Clergy’s dilemma over protecting Norwich’s churches from metal thefts

A retired priest from Norwich has spoken of his concerns that rural churches may decide to lock their doors to the public in order to stop a rising trend of metal thefts.

Home secretary Theresa May has announced a crackdown on the illegal trade in stolen metals, which will prohibit cash payments for scrap and significantly increase the fines for all offences under the Scrap Metal Dealers Act.

Those tighter legislative deterrents have been welcomed by MPs, landowners and the clergy, but it has also provoked a debate about the best way to safeguard the county's medieval treasures.

The general advice from the Diocese of Norwich – and from ecclesiastical insurers – is that a continual passage of worshippers and tourists actually makes open churches a less attractive target for thieves.

But Peter Barnes-Clay, the former rector of several north Norfolk parishes who now lives off Ipswich Road in the city, said some wardens were so fearful of losing valuables and antiquities that they were considering locking their doors during the week.

He said the financial concerns went beyond the simple loss of property, as lead-stripping could cause expensive damage to the fabric of the buildings and repeated thefts could cause insurance premiums to rise.

'A lot of country churches do lock – but we feel it's very important the church is kept open,' said Fr Barnes-Clay.

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'Sadly we live in times when a sense of the sacred has largely departed for a significant section of the population.

'Those with responsibilities for parish churches are very astute and they are not prepared to keep a church open to such a degree that the insurance rockets.'

Archdeacon of Norwich, the Ven Jan McFarlane, said the advice published by the Ecclesisatical insurance company was 'exactly the opposite' of locking the doors.

'They recommend churches should keep open so it can be used by the whole community,' she said. 'The incidents of thefts from open churches are actually lower, so it is not going to affect their insurance premiums at all.

'Some of my churches in the city remain closed because of vandalism, but in terms of thefts, an open church is broken into less than a closed one. The church is safer open, that is the message.'

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