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Younger vicars and new venues help church move into future

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“It was like looking at the blueprint to my soul,” is how Hannah Barr describes her decision to become a vicar.

At just 26 years old, and a proud feminist, she is combining her training at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford with a doctorate on the theology of sexual consent.

She said being in touch with such of-the-moment issues is one way the church can reach out to those who need it.

“The wider world’s concerns with the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up and generally sexual harassment and gender equality, that is not something which theology has ignored, that has always been intrinsic to theology,” she told Sky News.

“So I’m really excited to be at this moment with wider culture going: ‘actually theology can help’.

“Theology has the tools to answer these questions.”

Fewer of us than ever consider ourselves members of the Church of England (the figure has more than halved in just 15 years, according to the National Centre for Social Research).

But despite this, the number of people under 32 applying to become Anglican priests has gone up by almost a third in the last two years – rising from just under 130 in 2016, to 169 this year.

Hannah Barr is training to be a vicar
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Hannah Barr is training to be a vicar and is combining her training with study

And although Hannah’s focus is up to date, it is the Church of England’s timeless ubiquity that made her want to devote her life to it.

“I love that it is the church of the country,” she said.

“We have the parish system, so wherever you live in England, there is a priest who has been called by God to that place to be there for you no matter what the circumstances… so it might be the great moments of weddings and baptisms, it might be those harder moments of funerals.

“If you are struggling with poverty, or bereavement, or anything, there is somebody there for you.

“That’s a real privilege to be with people at every moment of their life.”

Of course, breaking into a centuries-old, male-dominated institution isn’t without its challenges.

Laura Collingridge, 30, is an ordinand (trainee vicar) at Wycliffe Hall
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Laura Collingridge, 30, is an ordinand (trainee vicar) at Wycliffe Hall

Laura Collingridge, 30, is another ordinand (trainee vicar) at Wycliffe Hall.

“The statistics do show there are more women going into it,” she told Sky News, “but they do still tend to be older.

“So actually as a younger female I do find I feel more in the minority and that’s challenging, having fewer role models to look up to does make it a bit harder.

“Mostly I have found it to be very supportive,” she said.

“It can be tricky in situations where often you’re the youngest person in the room… But I think people are recognising now they need a younger generation to be coming through – there is a huge problem with ageing clergy.”

Despite more younger people making the commitment, the Church of England still faces falling numbers of worshippers in many of its traditional locations. As a result, it has set aside £27m for over 100 new churches, in a drive to “revive the Christian faith in coastal areas, market towns and outer urban housing estates”.

Bristol Diocese has decided to use its £1.49m grant to transform a former railway works building in Swindon, the Pattern Store, into the Pattern Church
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The Pattern Church is aimed at younger worshippers, many without previous church connections

Bristol Diocese has decided to use its £1.49m grant to transform a former railway works building in Swindon, the Pattern Store, into the Pattern Church – aimed at people under 40 who don’t have connections with church.

With confetti canons, guitars and drums, it launched at the beginning of December in a festival-style marquee outside the vast building, which is still being renovated. More than 100 people braved the cold and rain, to sing modern worship songs and enjoy a hog roast.

Reverend Joel Sales, the Pattern Church’s new vicar, said: “For lots of people, when you want to explore faith, you naturally go to a church, you look for a spire.

“But for other people that would be a distraction and make it more difficult to access Christianity. There will be people who might not connect with church but may want to connect with Jesus and be in a different space.

“We’re hoping being in a building that’s not a church in traditional sense will help do that.”

Kayleigh, 24, might be the sort of new congregant Joel is talking about. Struggling with her sexuality as a teenager, she tried church, but says “it didn’t feel like a safe space for me to discover who I was”.

Brought along to the Pattern Church launch by a friend, she was intrigued.

“It’s in a tent – that’s amazing!” she told Sky News.

“The fact that the reverend or pastor was young was also very appealing, because I think he’d relate better than somebody who is older and doesn’t understand the struggles that people in my age bracket are experiencing.

“He said, the outsiders are welcome, you know, so I want to see if that rings true.”

Kayleigh is giving church a try at a new type of worship centre in Bristol
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Kayleigh is bisexual and says she is giving church a try

With just two per cent of 18 to 24 year-olds now describing themselves as Anglicans, the church needs to attract people like Kayleigh.

But Joel denied that setting up new churches is “a last ditch attempt” to ensure Anglicanism survives.

“I just don’t believe that,” he said.

“It is part of a re-imagining of how we do church, in a way that connects with people now.

“Throughout the ages the church has gone up and down in waves, there have been seasons where the church is in a much worse state than now, and then we’ve seen it rise, so our hope and prayer is that we can see it come up again in our time.”

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