He describes himself as a bit of a punk, he’s known as the ‘cycling vicar’ and he delivers morning prayers every week outside pubs in Marsden and Slaithwaite.
One thing is for certain. Graeme Holdsworth isn’t your average man of the cloth.
To give him his full title the Rev Graeme Holdsworth is the Interim Vicar of Marsden and Slaithwaite with East Scammonden. Put simply, he’s a vicar on a mission – to get people thinking.
Graeme was appointed at St Bartholomew’s in Marsden and St James’ in Slaithwaite in February last year, just before the pandemic struck.
The two villages both pride themselves on being a bit “different” – but in a good way. And so is Graeme. You could say it’s a match made in…heaven.
“I am so blessed to be here,” said Graeme. “I come from the South and the East and I never realised places like Marsden and Slaithwaite existed.
“They are amazing places – the friendliness of the people and the beauty of the surroundings.
“The community spirit in Slaithwaite and the bonding with people in Marsden are something I have never come across anywhere else.”
Graeme, 49, married to Carol, is a scientist and analytical chemist by background. He worked in chemistry and IT for 20 years.
Originally from London, he went to university in Hull and didn’t become a Christian until he was in his early 30s.
“That caught me by surprise,” he said. “I didn’t really think about God or faith.”
It was only when he and Carol attended a mother and toddler group at a church that Graeme slowly started to discover God.
Science and faith are not exclusive. “Religion and science are different maps which explain the world,” said Graeme.
“Science might explain why the earth goes round the sun but it doesn’t tell you if there’s any point to that other than random chance. Faith is about understanding a little bit more about the why.”
Eventually Graeme gave up a lucrative career to train for six years to become a vicar.
By 2020 he was fully-qualified and looking for his first position. He’d studied in Durham and trained in the Hull area and expected to stay but there were no vacancies. Instead he looked further afield.
He scoured the Church of England vacancies and at first ignored the “interim” opportunity at Marsden and Slaithwaite “because I wanted to be a proper vicar!”
He’d promised himself he would read about every role so he back-tracked and delved into the “interim” job and found an inspiring message from the Bishop of Huddersfield.
The two parishes have huge churches holding between 800 and 1,000 people – but the congregations were down to 30 or 40 each.
The three-year interim role was aimed at growing the local Christian community, if not growing the size of the church-going congregations.
READ MORE: There’s something about Slaithwaite
“The Bishop said he had a belief that the churches had real potential to reach people in a fresh way, that we could help people who had looked at the church with scepticism and talk about God in a different way,” said Graeme.
“I am a punk, an Indie kid from the 1980s. I am more interested in joy, fun and chaos. I didn’t want to be a vicar as usual, I wanted to be a creative vicar. I want to communicate the good news in a way which cuts through the crap.
“I can be ridiculously bold rather than meekly stand in a church. I could find myself standing on a street corner filming myself preaching or I could be praying outside the pub.
“Rather than hiding in a stone sarcophagus I could be out there. If people are curious and ask me questions, it’s healthy, at least they are thinking.
“If my presence helps people to pause their day and think ‘yes, I wonder…’ then that is what it’s about.”
When he read the words of the Bishop, Graeme immediately knew this was the job he wanted – and he got it.
He was bowled over by the scenery and the welcome from the community. But no sooner had he arrived than so did the Covid-19 pandemic. Maybe this was why he was meant to be here.
“When lockdown came we wanted to make sure we didn’t go into hiding,” said Graeme. “One of the first things I did was to close the old church websites and create a new one for both churches.
“Not everyone has the internet so I made sure that when the BBC broadcast their service that we all watched at the same time. Even if we weren’t together everyone knew we were all there and we were all praying at the same time.
“Then I started to write my sermons and emailed them out. For those without the internet I would print them out and cycle round delivering them. Very early in lockdown I was the only person some people would see. I would speak to anyone I saw outside.
“As time went on people started phoning each other, they got better with Zoom and got better connected. I also recorded an audio of my sermon on SoundCloud.”
Graeme even took morning prayers out of the churches. He wanted to hold a “morning prayers and breakfast” at a local café but lockdown restrictions put paid to that so he decided to hold prayers outside the Riverhead Brewery Tap in Marsden on a Monday and The Commercial in Slaithwaite on a Friday instead.
There’s usually three books to juggle when it comes to morning prayers – but the church has an app for that, which helps no end.
“At first I could see people looking and thinking: ‘What’s that weirdo doing?’ but now people come up and talk to me and those conversations become part of morning prayer.”
Graeme sees subtle differences in the communities of Marsden and Slaithwaite but he added: “What they both have going for them is that no one is going to be left out or abandoned. This is not the church, this is the community themselves. The church is not a powerhouse, it is much more humble.
“There is a co-operative nature to see the good side of humanity. You see it in bucketloads in these villages.
“It’s not for me to say: ‘Repent. The end of the world is nigh.’ Here people are helping each other and my question is to ask if there is anything I can do in a prayerful way or can God help?”
Graeme wants to make people think. “Some may say God is all made up, it’s fairytale stuff,” he said. “People ask why bad things happen to good people.
“It’s all about free will. If people were wrapped up in cotton wool and bad things never happened it would be no life.
“If there was no risk in going sledging where’s the fun? It’s not God’s fault you’ve broken your leg.
“If God proved he exists by sticking his bearded head through the clouds and stomps over everyone all that freedom is gone.”
The church congregations of Marsden and Slaithwaite are dwindling and the enormous old buildings are expensive to maintain.
The “interim” vicar’s salary is paid for by the wider church. Graeme is almost a missionary in Marsden and Slaithwaite.
If the Bishop has given Graeme just three years to “save” Marsden and Slaithwaite, what is success?
“It will be some kind of recognisable engagement of people with the Christian faith,” said Graeme. “We will know if it’s going in the right direction.”
So if you see Graeme out and about why not stop and have a chat? He’d be happy to meet you.