Monday, January 30, 2012

Thieves seeking silver, brass and lead prey on churches

With its cottages of honey-coloured stone and 12th-century church, Ashton Keynes in Wiltshire could be the archetypal unspoilt English village. 

Here the Thames is barely a stream, and the pace of life runs as slowly as the river's waters.

So parishioners at Holy Cross church thought nothing of hauling their 19th-century brass lectern out of storage to give it a bit of a show. 

No matter that the church was unlocked and unsupervised during the day.

But one Sunday morning last September, they had a nasty surprise. 

"Somebody said, 'Where's the lectern?' and it had gone," says Peter Tuck, lay minister.

News this month that the item had been spotted in Romania, at an antiques fair, was an even greater shock. 

Gaye Horrell, treasurer at the church, expressed amazement that it had not been melted down, and Wiltshire police initially thought the email informing them of the find – from a 
curious local who had noticed the inscription referred to Ashton Keynes – was a spoof.

The local force is now confident of getting it back, but Tuck is cautious. "The local police have been speaking to Interpol but we've no idea if they still know where it is, whether they've got hold of it or whether it's been sold."

The lectern, an exuberant, gothic-revival imitation of a type common in medieval churches, takes the shape of an eagle standing on a golden orb. 

The eagle refers to Saint John the Evangelist and is said to symbolise the heights to which he rises in the first chapter of his gospel. 

Experts suggest it could make up to £3,000 if sold as an antique, though it might take many months to find a buyer.

While this bit of church kit appears to have escaped the scrapyard, the high price of metals is the main factor in the flurry of recent thefts. 

Artefacts used in services or to adorn altars can be just as tempting as lead roofs and gutters. 

The Ecclesiastical insurance company has seen the number of metal theft claims by churches increase from 1,700 in 2010 to more than 2,600 last year.

Manchester Cathedral's busy urban setting couldn't be more different from that of Holy Cross, but it faces a similar threat. 

On 13 January, someone walked into the medieval building on Victoria Street in the city centre and took a silver altar cross.

Elegantly designed in 1957 and donated to the cathedral by the Mothers' Union, it had adorned its lady chapel for decades. 

"The cathedral is open to the public every day," says the dean, Rogers Govender. "We do not charge an entry fee, and of course the place is vulnerable."

For Govender and his congregation, the value of such objects goes far beyond what they might fetch for scrap. 

"I feel really saddened that a house of God is not respected, that somebody could steal from it – and especially steal a cross which is the central symbol of our faith."

Anne Sloman, chair of the Church Buildings Council, said stolen silver was likely to be melted down. 

"That would be the worry – that the value of the solid silver is worth more than the artefact."

She and her colleagues have been lobbying for better regulation of scrap merchants, particularly when it comes to cash payments for metal, which many see as the root of the problem.

The recent spate of thefts, brazen in more ways than one, has left churchwardens everywhere facing a dilemma. 

"A lot of country churches do lock – but we feel it's very important the church is kept open," says Tuck in Ashton Keynes. "There's a churchyard that's still used and families come up to visit the graves. The church is there if they want to pop in for 10 minutes."

St Mary's Church, Bishopsbourne, nestled in the gently rolling Kent countryside, looks even 
less likely than Holy Cross to make the news for anything other than its well-kept hedgerows. 

"Even though it's a country church it's a bit grand," says the priest-in-charge, Stephen Hardy. 

"In Victorian times it had quite a makeover, including tiles by William Morris and an Edward Burne-Jones window. That's when the pieces came." 

He is talking about two large candlesticks covered in semi-precious stones, a 60cm (2ft) high altar cross, a church plate, a bookrest, five small vases and a small candlestick, all made of brass. 

They all disappeared just after Christmas. 

Churchwarden Gill Applin made the discovery while tidying up in the church. 

Hardy believes that by climbing up on to the organ, thieves were able to make their way over a screen into the vestry, where the brasses were kept.

"It was quite a shock," says Hardy. "As a young girl guide, Gill used to clean these things and now she's in her sixties. They're very much part of the family, you know." 

Three people were arrested in connection with the case, but the items have not been recovered.

Such stories are repeated up and down the country. 

St Michael with St Bartholomew Church in Great Lever, Bolton, lost brass crosses and silver chalices in a raid last year. 

More recently at the Catholic church of St Joseph in Sheringham, Norfolk, thieves took the bronze "corpus" of Christ from a crucifix above a grave.

In Lewisham, south London, a bronze memorial to soldiers who died in the first world war was taken from the porch of St Mary the Virgin. 

A couple were caught on CCTV wheeling it in a shopping trolley and convicted of theft but the memorial is still missing.

"We've got no intention of locking the church here in Bishopsbourne," says a defiant Hardy. 

"We don't want to go down that sort of route. Churches are spaces that people do like to go into whether or not they're of great Christian faith. People like the quiet of a church, as a place to pray and reflect. Obviously we'd want to take measures to make access to the vestry even harder. But we'll manage. The other week a parishioner brought in two candlesticks she had at home to use on the altar and we put up a wooden cross."