Communities rally around their besieged churches

02 January 2008

David Bonehill, claims manager at Ecclesiastical Insurance, recalls a bad year

1St Barnabas’s, Erdington: suspected arson burned this church to the ground. Restoration of the church is likely to cost £6 million and take several years to complete.

1St Barnabas’s, Erdington: suspected arson burned this church to the ground. Restoration of the church is likely to cost £6 million and take several...

IN 2007, churches arguably suffered more attacks than ever before. The spate of metal thefts is the prime culprit for this trend, resulting in more than 2100 claims, at a cost of nearly £7.5 million. Not only does this trend make 2007 one of the worst years for church crime, but it is also one of the worst trends of theft we have ever seen.

Communities need to look out for their churches. If locals use and value their church, they will fight hard to protect it.

The past year has also brought fires, floods, and storms. Church buildings have been seriously dam-aged or razed to the ground, and church communities have needed  support to get back to normal again.

Most recently, St Barnabas’s, Erdington, was left a burnt-out shell after a fire. It will cost about £6 million to rebuild. This type of fire is perhaps most devastating because the cause is suspected arson. A moment of frustration or thoughtlessness has resulted in a building rendered unusable for years to come. St Barnabas will need to be painstakingly repaired and restored, as it is a listed building.

This highlights one of the greatest concerns about church crime — it leaves a lasting scar on the heritage of our nation. Our valuation advice provides cover to restore listed buildings to their former glory — and in many cases this poses a unique opportunity to improve the facilities and layout of the building. Yet the church will never be quite the same again.

Historic buildings are an integral part of our communities. Losing them leaves a gaping hole in society.

 WHILE a church fire dramatically affects a church building, flooding can do as much damage, if not more. Of all the clerics affected by the recent flooding, the Revd John Furst, who was the priest-in-charge of three churches in Gloucestershire, has arguably been hit hardest. Two of the churches — St Bartholemew’s, Ashleworth, and St Michael and All Angels, Tirley — were inundated with floodwater after the storms in July. The church at Tirley was flooded with more than a metre of water. Repair work is likely to cost hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The only lasting signs of the flood are the empty space, ruined plaster walls, and a lingering musty smell, but the repair work will take many months.

Repair and restoration work at churches affected by metal thefts can be equally time-consuming and costly. Many metal thefts have resulted in leaky roofs, and flooding inside the building. Water damage to organs, in particular, can be very expensive to repair — potentially tens of thousands of pounds. The age and historic value of our church buildings mean that it is neither quick nor easy to make repairs. While it might seem absurd to replace stolen lead with more lead, we are battling to balance the preservation of these buildings with the need to protect them from further attacks.

LIFE at all these churches has been disrupted. Services have been cancelled, weddings delayed, meetings rearranged, and community groups dispossessed. These churches are temporarily no longer the focal point of their communities. But at each and every church the event has revealed people’s resilience.

At St Barnabas’s, in Erdington, an open-air service held just after the fire attracted hundreds of people — many more than attend a regular Sunday service. If a church suffers a serious attack, it always brings its community together. Similarly, the trend of metal thefts has resulted in churches rallying round to use the SmartWater security-marking system to protect their roofs. Churches refuse to lie down and take these attacks.

This is perhaps the loudest and most heartening message apparent after any attack. Communities do have the power to protect their churches, and will go to extraordinary lengths to do so. One vicar even chose to sleep in his church to deter metal thieves.

Churches can be an easy target for thieves and vandals. But they do not have to be. The answer is not to build higher walls or install more CCTV cameras, however.

Instead, we need to ensure that communities really value their church buildings. We need to draw everyone into the life of our churches. This is what will secure their futures.

Five of the biggest claims in 2007





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