December 10 2013 Latest news:
Tuesday, October 8, 2013
He first came into contact with the church as a prisoner. Today he is a priest. Rowan Mantell talked to a new Norfolk curate about his unusual, and literal, road to faith.
Drink, drugs, arson, burglary, youth custody and prison are not the normal pathway to priesthood. But for new Norfolk curate Martin Hartley they were all on the route from rebel to reverend.
The bearded, tattooed priest is still surprised when he looks in a mirror and sees the dog collar at his neck.
His story of transformation has astonished and inspired parishioners since he arrived in the Tas Valley, near Norwich, this summer. Now he is hoping it will draw more people to the faith which has lit up his life since a conversion experience on a country road.
After leaving school without a single qualification, the teenage Martin spent his free time drinking and smoking weed. “It was nothing too major but one evening we were down by our old school. We’d been drinking and taking other stuff and for some reason I thought it would be good to break into the school – after spending years trying to get out of it!” he said.
“I had a really rough time at school. I went through school wondering why I couldn’t do what other people were doing. I later found out that I was dyslexic but school lost interest in me and I lost interest in school.
“Once I got inside there was this flashback of all the negativity and all the stuff that had gone on there and I started venting a bit of frustration. It began with turning over tables but ended up setting a small fire – and it spread and ended up causing £1m-worth of damage.”
“It was never my intention to start a fire, I just came across a box of matches and threw one on a pile of clothes in the corner of the room,” he explained.
Martin was soon arrested, convicted and sentenced to 2½ years of youth custody.
“I had always been a bit of a tearaway and I think my parents had seen something like this coming. I remember my dad telling me I’d really done it now,” said Martin.
“It was a wake-up call for me. But it was not a frightening experience. My strategy was to keep my head down and do my time.” It was also his first experience of church, but his interest was all about the chance of a couple of hours out of his cell and nothing about his eternal soul.
“Prison was the first time that I had come into contact with church. I decided to go on a Sunday because it was something to do. It was outside the prison and we were marched there. It was a chance to get out of the cell, a nice walk, a change because there was nothing else to do. I always felt comfortable in church but I never understood what it was about, there was no connection in any spiritual way.
“After 16 months I was let out and came back to the same place, going round with the same people, except in some ways I was a bit of local hero because I had burnt down the school. I got taken out, bought drinks and soon found myself with a bit of a drink issue.”
Martin found a job in a supermarket warehouse but said: “The more I was drinking, the more my old feelings of frustration and anger would come back.”
One night he got involved in damaging some cars and breaking into an off-licence to steal alcohol. He was arrested again, and sentenced to six months in prison.
“I do remember, for the first time, thinking I had let myself down,” said Martin.
On his release he found work again, but this time seemed to be turning his life around. He met a local girl and they got engaged, and then married, and had two daughters. But when the little girls were just three and one his wife told him the relationship was over. Martin moved back in with his parents.
“I was drinking a lot, experimenting with harder drugs. I was still working, but when I wasn’t at work, as a machine operator, I was putting something into my body,” he said.
He was arrested again, this time for threatening behaviour, but it was soon recognised that he was having a mental breakdown and instead of a return to prison, he was taken to a secure mental-health hospital unit.
“I came out of there feeling that things were better,” said Martin. “I had been sleeping, I had been eating and could taste my food again, the grass was green again, not grey. But I quickly returned to the same people and to the drink and ended up moving into a caravan with a friend.
“I had always thought there was a bit more to life, something more to me, but I could never find what it was. Eventually I stopped believing there was anything more and just accepted my life for what it was.
“I was drinking, and doing various drugs but I had found some kind of peace. Then one morning I woke up thinking something awful was going to happen to me.
“I told my mate, Phil, that I needed to clear my head and we started to walk up this road to the shop, and as we were walking I began to cry and it was as I was crying that everything I had heard about the Christian life came together and I heard the invitation to give my life to Christianity and I knew that I couldn’t resist. I was filled with an overwhelming sense of love and acceptance.”
Sobbing, astonished, and utterly certain he announced: “I have just become a Christian!”
“Because I had not been out of hospital very long Phil thought I’d flipped!” said Martin.
“In Carterton there is literally a crossroads and I said I couldn’t carry on walking with him, but needed to take the turning back home to my parents.
“A few years before that my parents had started going to the local church and my mum said I needed to talk to the vicar. The next morning I turned up at his door, a 6ft 2in skinhead with tattoos, saying ‘I became a Christian last night.’
“He was absolutely fantastic, invited me in and I went to church that Sunday and just felt at home.”
Martin began attending regularly, his life transformed.
“My role at the factory changed. I was still a machine operator but I became someone that people could come to with problems,” said Martin. “I had felt, very early on, a call to full-time ministry and this became my ministry.”
He met his wife, Rach, at the church.
They have now been married 15 years – but Rach admits her life plan never included a relationship with “a ex-criminal divorced father-of-two!”
She first saw Martin on the day of his baptism. His powerful story moved her to tears, but she was far from a regular church-goer and it was many months before the couple met again.
“I was back living at home after doing a degree and working as a care assistant while waiting for some great job and my mum said to me one evening ‘Do you want to go to a baptism?’ and I said, ‘No! Why would I?’ but as I couldn’t come up with anything else I was doing I went and sat at the back, with attitude! And then I heard this man’s testimony and found the tears running down my face.”
“Even today I still find it astonishing, because he’s the most gentle, humble man.”
Today Rach and Martin have four children, ranging in age from 14 to four. Martin is also still close to his two daughters, and a grandchild, from his first marriage.
And the priest who first welcomed Martin into his church, and then married the couple, is now a close friend – and Norfolk neighbour as the Rev Roger Billings retired to Cromer.
When redundancies hit his Oxfordshire factory, Martin took the chance to train as an evangelist with the Church of England’s Church Army. After a three-year course he qualified as a community evangelist, taking the Christian message out to people not used to attending churches.
Then, with the call to ordained ministry still strong, he trained as a pioneer minister.
He is one of just three pioneer ministers in Norfolk and explained that at least half his time will be spent reaching out beyond the bounds of traditional church.
He was ordained in Norwich Cathedral this summer and is today officially the Rev Captain Martin Hartley – the captain coming from his initial Church Army training.
“Everyone who knew me before would be gobsmacked! Absolutely no-one would have thought of Martin Hartley ending up as a vicar, least of all me!” he said.
Before he arrived Tas Valley team rector Sally Gaze asked some parishioners their views on appointing Martin. “They said, ‘bring it on!’” laughs Martin. Sally said: “We are really delighted to have Martin here. Not only does he bring a great many gifts, but he really knows the difference that Jesus can make in people’s lives and he also really cares about people.”
Martin’s first job was to bike around to every church in the Tas Valley patch to tell his story. He will also be getting involved in local football clubs and has joined the village pub pool team.
“They are aware of my past; they know what I’m about. I get the mickey taken out of me but they seem pleased that someone has bothered to come out to them,” said Martin. “Many churches still have the attitude that people should come to them, rather than the church go out to people.”
“I think people do have spiritual experiences but they don’t necessarily link them to God and my job is to give people an opportunity to do that.
“Having been through drink issues, drugs issues, a divorce, it gives you some sort of way to the realities of what life is like for people and in some ways that can open doors. My past is my past and God wants me to use that for good.”
For Martin the path he took at his home-town crossroads, seconds after that dramatic roadside conversion, has led him to Tasburgh. The bike-loving rev is looking forward to the journey ahead.