Knocking on Heaven’s Door: Church access

About as far as too many people go. St Augustine, Kilburn.

About as far as too many people go.
St Augustine, Kilburn.

The hobby of churchcrawling seems to have escaped the sort of stereotypes that trainspotting, birdwatching and stamp collecting have amalgamated. It’s a rather obscure activity, to the point where it’s common even for people well-educated in matters of history and heritage to be ignorant that churches are not only full of innumerable treasures, but are usually welcoming to casual visitors throughout the week. The amount of times I see people wander into a church and not dare to venture beyond the table full of leaflets at the back of a building, glancing at a few memorial tablets before making a quick exit in case a priest emerges to throw a Bible at them is remarkable.

let'shearitforE. E. ARCADEeverybodyandofcoursethemarvellousDEC CHANCELandwelcomebackNORMAN DOORWAY we'llfinishwithasetfromPERP WEST TOWER

let’shearitforthewonderful E. E. ARCADE everybodyandofcoursethemarvellous DEC CHANCEL andwelcomebackthespectacular NORMAN DOORWAY we’llfinishwithasetfromeverlovely PERP WEST TOWER

There are a few celebrity church crawlers – Lloyd Grossman (who lives… in a church like this?), Jools Holland (right) and of course, Philip Larkin with his perennial favourite “Church Going” (in which the solitary speaker ascends the pulpit to give a mock sermon – any intended allegory aside, it’s something every churchcrawler has done). But it is journalist Simon Jenkins who has done the most to open up the hobby to a wider audience, with his 1000 Best Churches. Many who have now progressed to new-edition Yale Pevsners and English Heritage reports will admit that Jenkins was their gateway drug. Indeed, many churches are proud of their rating in Jenkins (although they often protest it is far too low).

Don't be fooled, viewer. This porch appears to be opened in this way but the church is always locked. The most rotten trick outside of someone practicing the organ inside and locking themselves in.

Don’t be fooled, viewer. This porch appears to be welcoming but this particular church is always locked.
The most rotten trick outside of someone practicing the organ inside and locking themselves in.

Anyone who uses Jenkins for a while comes to the realisation that practically every Church of England or Roman Catholic church has something interesting in it and that frankly some of his choices are a bit bizarre. However, clearly keen to avoid devoting space to opening arrangements that would quickly date, Jenkins tended to pick churches that are usually easily accessible by a casual visitor – something which of course is not the case across every church in England. Having visited churches in every English county except Cornwall, I’ve experienced very different situations when planning my trips. Some counties, such as Norfolk or Wiltshire, when you ring up a church custodian to ask about access, they can almost be slightly confused why you’re calling. For them, the default setting for a church is open – why would it be anything else? In contrast, in somewhere like Cheshire or Northamptonshire, you’ll be barraged with questions – who are you? When will you arrive? How long will you be? When I am staying for a few days in an area for research and visiting multiple churches in a day, those last two questions are almost impossible to answer without the fear of causing serious inconvenience when you inevitably get held up.

Not telling you where this is but I found it open at 7:30am once

Not telling you where this is but I found it open at 7:30am

I suspect a surprisingly large number of rural parish churches are left open all night. As convenient as this can be for me, if I am honest it’s just as bad as keeping them locked, because it’s borderline neglect. The widely-reported theft in 2013 of rood screen panels from Torbryan in Devon (since recovered), a church looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust, could only be ascertained to have happened “between 2 and 9 August”. An entire week of no one checking the building is hardly an acceptable level of care. There have always, and will always be, people who steal and damage other’s property. People are unpredictable – that’s what makes life interesting. This is why I always dislike the modern mantra of “can’t be too careful these days”. There probably aren’t a higher proportion of thieves and vandals around than at any other point in history, just a higher level of general distrust and lack of faith. But of course, one has to manage risk and lock churches at night – if only to check up on them.

