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Theft threatens the future of Britain’s historic churches

9 July 2015

The hamlet of Asgarby in Lincolnshire has a population of around four households. Its Grade I listed parish church was constructed in phases between the 13th and 15th centuries, in limestone the colour of pale honey. The spire is a beacon above the wide fens and joins a chain of other dagger-sharp steeples on the horizon. When I visited in 2011 it was to see the damage caused by metal theft. The entire nave roof had been stripped. Standing amongst the pews, clouds could be seen scudding between the naked timbers of the roof above.

I have lost count of the number of churches I have worked with as they reacted to a theft from their building. For the church wardens, such crimes can elicit a sense of desecration or violation: the building becomes a victim alongside the people responsible for preserving it, and the community that values it.

Theft from church buildings comes in many forms. By sheer extent, the most devastating threat has been the massive wave of metal theft, which rose sharply from around 2007 and peaked in 2011. Churches have lost millions of pounds of lead and copper, and suffer the consequent damage from water ingress on top of that.

Recently, a spate of theft of historic stone from churches led to a (brief) debate in the House of Commons. The long periods required for stone to patinate make historic buildings attractive sources for those who can sell old slabs on for garden landscaping or architectural salvage.

But the theft of art works and collectors’ items from churches is the most likely to excite public attention. Notable examples include a series of specialised thefts in North Yorkshire, where rural churches were stripped of their Mouseman furnishings: or the Churches Conservation Trust’s loss of two 15th-century painted panels depicting St Victor of Marseilles and St Margaret of Antioch from the church of the Holy Trinity, Torbryan. The panels were part of a uniquely well-preserved iconographical scheme in an elaborate rood screen. National media coverage resulted in the sale being spotted online by a keen-eyed collector, and the panels have now been recovered.

Recovered panels from Holy Trinity Torbryan.

Recovered panels from Holy Trinity Torbryan. Photo: The CCT

Churches that suffer thefts go through a trying set of rituals: police reports, insurance claims (where possible), expenditure, replicating the lost material, and improving their security measures as best they can. Some have embarked on more creative ritual responses, such as the Book of Common Prayer’s little used service of Commitation; the denouncing of God’s anger and judgements against sinners. It includes the responsive:

Minister: Cursed is he that removeth his neighbour’s land mark

Answer: Amen

The reality is that church buildings are inherently vulnerable. The vast majority of Anglican parish churches are listed. They constitute around 45% of all Grade I listed buildings. Through the quality of their construction, their materials, artworks and craftsmanship they display the devotion of successive generations. Given the right circumstances, some of this can be converted to cash by the unscrupulous.

Churches experiencing a decline in volunteers and a rising fear of theft often choose to bolt the doors, and keep a watch out for strangers: I was once asked about the possibility of putting razor wire around a church. But the response to theft must not be to create a fortress.

Locking a parish church so that it is only accessible for services is not reported even in the local press. It results in none of the campaigning that might accompany the theft of artworks, metal, or stone – yet it denies access to the building and to its treasures just as effectively.

Combatting heritage crime successfully requires campaigning on a great many fronts. The Alliance to Reduce Crime against Heritage (ARCH) in particular has achieved a great deal already. But the unspoken, attritional conflict that puts places of worship at risk, and disengages the public from their own extraordinary heritage is not simply the work of thieves. It is the peculiar ‘clack’ of a church door locking.

Related Articles

Letter: Tim Parks on the recent art thefts in Italy

Loss, theft and destruction: on the absence of art (Jack Orlik)

Lead image: used under Creative Commons licence (CC BY-SA 2.0)