Churches 'are under the worst siege since Cromwell': Places of worship have become prime targets as thefts reach record levels, while millions are being spent to safeguard shops and stores

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TEN YEARS ago almost every church stood open to welcome the faithful. Now they resemble fortresses - barricaded, chained, alarmed, bolted, barred. Many are permanently locked.

Police like it: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy (John X, 10). The clergy are less sure: . . . from him who takes away your cloak do not withhold your coat as well(Luke VI, 29).

In the past four years, church crime has soared - arson and burglary attacks have been estimated at one an hour. Last year, Ecclesiastical Insurance Group, which insures 97 per cent of Anglican churches in Britain, received 6,500 claims totalling pounds 6m.

In 1980, the Lichfield diocese had 19 incidents of theft, burglary or vandalism in churches. In 1992 there were more than 300. Similarly, the West Midlands has seen incidents rise from a handful 10 years ago to 600 last year.

'The Church has not undergone such a sustained attack since the days of Henry VIII or Cromwell,' says Jim Scott, EIG spokesman. 'We've had things stolen you wouldn't believe. In Gloucester a baptismal font; it had been there for centuries. On the borders of Worcester, medieval oak panelling with carved medallions in it; an eagle lectern from a church near Kegworth . . .'

Everything goes. Lichfield lost silver candlesticks, alabaster Nativity figures, antique tables, hangings, lead, lecterns, offertory boxes, stained glass windows and building blocks last year. Four- fifths of its churches are now locked. The Rev Robert Ellis, a Lichfield spokesman, said: 'The few still open are little more than antique supermarkets with no check-out.'

It wasn't so in the old days. Children went to Sunday school, the immoral were less mobile, the antiques market was less profitable and punishments heavier.

'Until 1968, people who committed crimes against churches could be charged with sacrilege and jailed for 14 years. Earlier this century anybody convicted was an outcast,' says Insp Bill Croft, of West Midlands police.

Despite the pilfering, many clergy will not wise up. Sgt Alan Walker, of Staffordshire police, heads a crusade to persuade clergy to increase security - to chain down lecterns, fit burglar alarms and closed-circuit TV, spray anti- climb paint, get timed lighting devices, put wire mesh on windows, and anti-fire coating on stained glass. It is an uphill struggle. 'Vicars are very trusting,' sighs Sgt Walker. 'There is an attitude which says if they are that desperate to steal something they can have it.'

The stereotype may be true, but the problem goes deeper. Many clergy are torn between the conflicting pressure to protect treasures given by their congregation and the Christian teaching that material goods are unimportant. 'It's a battle within them,' says Mr Scott. 'Saving souls is far more important to them than a building or bit of silver.'

Not all clerics agree. 'Frankly, people do not realise they are sitting on a treasure trove,' says Mr Ellis. 'I was vicar of a parish church which had a Jacobean table. It's still there, the door is open and it's horrendously valuable. Until just recently a Shropshire church I know had a Dutch triptych on the wall behind the altar worth pounds 500,000.' Fr Don Trotter, vicar of Holy Trinity Church in North Ormesby, Middlesbrough, is of the same persuasion. His church has closed-circuit television linked to his study. Other precautions introduced after a serious arson attack include an alsatian dog which patrols the churchyard.

Not content with that, Fr Trotter keeps the church locked, apart from services on Sundays and Tuesdays. He says the crime level has 'not been too bad'.

Impenetrable glass screens have been fitted in the porch of St Mary's, Blackheath, London, to prevent people entering the nave or reaching the altar. Others boast light-sensitive beams which trigger an alarm.

Of 16,000 Anglican churches in Britain, around one-third are now kept locked. Of 4,500 Roman Catholic ones, three-quarters are closed. The central dilemma remains: to lock or not to lock? Clergy argue passionately on both sides. Fr John Methuen, rector of Hulme parish church, in Manchester's toughest inner-city area, asks: 'What message do people receive from a locked church? A God who doesn't care about them.'

Canon Will Pratt, communications officer for Chichester diocese, who has seen a steady stream of thefts from eight parish churches in East Sussex in the last two months, thinks the issue may resolve itself. 'The way things are going all churches will end up open,' he says. 'There'll be nothing left to steal.'

(Photograph omitted)