Thunderstruck by the blistering sermon delivered by Sunday’s staunch priest, the Medieval villain was left in no doubt about the dangers of falling from God’s grace. At a time when the penalty for even minor crime was often cruel, to enter God’s house with anything other than the purest motives was to place oneself in real danger of suffering an eternity in Hell. Medieval man was as likely to steal from God’s house as 21st century man is to give away all of his possessions.
Over the centuries, those hoping to secure themselves a place in Heaven bequeathed works of great beauty and value to the Church with the result that many of these ancient buildings are now treasure houses, full of priceless heritage objects. In 1995, the assets of the 16,000 Church of England churches were insured for an estimated £3.5 billion.
Although the church maintained its position as the focus of life for centuries, the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the rise of materialism, scientific discovery and universal literacy have removed the traditional fear of God from the minds of many. His house has become a legitimate target for criminals who see church treasures as spoils to satisfy the growing demands of the antiques market.
The modern Church faces a dilemma in balancing the need for security against the necessity of attracting people back into its fold. A locked door turns away the very people the Church needs to sustain it – yet easy access is an invitation to thieves.
The decline in the numbers of regular worshippers has worsened the financial difficulties faced by the church. With tithes gone, and with the collection plate as empty as the pews come Sunday, the Church must increasingly rely on fund-raising events simply to keep its buildings from falling down. Money for security is not readily available and crime is hastening the Church’s decline. In the 1980s, 1000 Anglican churches closed.
Nick Tolson, the National Church Watch Co-ordinator, estimates that over 11,600 thefts and burglaries take place against Church property each year. The cost of these crimes amounts to around £3.5 million a year, or around £9,500 a day. Moreover, these figures do not include the cost of vandalism and arson. Tolson estimates that the combined cost of all crimes against the Church could be as high as £28 million a year.
Items regularly stolen include candlesticks, stained-glass windows, fonts, plaques, gravestones, bishops’ chairs, lecterns and other furniture, including pews. All these can be easily found on the open market, and are appearing increasingly on the Internet at various online auctions. A growing domestic and international market in religious artefacts has led criminals to steal to order; the stolen antiques have been recovered across Europe and as far afield as Australia. One stolen stained-glass window was even spotted in a Tokyo restaurant.
Peter is a career burglar who specialises in oak church furnishings and through his ‘profession’ has become something of an expert on antique oak chairs. As Peter points out: `Even if you do get caught, it’s easy to fool the police. I mean, they’re hardly experts, are they? If I tell them a chair’s a householder’s chair and not a bishop’s chair, because it’s got initials on the back, they’re not going to be able to prove me wrong.’
The difficulty the police have in identifying the items they recover is one of the factors attracting the criminal to church crime. Very often, when an officer attends a church to take the initial crime report details, the custodian of the church is unable to fully describe the missing item.
Peter explained: ‘You can call in all the vicars from all the churches I’ve turned over, but hardly any of them will be able to describe the things that have gone missing.
Peter does not have to work too hard to make a comfortable living. A single burglary can easily net him several thousand pounds, when he takes his ‘late grandmother’s bequest’ to an antique shop. If challenged, he will be confident that his ‘grief’ and the improbability of identification will make it almost impossible for anyone to prove that the chair is stolen.
Unfortunately for Peter, some vicars do take more than a passing interest in the contents of their churches and he is now serving a prison sentence for the burglary of several churches. Even so, he still had the cheek to write to the police from his prison cell, enquiring after a stolen bishop’s chair that he had been arrested in possession of while on bail. So confident was he that the chair would not be identified that he asked if he could arrange for someone to collect it, as it would ‘help him get started again’ when his sentence was completed.
The Church is beginning to fight back in an attempt to preserve what remains of our Christian heritage. While items of value held in churches can be marked, engraved or have electronic tags attached, a comprehensive inventory of church property can be made using little more than a cheap disposable camera and a pen. Many churches are taking this course, and Ecclesiastical Insurance has issued microdots to all Church of England churches to help with identification of their property in an attempt to deter the criminals.
The second National Conference of Church Watch is being held in Liverpool this month. Nick Tolson hopes that the conference will help to develop `a national crime strategy which encompasses all aspects of security, from prevention, to detection, to recovery of property.’
Despite these initiatives, it is clear that while the antiques market continues to flourish, Peter and the others like him will continue to see the church as a ready source of income. Peter does not steal from a church with the fear of eternal damnation hanging over him like the sword of Damocles. Nor does he fear some terrible secular punishment, such as the loss of a hand or foot, or even his life, as in the past. Today he will appeal against even a short prison sentence, and knows that if he is arrested he is likely to be bailed to commit further offences against a householder whom he considers to have left home for good.
First published in Invaluable magazine in 2000