A convicted armed robber - who found faith after his arrest – has been appointed as a new vicar in Carlisle.
The Rev Matt Martinson truanted from school from the age of 12, turning to drink and drugs as his life spiralled into one of crime; petty offences escalated to drug dealing, burglary and ultimately armed robbery.
In 1995 he was jailed for 11 years following an armed raid on a post office in York. After serving nearly four years - during which time he drew alongside a prison chaplain and came to faith - he was released and was eventually ordained as a Priest in 2010.
Matt, 44, explained: “I remember being in prison and hearing God say to me ‘One day you will be a vicar’. I burst out laughing saying ‘Didn’t you just hear what the judge has sentenced me to?’
“But it was amazing to grow as a disciple while in prison. I left there knowing what it was to be a Christian and to follow God. The day before I was freed I sent myself a card saying ‘Don’t forget Jesus because he is the one who has got you through all of this’.”
Prior to jail, and in an attempt to move away from a life of crime, Matt had joined the army. It ended badly; he regularly went AWOL and was eventually discharged.
Back in the UK he began to re-offend; his crimes became increasingly more serious leading to the armed robbery. He was eventually arrested after being involved in a car crash in Carlisle, while visiting a friend –just a few miles from where he will soon be ministering.
Matt, who is currently vicar of St John’s Bransholme in East Hull, explained: “At that time I blamed God for everything that had gone wrong in my life. As far as I was concerned it was his fault.
“But before I was arrested I said to him ‘I don’t care if I live or die now but if you get me caught alive, then I will follow you.’ When I was alone in the police cell after my arrest I felt God’s presence and I said ‘Yes’ to him. Immediately so much of the anger and hurt I had bottled up was taken from me; it was amazing.
“I feel very sad about my past life because of all the people I have hurt. If there was some way I could apologise to them, then I would. I understand that would probably mean nothing to them because I ruined people’s lives.
“I can’t change my past but it’s made me who I am today. I struggled to understand how God could forgive me, but one day there was a sudden realisation that he had; the sense of relief was enormous. ”
In 2000 he started a three-year degree course at Bible college despite struggling with literacy, before setting up the Beyond Bars charity to support serving and former prisoners in community training programmes and rehabilitation.
After being accepted for ordination a two-year theological course followed. It was while on the course that Matt woke one morning to find he had no feelings in his legs. Doctors diagnosed a prolapsed disc, trapped sciatic nerve, crumbling spine and pelvis. It means he is now a full-time wheelchair user.
Matt, who is married to Haley and with whom he has a 19-year-old son, Seth, has been appointed as the new Priest in Charge of Carlisle Holy Trinity and St Barnabas Team Ministry and Priest in Charge of St Luke’s. They are set to move to Cumbria in June.
He says he and his family felt called to Carlisle after learning more about the county’s ecumenical God for All vision that by 2020 everybody in Cumbria of all ages and backgrounds will have an opportunity to discover more of God and God’s purpose in their lives.
He added: “We love what is happening in Cumbria through God for All. There is a sense of mission, community and the need to reach out to people. We want to be a part of that.
“I have a real heart for ministering to people who are hurt and lost and, through God’s grace I can reach out to them. It’s through that same grace I now do what I do. It gives hope that no matter what you may have done in the past there is a loving God to turn to.”
The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Rev James Newcome, said: “We are delighted to welcome Matt and his family to their ministry in the city of Carlisle.
“His story demonstrates the amazing healing power that God offers up to us all through his love and grace. Matt, Haley and Seth will all be in our prayers as they prepare for their move to Cumbria.”
Click below to hear Premier’s Northern Correspondent Ian Britton in conversation with Matt