The scale of thefts from churches in the West Midlands could be massively underestimated, leaders said as new figures show 40 Anglican places of worship in Birmingham have been targeted in just the last 12 months.
Churches are being targeted by unscrupulous metal thieves determined to cash in on high metal prices by stripping lead from a roof or even stealing more valuable and precious items from inside the buildings.
More than 40 churches in the Birmingham Anglican Diocese have been the victims of metal theft this year.
However, many more incidents may have occurred that have not been reported to church authorities, according to Adrian Mann, secretary of the Diocese Advisory Committee.
He said thefts would only be recorded if it was necessary for the committee to become involved.
This would be when the cost of replacing stolen material like-for-like was greater than £7,500 or if the parish wished to replace the stolen metal with a different and less valuable material and this would have to be approved.
Mr Mann said: “Our computer records start from 1996, but before 2007 it seems that churches simply replaced stolen materials like-for-like.
“As this did not need any particular permission, there is no structured central record of it. From 2007, lead theft especially became such a problem that churches started seeking permission to replace with alternatives. It is a near certainty that most churches that have recently recorded a theft have been attacked by thieves on a prior occasion.”
He said committee records mostly concern metal thefts.
“Thefts of other types are generally not reflected because a parish would not need permission to replace stolen silver – assuming that they would choose to replace it at all,” added Mr Mann.
Despite the well-reported pilfering, many clergy will not get tough.
Appeals have been issued to persuade vicars and priests to increase security – to chain down lecterns, fit burglar alarms and closed-circuit TV, spray anti-climb paint, timed lighting devices, put wire mesh on windows, and anti-fire coating on stained glass. Some have even been sleeping inside their churches to guard against the crimewave.
Many clergy are torn between the conflicting pressure to protect their house of worship and the Christian teaching that material goods are unimportant – even though a church is considered a treasure trove by crooks.
St Augustine’s Church in Edgbaston has been the victim of thefts twice in recent weeks.
During the first theft and wrecking spree, thieves caused £3,500 damage when they stole lead from the roof of the building in Lyttelton Road. Earlier this week a gang returned and another £3,000 of metal was stripped from the roof. However, police managed to apprehend and charge a man after he was allegedly caught in the act by fed-up parishioners. The metal was recovered but it will cost thousands of pounds to repair the damage.
Volunteer warden Stephen Hartland said his church could not keep on funding repairs.
He said: “We are now to invest in better lighting and a roof alarm is to be installed. We have the lead, but it will cost a lot to be put back in. A month ago it cost £3,500 to replace the lead stolen then and now this will cost another £3,000,” he added.
Mr Hartland said the consequences for the Church of England of a lead theft from a church were dramatic.
The vast majority of Anglican Churches in England insure with the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group – specialist insurer which offers favourable rates and tailor made policies to churches.
There have been approximately 8,000 metal theft claims made to the company for metal theft since 2007 and these claims have resulted in pay-outs totalling some £23 million.
Most of these claims have related to church roofs and, as a consequence, the group will now only offer insurance to churches which have applied Smartwater marking to vulnerable surfaces and then only to a maximum of £5,000 cover for lead and another £5,000 for ancillary damage, such as rain incursion.
A church from which lead to the value of £5,000 or more has been stolen in any one year is not insured against further loss during that period.
Mr Hartland said: “The consequences range from serious to catastrophic and may ultimately lead to the closure and loss of the facility to the community.”