The Vicar of Dibley stars in a new C of E film to persuade youngsters to join the clergy. Graeme Paton reports
One is a chocolate-guzzling, joke-cracking vicar trapped in a parish of idiots. The other is a weary local priest who gives fire and brimstone sermons to tame his town of heathens.
Now two of TV's most famous fictional ministers - the BBC's Vicar of Dibley and the Reverend Lovejoy from The Simpsons - are being put to work in British schools. Both feature in a new film launched this week to encourage pupils to try a career in the Church of England.
Religious leaders believe the appearance of figures such as Dawn French's eccentric vicar will rid the clergy of its stuffy image and help to solve recruitment problems. The move comes amid growing concern over the lack of young people applying for a job in the Anglican church. In 1970, 73 per cent of people recommended to be ordained were under 30, against just 12 per cent in 2004.
The Manchester diocese has produced a 30-minute DVD to be shown in schools, which promotes a life in the church.
In it, children at Bury C of E high, where the film was launched, are asked to describe a typical parish priest.
One says most clergymen only work "one day a week", another says they are obsessed with drinking tea, while other pupils brand them as "dull, boring, middle-aged".
The film, which the Manchester diocese hopes to show in nearby non-denominational schools and other Anglican schools, then cuts to real clergy who speak about the joys and challenges of the job.
The Rev David Sharples said the film was dotted with sketches featuring characters such as the Vicar of Dibley and Father Ted, the hapless Roman Catholic priest, to show the church could appreciate a joke. He said:
"Children, even those in faith schools, who should be regular churchgoers, have an amazing ignorance of what a vicar does.
"Other professions would be able to go into a secondary school and make a pitch relaying the virtues of a particular career. But in the church, even though we have access to many schools, we never really talk to pupils about public ministry and allow them to consider it as a career."
The Anglican church has long-standing concerns about falling attendances, with a recent report warning of tiny congregations in 30 years' time.
In recent years more parishes have been forced to share priests because of falling numbers of both clergy and congregations. Between 1990 and 2000 the number of full-time clergy in parishes and dioceses dipped from more than 11,000 to 9,500.
Terry Sanderson, vice-president of the National Secular Society, said: "The Church of England is exploiting its access to children."