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Keep churches open to keep them safe from damage, theft, and arson, says Trust

03 May 2019

‘If a church is open and welcoming, people will be alert to what is happening as they pass


A medieval wall-painting at St Mary’s, Brent Eleigh, in Suffolk, shows evidence of vandalism in 2017

A medieval wall-painting at St Mary’s, Brent Eleigh, in Suffolk, shows evidence of vandalism in 2017

THEFT, malicious damage, and arson were among the top causes of churches’ making a claim on their insurance policies last year.

The initial response could be to keep your church locked and let people in only for formal worship or other organised events. Yet there is growing support for throwing the doors open for as long as possible.

Insurers, church leaders, and conservation groups all now believe that opening up and inviting the community in is a much more effective way to improve security.

Eddie Tulasiewicz, the head of communications at the National Churches Trust (NCT), the charity that helps to maintain ecclesiastical buildings, said: “Keeping churches open helps to engage the local community with the building. By far the biggest asset in keeping a church safe and secure is the many eyes and ears of the local people. If a church is open and welcoming, local people will be alert to what is happening when they go past, or even pop inside to keep an eye on things.

“Professional thieves can easily gain access to a locked church. But they will hesitate to enter an unlocked one, as they are very likely to be disturbed. Vandalism has also been shown to reduce in both urban and rural areas when churches open their doors during the week.”

The NCT considers a locked church a dead church; so, to encourage parishes to keep them open, it has added a stipulation to this year’s grant conditions: a church must be open to the public for a minimum of 100 days a year in addition to its use for worship.

The problem is more acute with redundant buildings, in which regular services are no longer held but the building is maintained for its historic value. Until recently, many smaller churches of the 353 in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) were kept locked, and potential visitors were asked to contact key-holders for access. But that was seen as a barrier to people reluctant to bother them. So, in 2012, the CCT launched a campaign to recruit more volunteers to keep their buildings open. Today, about 2000 people make regular checks on properties in their communities.

“We have been pleasantly surprised by how well it has worked,” the CCT’s spokeswoman, Chana James, said. “People were initially sceptical, and some communities which had experienced heritage crime in the past were a bit reticent about it, but we showed that it works. In the vast majority of cases, it does make the place more secure, as people know they are opened by volunteers daily. They are our eyes and ears on the ground. The volunteers see it as ‘their church’, and they work very closely with us.”

In remote or isolated locations, churches were fitted with a lock controlled by an electronic timer, set to open during the day and secure the premises at night.

The CCT has posted a “confident calling sheet” on its website, to show how people can report a heritage crime. “Sometimes they are a little bit nervous about bothering the police and are not quite sure what to say,” Ms James said. “We are also trying to get the message across that they could be the final piece in the jigsaw of solving a crime.”

To mark its 50th anniversary this year, the CCT is launching an appeal for £50,000 for a fighting fund to protect its buildings. As little as £25 could pay for the registration of items on the appropriate Art Loss registers, and £50 would fund a skills training day for a volunteer; £250 would buy a trembler alarm, and £5000 a roof alarm.

Ecclesiastical Insurance, which covers the vast majority of the nation’s churches, is a firm supporter of the open-door policy. “There is a desire, wherever possible, to keep churches open, simply because that’s what it should be,” Ecclesiastical’s church operations director, Michael Angell, said. “A lot of churches are quite surprised that we actually don’t say: ‘When you are not using it, you have got to lock it.’ We think keeping a church open is a sensible and practical thing, and premiums are not affected. If they keep their church open during the day, we certainly would not penalise them for doing so.

“Any building that is occupied is less likely to suffer damage, in our experience, and the presence of legitimate visitors is to be encouraged wherever possible. It’s also a great way for churches to take a bigger role in their community. Churches now are becoming focuses for other things, such as post offices or clubs.”

St Giles’s, Langford, in Essex, has successfully run a community shop — Heavenly Supplies — in its vestry for the past decade. The aim was to make the church more accessible to people, and to provide a service for the village. It brought villagers together, and the church has benefited from an increased number of visitors. Although complex to instigate, such projects have a knock-on benefit for the broader community, developing a stronger commitment to their parish church and helping its security through a greater sense of involvement and ownership.

“For some there is an actual financial benefit — people who come in for a look round are very often inclined to put a fiver in the box,” Mr Angell said. “But there is a benefit to the nation and its heritage, people from this country and visitors from overseas can see them. Everybody knows about St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey, but some of those smaller churches are quite fantastic little places.”

Letting people in requires some sensible precautions, however: “The days of leaving lovely candlesticks out on the altar have long gone,” Mr Angell said. “If you leave your church open, you make sure your valuables are put away safely.” All portable valuables should be marked with a forensic marker such as SmartWater and kept in a safe, he said. Smaller items of furniture and furnishings should be locked in the vestry, and signs warning of security measures should be displayed prominently. Photographs of valuables and portable furniture would aid recovery in the event of theft.

And there are other problems. A lone volunteer or worker could be at risk, so Ecclesiastical recommends that “church-sitters” work in pairs, armed with a mobile phone and even a personal-attack alarm, and that someone is readily available near by to respond to an alarm call.

To reduce the risk of arson, Ecclesiastical advises that items such as matches, newspapers, straw, hay, and petrol should be removed or locked away.

The 12th-century St Paul’s, Shurdington, near Cheltenham, is a popular destination for tourists keen to see its spire — reputedly the slenderest in England — and stained glass by the artist Thomas Denny. It also has a public footpath running though the churchyard, but it is unlocked during daylight hours. A churchwarden, Claire Stewart, and a neighbour, who is a retired priest, maintain regular surveillance of the church. “It’s an informal routine,” Mrs Stewart said. “We are always on hand, taking it in turns, a week on, a week off, to glance round. We make sure the vestry is locked when we lock the church in the evening and no one is hiding in the box pews.

“About ten years ago, we had some roof-lead stolen, and we have been more observant ever since. The PCC sat down and looked at our security and how we could protect the church. We also have a pretty thorough five-yearly risk assessment with our insurers, and security issues are discussed at meetings with other churchwardens once or twice a year.

“We do have outside lighting that comes on with a sensor, which was put in more as a safety measure for people attending evensong in the winter, but it goes together with security. So many aspects of what you do to a church are for both safety and security.” The PCC is also considering fitting electronic timer locks, but decided against CCTV. “We have been advised not to do things like flower-arranging or tidying up the churchyard the same time every week, and I think because people go in at irregular times it discourages anyone watching who might want to get in. People here, even the non-churchgoers, do keep an eye on the church; there is a sense of community here. People are aware of one another.”

A Church House spokesperson said: “Open churches present a message of welcome and invitation to visitors and worshippers alike, especially when care has been taken to maximise accessibility and enhance the visitor experience.

“An open church can also be a deterrent to potential intruders, who know they could be disturbed at any time. The most secure and welcoming churches are those which are regularly open — as a quiet space for a moment of peace or filled with people — and we actively encourage churches to be used throughout the week for activities beyond worship, such as toddlers groups, cafés, post offices, libraries, shops, and many more ways in which our buildings serve their communities.”


Security guidance can be found at www.ecclesiastical.com/risk-management, and information on community use for churches at www.churchcare.co.uk.

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