Again I'll not tell you where this is but the key just hangs on a house near the gate to the field the church is in

Again I’ll not tell you where this is but the key just hangs on a house near the gate to the field the church is in

I have the uptmost respect for people who open and close churches at dawn and dusk every day – especially because I never meet most of them to say thanks. But for infrequently-visited churches, the only alternative is for them to advertise a keyholder in the porch who will lend you the key on request. This, I find, is an increasingly rare arrangement. Mainly, it prevents idle damage and kids messing about. The biggest problem with it is that it places responsibility on the person who looks after the key. If anything did go wrong, it would be their decision to let someone into the building that would prove their liability. This is why very few businesses, such as pubs and hotels, provide this service anymore: a great shame, but the result of a more suspicious, litigious and bureaucratic society.

The heartbreaking sight of a padlock, which is essentially a declaration of escorted visits only, since no visitor can be entrusted to put it back on properly. Padlocks give off entirely the wrong message and have no place on supposedly public buildings.

The heartbreaking sight of a padlock, which is essentially a declaration of escorted visits only, since no visitor can be entrusted to put it back on properly.
Padlocks give off entirely the wrong message and have no place on supposedly public buildings.

Custodians of churches that are normally kept locked nearly always insist on meeting me at the church at a pre-arranged time, and hover over me for the entire duration of my visit, locking up the building the instant I am finished. This means I do not particularly enjoy the experience, am constantly feeling I am being a burden, and no one else benefits from the whole ordeal (except perhaps Flickr, which receives a plethora of photos of elevations, moulding details and Romanesque nook-shafts later in the week). A much happier arrangement for both parties would be to leave the church open in the morning and lock up later on – but apparently some churches are frightened leaving their building alone for even a few hours.

St Thomas Aquinas R.C., Ham, Richmond. A converted school hall with obviously quite limited resources for liturgical furnishings. Found open and totally empty.

St Thomas Aquinas R.C., Ham, Richmond. A converted school hall with obviously quite limited resources for liturgical furnishings.
Found open and totally empty.

What causes the massive variation in whether churches are open or not? One factor is churchmanship. You will frequently find that Catholic churches, even ones that are no more than a wooden box with a carpet, an altar and a few plastic statues, are always kept open. This is because the church building for Catholics is more than just a meeting place, it is a holy space for personal devotion, facilitated by images. Except sometimes for Sunday afternoons (when, after people have fulfilled Sunday obligation, there’s no reason for them to be in church), it’s a poor do to find an R.C. church locked up, especially if it has an adjacent presbytery. For worshippers of a reformed low-church persuasion, there is essentially no reason to visit a church outside of collective acts of worship, so churches tend be kept locked. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t welcome visitors, I find that they often don’t quite understand why anyone would want to visit their church recreationally.

Another is geographical, which I can only assume is based on local consensus on how things have been done in recent memory. Priests may move between parishes across England through their career, but church opening I find is usually more down to the churchwardens who’ve lived in the village all their lives. Urbanised counties, such as Lancashire, Cheshire, and the Midlands, are full of locked churches, with no formal arrangements for access outside of services. Ecclesiastical, the primary provider of church insurance, encourages open churches and says that premiums will not increase because of an open door policy. It’s noticed by many that locked churches are the site of far more serious thefts than open ones, mainly because a building which is only used once a week appears an easier target than one that is continually supervised. Especially since the biggest threat to churches, the seemingly unstoppable spate of metal-thefts from roofs, doesn’t require access to the interior, encouraging visitors to your church all week round may actually help protect it.

Keyholder on Android - when grumpy Lancashire gives way to Cumbria

Keyholder on Android – when grumpy Lancashire gives way to Cumbria

So what do I recommend for budding churchcrawlers? Well firstly, I’d like to say, There’s An App for that: the Keyholder app developed by extremely well-travelled churchcrawler C. B. Newham. This Android app (Apple version in development) displays all the CoE churches in England as dots, either red (locked), blue (open) or yellow (location of key advertised by the door). It has the advantage of giving you the local knowledge to know whether a journey is worth making without a phone call. The coverage is impressive, but not complete, users are invited to fill in the gaps where they can. The data is kept reliable currently via a subscription which works out about £1.60 a month – but if you crawl regularly that’s basically the petrol money or public transport fare to the church in the first place, and the amount of money you should be leaving in the almsbox afterwards anyway.

