By Father Robert Ellis Theft and vandalism in churches is on the increase, alarmingly so according to police statistics in the UK. In some areas the rate has increased four fold over a period of ten years.

In my last job as a Church of England press officer not many weeks went by without some journalist phoning for an official reaction about some break–in or vandalism in a local church. When I was a boy everyone just presumed that the local church would be open to the public and the idea of a locked church was anathema. In a recent survey I conducted in the Midlands in 2000 over 87 per cent of churches are now locked and I suspect that figure has increased over the last two years. In the 1970s I was parish priest of a small Staffordshire village and during the whole of that time the key was never turned in the lock and the only problem we experienced was a bit of a mess from a tramp who slept in a pew overnight. Typically the phenomena is endemic. Church A experiences a theft, word gets round and churches B to Z then automatically decide that they've got to lock their churches to prevent the same thing happening to them. When I arrived in Majorca I automatically presumed that all the local Catholic churches would be open to visitors and worshippers during daylight hours. How wrong I was and I've yet to discover a parish church that I can actually get into except during Mass times. It was the same here at the Anglican church until recently when we took the decision to open each morning Tuesday to Friday from 10 – 12.30. It's a risk and not one that everybody is happy with.

There are only two sorts of buildings which are traditionally unlocked and open to passers by – public toilets and churches. The problem is that most churches are like antique supermarkets with no check–out! They're usually stuffed to the gunnels with priceless artefacts, antiques and treasures. I know that, you know that and so do the thieves. Everything imaginable has been stolen from some churches at some stage or other, from lead roofing to metal central heating grates, heating oil to boundary walls, Tudor communion tables to silver candlesticks. Not to mention tapestries, chandelires, paintings, brass memorials prised off walls, offertory boxes broken into and even P.A. Sound Systems have walked. I once remember doing a programme for the BBC on church security. We used a policeman from the local police force who within minutes had located the large ancient church key hung under the rafter in the lych gate, the vestry key hidden under the prayer book in the vicar's stall and the safe key safely out of way on the hook behind the safe! With security measures like that what chance do we stand? If I could have one New Year's wish it would be that when the Bishop of Majorca is considering security for his churches on the island his battle cry will be “Get the churches open”. The Daily Bulletin's Editorial on Christmas Eve stated that as a result of the vandalism in a Palma church “churches will now have to be locked”. Sorry Editor but you're wrong! To lock a church is a sign of failure and not necessary if the proper security precautions are taken. It's been proved over and over again. Thieves only break into locked churches. And the police figure which always amazes is that over 70 per cent of theft occurs in churches which are locked. So what can be done?

Simple precautions have proved the most effective. Having someone on duty on a rota basis is an obvious solution. Like the London Underground the more they're used and the busier they are the safer they become. Creating a safe area where valuables can be stored is commonsense and leaving golden altar crosses out loose is asking for trouble. There's no reason at all why wooden replicas can't be used during the week. If it can't be moved easily then baton it down. Having everything security marked and a full photographic inventory is a must so that if stuff does go missing the police at least know what they're looking for. Similarly, good lighting and natural surveillance is paramount, though perhaps some buildings would benefit from prominently displayed video cameras. Basically where there's a will there's a way and locking up is simply a cop out.

Churches weren't built just to be used for two hours on a Sunday morning. They belong to the community, they were provided and built by local people, they're a place for prayer or quiet and they are usually a provider of beauty. They belong to everyone and have to be available to everyone. To the religious they are “sacramental space” where heaven and earth meet and our aim should be to get the locked churches open again. If an open, welcoming, vulnerable church is a powerful symbol of God presumably a locked, barred and bolted unwelcoming church is equally a powerful symbol but not one I would wish us to have! The battle cry has to be ”Get our churches open again!” *Father Robert Ellis is the Chaplain at the
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