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In England's Churches, Boom In New Recruits Changes Nature Of The Clergy

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The U.K. is not a very religious country, so a surprising trend has caught people's attention. More and more young people in Britain are enrolling in the priesthood. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on what's inspiring that choice.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: When Nate Leveritt told his parents that he wanted to be a priest in the Church of England, he admits they were taken aback.

NATE LEVERITT: I think they see me as quite a wildcard, and so they were surprised that I stuck it out in the church and actually was really passionate about being there and wanting to be involved.

SHAPIRO: Leveritt is 22. He's spending this year as a sort of apprentice at a church in a poor part of East London. When we met him, he was wearing a hoodie, a denim jacket and slim black jeans - more casual than the typical vicar.

LEVERITT: I wasn't very similar to many of the other people my age at church. I had a lot of different interests, and my clothing style was different. And I want to see people like me to be attracted to church as well.

SHAPIRO: Leveritt's mentor and guide for this program is Reverend Jane Hodges. She's been a vicar at this church for five years.

JANE HODGES: Really, the idea is that young people are discerning God's calling on their life. That may be to ordained ministry, but it may be to some other kind of ministry.

SHAPIRO: That may be the key to Britain's jump in new priests. Churches here did not set out to recruit clergy, per se. They did set out to help young people find a path in life.

CHRISTOPHER JAMISON: If every young person is thinking about, what is God calling me to do, more people will find God calling them to the priest and religious life. If you only concentrate on the priesthood, the danger is that people will sense - oh, they're trying to recruit me. I don't like that.

SHAPIRO: This is Father Christopher Jamison. He directs the National Office for Vocation of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. The numbers have been going up in both the Church of England and the Catholic Church.

JAMISON: We'd be talking about moving from in the year 2001 about 22 men entering our seminaries to in the year 2010 over 50 entering.

SHAPIRO: For Catholics, this increase has been pretty steady over the last three popes. The numbers are still much lower than they were at their peak. The church used to get well over 100 new recruits every year, and not everybody who enrolls in the seminary makes it all the way to the priesthood. This increase in young priests is also changing the nature of the clergy.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE PODFATHERS")

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: You're listening to "The Podfathers."

SHAPIRO: On podcasts like this one, priests discuss religious life frankly with a light touch. One priest points out that the other has Father's Day cards on his fireplace mantel.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE PODFATHERS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I take it that's referring to parishioners calling you father.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's the story we'll use.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Obviously, priests can't have children.

SHAPIRO: At the University College London theology department, Professor Marat Shterin studies the Church, though he's not Christian. He says the U.K. has seen so much immigration in the last few years, those new migrants have changed church congregations, making the ministry more challenging and more appealing to young Brits.

MARAT SHTERIN: You have to engage. You have to participate. You have to help. You have to do something about it. It's not like it used to be - established congregations, and the priest would - what he would do is sort of hatch, match and dispatch.

SHAPIRO: Hatch, match and dispatch as in birth, marriage, death - Britain stands out in this trend. Priestly enrollment is not growing much in other parts of Europe or in the U.S. Church officials in Britain say they have been invited to speak in other countries about how this trend might spread a little more widely. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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