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Key issues for civilisation

21 June 2013

I visit churches frequently, but it seems that most of them, after installing a lavatory inside, keep the facility locked except during services. This seems strange, as surely drop-in visitors have needs.

MOST church lavatories are locked unless supervised. Just as for public lavatories that were everywhere in town centres a few decades ago, there was widespread closure when it became too expensive to have staff on duty at all times to discourage bad behaviour. Congregations cannot supervise at all times.

I know of a congregation that keeps its lavatories available all day, but the door is coin-operated, as the facility was too popular with shoppers; the money was needed to keep up with cleaning and repairs. One city church that stood open unsupervised became a drug-dealing centre, and the congregation quickly changed its policy. Luckily, most churches are not plagued in this way, and a significant percentage of churches are never locked at all.

But, whatever pattern of locking a congregation opts for, it should consider safety and security. There are guidelines available through both diocesan offices and Ecclesiastical Insurance, but here are a few thoughts.

If possible, have movement-sensitive alarm pads under anything of value that might be stolen. Lock any doors where access could or should be restricted. Install an alarm for people who are on visitor duty in remote churches, so that they can readily call for help if worried by a visitor's behaviour. And train your church watchers to act for their own protection if an incident happens: they should not struggle with a thief over church money, or other items, but should stand back, memorising how the person looks, and perhaps where they go. People are more important than things - it is just the same on the street if someone grabs your bag or wallet: let it go, as the thief is likely to be stronger than you.

If a church is completely unattended, as with many village churches that are open during daylight hours, the congregation may find that there is too much damage or misbehaviour for the lavatories to remain open. When you have church watchers on duty, they could be holders of a key, as happens with lavatory facilities in many urban cafés. There could be a sign, "Key available at reception/desk", on the door.

When churches install lavatories, I commonly recommend that the fittings and surfaces are robust, so that, if necessary, the whole cubicle area can be hosed down. (Why do wedding guests get so paralytically drunk that they behave like animals?) And do ensure that the congregation does not depend on elderly volunteers to clean up after such ill-behaved guests.

There should not be exposed pipes, which can be dirt traps, or mops, brooms, or buckets in the corners. If you put out flowers on the ledge, and generally keep the lavatories immaculately clean, then people will treat the facility with more respect. Nasty lavatories seem to generate bad behaviour.

To sum up, if you are installing lavatories in church, do spend time discussing their management, from opening times to cleaning and general supplies.

It may be annoying when you are a visitor and you cannot get access to the facilities, but blame the anti-social visitor before you, not the well-intentioned church members.

Issues and questions to maggiedurran@virginmedia.com

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