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More than half of Britain's churches are not open during the day for quiet prayer

Criminal damage and anti-social behaviour are among the concerns that have taken a toll on opening hours, a research report shows

Criminal damage and anti-social behaviour are among churches' many concerns

There was a time when churches across Britain stayed open, as places of sanctuary. Now, more than half of them only open for services and events, new research reveals.

Almost 530 churches responded to a survey that shows criminal damage and anti-social behaviour are among factors that have taken a toll on opening hours.

Three-quarters of ordained and lay ministers and wardens, among others who took part in the research, believe that it is important to have their church open during the daytime to provide a place for prayer and contemplation and to welcome visitors. While 32% sense that staying open reduces the likelihood of theft, a further 30% disagree.

Ecclesiastical Insurance, specialists in the heritage sector, worked with The Bible Society in surveying churches to understand the threat of crime and its impact on public access to historic buildings.

Although the research included all denominations, Ecclesiastical was founded to provide insurance for the Anglican Church, and 256 respondents were Anglican, with 70 Baptist, 59 Methodist and 15 Catholic, among others.

Lack of volunteers

The survey showed that the main concerns about keeping churches open include security (82%), theft from inside the church (81%) and a lack of volunteers (79%), although almost three in five churches (58%) have not experienced any crime in the past year and half disagree that they need to do more to prevent crime.

Asked whether their church experienced crime in the last 12 months while it has been locked, 2.5% had suffered a theft from inside the building, but 10.8% had their windows smashed. Of churches that had been left unlocked in those 12 months, 7.4% experienced a theft and 3.4% had seen their windows smashed.

Surprisingly, only 28% believe keeping churches open increases funding raised through donations. Helen Richards, who heads church insurance at Ecclesiastical, said: “Churches are a vital part of our architectural heritage, both for visitors and the communities that they’re part of. Whenever a church is closed, it’s very upsetting. Churches are facing many challenges at the moment, from the cost of heating buildings to recruiting volunteers that help keep their doors open. Our research found that - with over half the churches surveyed saying they only open for services and events and 30 per cent only open during the day but closed overnight. But three-quarters believe it is very important to have their churches open during the day.”

She added: “We encourage churches not to be locked all the time and to stay open in the day. There are security benefits from remaining open.”

Reflection on society

Jennifer Alexander, a professor of history of art at Warwick University and a trustee of the Nottinghamshire Historic Churches Trust - a grant-giving body for the conservation of church buildings of all denominations - said: “It’s a sad reflection on current society that we can’t leave more of the church buildings open. The usual story is that churches are closed due to risks of vandalism. But there are other churches that can find volunteers to sit in them and welcome people. The argument proposed against locking churches is that, if there are people who want to steal, they’d rather they were able to walk into the church than break through a medieval doorway or destroy stained glass.”

Rachel Morley, director of Friends of Friendless Churches, a conservation group, said: “I’m so saddened by the report.”

She spoke of her despair over two recent “horrible acts of vandalism” at historic churches in Wales and Hertfordshire that had shaken their volunteers: “A group of local teenagers went into St Baglan’s church, whose oldest fabric includes 5th-century carved stone. They defecated everywhere and smeared it all over the walls. They broke a beautiful 18th-century box-pew. They urinated into the font, burned the visitors’ book and gauged swastikas into the plaster walls. In Hertfordshire, windows were smashed at the 15th-century St Mary Magdalene’s church, which has a beautiful parquet floor and simple medieval pews. They let off fire extinguishers and poured bleach over the historic woodwork and harmonium. Particularly over Christmas, it’s not right that a few people can spoil everything for the vast majority.”




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