouth.Stephen Pullinger

Perhaps slightly embarrassed by the fact, Canon Michael Woods admits that it was always going to be a farewell of dramatic proportions after his lifetime connection with Yarmouth.

But after a whole series of goodbyes involving the 22 different voluntary institutions in the town he has served - "not to mention all the official bodies and friends dating back to my schooldays" - the final curtain came last night at the town's St Nicholas' Church.

The special service, attended by the Bishop of Thetford, the Rt Rev David Atkinson, marked the end of Canon Woods' 17-year tenure as the Rector of Yarmouth, and his links with St Nicholas', the largest parish church in England, which go back nearly 50 years.

For a clergyman renowned for his strong, individual character and unconventional wit, it is hardly surprising that his retirement will not mean tending roses in the back garden of some Norfolk village.

Rather he will be nurturing tropical bougainvillea, hibiscus and bananas - and his "English-style garden using local plants" will be carved out of the secondary jungle of Borneo.

Canon Woods first made a mental note to return after visiting the world's third-biggest island as a teenager on a voluntary service trip with the church.

Most Read

He had been worried by the prospect of encounters with poisonous spiders and snakes but found the people so friendly that he immediately began thinking, "I want to spend the rest of my life here".

His varied career following his ordination at North Walsham Parish Church in 1967 included a five-year stint in Borneo and it was a life-long relationship with a family forged then that paved the way for his retirement to Kuching - "a city the same size as Coventry" - in the predominantly Christian Sarawak state.

He said: "I arranged for a young student to come here under my sponsorship to study at sixth-form college and go on to do his degree and masters' degree. He now has a doctorate and is lecturing in the US.

"His father said to me, 'We have got no money but I have got land. How many acres do you want?' At the age of 65, I said one acre would do me nicely."

Canon Woods will be staying in temporary accommodation while he oversees the design and construction of his new home about seven miles outside Kuching.

Already a fluent Iban speaker, he is looking forward to continuing his work as an unpaid priest supporting local clergy at the cathedral in Kuching.

Ruefully, he compares the popularity of the church there with the decline in congregations at St Nicholas' that he has witnessed since he was a boy in the 1960s.

"In those days, there were two big services on a Sunday at 9.30am and 11am with 100 to 200 people attending each of them. Now we get an average of 80 people at one service.

"In Kuching, so many young people go to services that they have to put their motorbike crash helmets on a special shelf at the back of the cathedral because there is no room to place them alongside them in the pews," he said.

However, he is reassured by his belief that the Church over here is not doing anything fundamentally wrong to deter young people. "If anything, the sermons in Borneo are even longer and more boring," he said.

Rather he feels the Church has been afflicted, like other institutions, by "post-modernist thinking that we do not have to commit in any way to anything".

He said: "In a society where heroes are now too often people famous for just being famous, it becomes difficult for any institution that requires commitment from people."

Canon Woods also attacked the general level of religious education teaching.

He said: "It is absolutely crucial religious education is taught properly in school - not just a little bit on each religion.

"People who understand their religion deeply can understand other people's religion too, but a shallow concept of Christianity can lead to xenophobia and chauvinism."

But Canon Woods nevertheless feels the future for the Church in this country is looking more positive and is proud of the example St Nicholas' has set in "becoming part of the community and contributing to it".

With restoration costs in his time topping �150,000, he admits the church could have become a millstone, but it had been turned into an asset for everyone.

It had become a "building of size and dignity to enhance all manner of occasions", from the homecoming of Royal Anglian soldiers and Battle of Trafalgar celebrations to Yarmouth College graduation parades and last year's memorial service for teenager Simon Everitt.