Learning the cha-cha and appearing on reality TV is somewhat unusual behaviour for a Church of England priest.
But senior church figures say that celebrity vicars like the Reverend Richard Coles and the Reverend Kate Bottley have made the church more accessible – and contributed to a ten-year high in trainee clergy.
The overall number of new trainees is 544, up from 476 last year – the largest figure in a decade.
New priests are also getting younger, with 28 per cent aged under 32, up from 23 per cent last year.
The Church of England has had a PR boost in recent months with “celebrity vicars” the Reverend Richard Coles and the Reverend Kate Bottley appearing regularly on reality TV and in the media.
Coles is in training for the next series of Strictly Come Dancing and Bottley, who rose to fame on Channel 4 series Gogglebox, has recently been announced as a new Radio 2 host.
The Rt Revd Jan McFarlane, bishop of Repton, who was one of the first women to be ordained by the Church in 1994, said she believed Coles and Bottley had made the church appear more accessible.
“With Richard and Kate, being on Strictly Come Dancing and shows like that, they’ve just come across as human people who happen to have a strong faith,” she said.
“They come across as very normal. So people look at them and think ‘I could do that’.”
She added that historic portrayals of clergy in the media had been “really wet.
“But then we had the Vicar of Dibley who was brilliant but also dippy. And now we’re getting some proper role models.”
The number of women in ordained ministry is also at a record high and more than half of those beginning training this autumn are women.
Of the 544 ordinands – or trainee priests – starting their courses, 274 are women – a 19 per cent rise on last year. The Church now has 5,690 woman priests.
One of those ordinands is Jemima Lewis, 33, a journalist and mother-of-three, who says she has been encouraged by moves to make the priesthood more inclusive to women, such as part-time curacies and courses that fit around childcare.
The course that she is taking in the Winchester diocese allows her to continue her work alongside training, as well as organising childcare and managing the household, as her husband works full time in the organic food industry.
“I think public figures, but also women in my own life, have been important – the curate in my church was a mum of two children but had a busy ministry.
“There’s a higher profile of women as vicars and it seemed a bit more normal that that could happen.
“The bigger sense for me was this feeling that the church appreciates that in order to have the number of women that they need coming through the ranks, they’re going to need to understand more the needs of women with families,” she said.
“Kate Bottley is always talking about her kids and you think ‘she’s got kids and she’s really proud of them and she’s living a domestic life but also her priestly life all in one go’, and I feel like the church is beginning to understand that and change.”
The decision to allow women to become bishops has also influenced younger women into the church, added McFarlane.
“At almost every level men and women are ministering together and that’s for many of us a huge joy.
“So bright and intelligent young women will look at the Church and say ‘I’m not going to be held back any more just because I’m a woman’.”