The 14th century All Saints Church in Houghton Conquest had its entire 20 tons of lead roof stolen (Image: Gary Mudd)
Equipped with drones or information gleaned from Google Earth, the crooks identify likely targets, then strike when the buildings are unprotected. More than a third of our churches have already been damaged by criminals and in the past year alone metal theft rose by 25 per cent. Even gravestones are falling prey to the callous gangs, who dig them up and then re-use them for patios and paving.
Earlier this week, worried religious leaders demanded Government action to tackle the problem, which is leaving cash-strapped churches in debt totalling tens of thousands of pounds.
Dame Caroline Spelman, Church Estates Commissioner and spokeswoman for the Church of England in the House of Commons, said: “Due to the highly mobile nature of this form of organised criminal activity and without increased resources, it is hard to see how police and heritage crime officers will be able to address the increase in thefts across the country.
“Tightening up of the law, therefore, needs to be accompanied by increased police resources and greater political will.”
She also warned the crimewave had reached new dioceses in Bath and Yorkshire as it spreads north and west along major transport routes.
Parish leaders have spoken to the Daily Express about the devastating impact church attacks have on their communities.
Reverend David Ford, Team Rector of the Bromsgrove Team Ministry in Worcester, has witnessed the issue first-hand at three of his posts nationwide in the past decade.
“To have lead stolen from the roof is like having your home violated by a burglar,” he said. “Sometimes churches have to be closed.”
One of his parishes, All Saints Church in Bromsgrove, used by primary schools, community groups and regular churchgoers, has been targeted twice.
The criminals even had the audacity to use scaffolding erected for repairs to come back for their second hit under cover of night.
Prevention measures such as alarm systems, CCTV and external lighting have become standard requirements for re-insurance cover sending policy prices soaring, making them unaffordable for many churches.
“The costs have to come from the congregation because there is nowhere else,” said David. “It can bring the whole viability of a church community into question.”
Leigh-Anne Beattie and George Reynolds say the church has suffered water damage after lead stolen (Image: Jonathan Hipkiss)
At All Saints Church in Hartest, Suffolk, parishioners are now having to worship under tarpaulin after crooks used aerial images to steal lead from its flat roof, which cannot even be seen from the ground.
“We are dry but if it snows or if there are high winds, there’ll be a great strain on the roof,” said All Saints Rector Patrick Prigg. “They would only have been here for a short time in the middle of the night but it’s going to take us up to a year to get the roof back to normal.”
The church tried to protect itself by driving a post into the ground to prevent vans getting close. But the gang drove down a neighbour’s drive, cut through the fence, stripped the lead off the roof and made a quick getaway.
Rev Prigg is now wrestling with a £20,000 repair bill even though the haul will fetch only £2,000 once it is melted down. And the insurance payout is capped at £7,500 so the rest has to come from his flock.
Sister church, the 13th century Holy Trinity Church in Boxted, near Bury St Edmunds, was also robbed of its lead and the same gang is believed to have targeted 15 other churches in Suffolk.
“The 14th century All Saints Church in Houghton Conquest, Bedfordshire, had its entire lead roof – 20 tons of metal – stolen in October last year.
It is feared the cost of replacing it could be as high as £300,000 and the pressure is on parishioners as the insurance payout is a mere £15,000. Only £22,000 has been raised so far.
A temporary felt roof had to be laid earlier this month.
Some churches opt to replace the lead with a steel-reinforced roof but Grade I-listed buildings have to seek permission first and