'They do quiz nights and dating. Why not a debate about Jesus?'

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The Independent Online

"The pub is like the modern-day confession box," says Martin Kadhim, a 30-year-old business manager from Devon. "Say I've got a problem, I'm having a hard time at work, I've got someone pregnant – I'll come to the pub, see my mates and talk about it. If there happened to be a vicar there, it might offer a fresh perspective."

His beer had been interrupted by the Rev Paul Dawson of St Andrew's, Chelsea, in the Cross Keys pub in west London. The good Reverend was following the advice issued yesterday by the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, right, who urged men of the cloth to head to their local boozers to reach a new audience. The first pub that Mr Dawson headed to refused to let him speak to any of the clientele and sent him away.

"It is a fantastic idea," he said as he walked out, the bar door swinging shut behind him. "But sadly there are many people who are disillusioned by the church. They are interested in discussion and debate, though. It's just that they don't see the church as the place to do it. If we can engage with those people, then we've got potential."

At his next stop, the Cross Keys, he met Mr Kadhim, out with friends. Mr Dawson's opener? He explains that Jesus spent lots of time at parties – so much in fact that other religious people accused him of being a drunkard. The ladies seem to like this. "Bet he was the most interesting bloke there," says one.

Clutching his soft drink, Mr Dawson admits: "I would have something stronger, but I have a service later."

Warming up the punters seems to be the main stumbling block. "How do you get started?" wonders Julie Feldman from Denver, Colorado, a Christian who, with her husband, Joel, is about to travel to Israel for Easter. "Do you say, 'Hi, can I buy you a beer and chat about Jesus?'"

"You have to be careful," adds Joel, a banker. "You can't start coming into a bar at happy hour and saying, 'Hey do you want to talk about God?' But pubs are such an important part of the culture here. They're doing quiz nights, dating, everything. A discussion about Jesus – why not? I think people would come."

Luke Townsend, a 31-year-old business manager, says: "If a vicar pitches up to a pub at seven in the evening, there'll be guys trying to chat up girls, and that's hard enough as it is. Now there's a vicar ... I mean, religion is not a light topic."

Anne Shaw, a talent agent, is equally sceptical. "These discussions happen anyway," she tells the Reverend as she sips a gin and tonic, with dog Mollie under the table. "You must go to parties and when you say you're a vicar, that kicks off debate. It has to be organic. When you start stage-managing things, then it becomes preachy. People don't want that, and it attract nutters."

Mr Kadhim asks the Reverend if he might recommend any readings for his grandfather's memorial service next week. With the Good Friday evening service to prepare for, Mr Dawson has to race off, leaving his drained Coke glass on the bar, to return to the vicarage. That any of the Cross Keys drinkers will have swelled his congregation seems unlikely, but if discussion and debate is the objective, his propping up the bar has been a resounding success.