St John, Hillingdon, west London, is a rare example of a suburban medieval church that makes a big effort to stay open.

St John, Hillingdon, west London, is a rare example of a suburban medieval church that’s recently changed its policy and makes a big effort to stay open 7 days a week.

And from the churches – one thing I would love is for those that do welcome visitors to make this known via their website (partly superceded by the marvellous A Church Near You, perhaps the most successful project the CoE has instigated since the Reformation) and signage, rather than assuming their open door is common knowledge. But do I dare say that more churches should be kept open at reasonable hours just in case someone like me happens to come by? Well, quite frankly, yes. The greatest grassroots evangelisation tool that the Church possesses is its buildings. What could be a greater comfort for someone at the end of their tether to stumble across an unlocked church and a quiet space for prayer? What is greater proof of Christ’s Church than the innumerable splendid buildings built by the enduring faith of its members? If only one person a week enters a building and feels some sort of profound spiritual upliftment (which does not debar them from using a camera and a tripod – photography can also be a practice of devotion) then the church is doing its job above and beyond a shelter for the altar. Yes, there are risks, and bad things may happen, but it’s worth balancing these risks with a greater good. If you think anyone would have faith in such a thing, it would be the custodians of churches.


24 thoughts on “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: Church access

  1. David Gouldstone

    Hello James, I thoroughly endorse your thoughts. There’s never been a golden age when all churches were always open (I was recently reading an article about fonts by an Edwardian vicar, who on his journeys often found the church locked and had to go in search of the key, and then was accompanied by the key holder, ‘apparently thinking that the parish would shortly be mourning the loss of a font if I went unattended’), but I think it’s got worse in the four decades I’ve been visiting them. Paradoxically, the number of churches actively promoting themselves as historical attractions by means of billboards outside the door also seems to have increased. You might like to read my thoughts on the subject on my blog,
    Best wishes, David

      1. c b newham

        If you read the Torrington Diaries (1781-1794) you’ll find that John Byng often has to send his servant to find the curate and obtain a key. The notion of having churches open all the time would appear to be a Victorian one. I have a feeling that for many years prior to that most churches were locked – certainly the case in the 18th century and possibly the 17th too.

      2. David Gouldstone

        I can’t remember the source of this information, but I believe that it’s thought that even in the Middle Ages churches were not generally open outside service times.

        Perhaps we should stop moaning . . .

      3. James Alexander Cameron Post author

        I am collecting what I can on church opening in the Middle Ages. Chancels were commanded to be kept accessible to laypeople outside of Mass by the decretals of Pope Gregory in 1230. Naves (often referred to as “the church” in medieval documents) would have been controlled by the churchwardens (at least by the fifteenth century), but they would have bustling places of business, chantry Masses, and personal devotion. When Catholicism ran through England like electricity the Church and its buildings was a very different thing.

      4. David Gouldstone

        Many thanks for this fascinating information. It accords with what I’ve always believed to be the case.

        I think I’ve remembered where I recently read about churches being locked in the Middle Ages more often than we might suppose. I think (but I might be misremembering) it was in ‘Medieval Graffiti’ by Matthew Champion (2015); it’s just a passing remark along the lines of ‘Recent research suggests that…’, but I can’t find it in the index, and although I’ve had a quick flick through I can’t find it in the text. I’ll have to reread the whole book sometime.

      5. c b newham

        Locking churches was obviously a requirement in the mediaeval period; witness the number of mediaeval door locks. They may not have been locked all of the time, but there must have been some need to do so (and it can’t only be for defensive purposes – especially in the later period, such as the C14 and C15, a time many of these locks seem to originate from). I’d be interested to hear more of your research on this James; I’ve had it in my mind to look for evidence of historic locking, but have not got around to it.

  2. hmunro

    Thank you for your witty observations, and especially for suggesting the Keyholder app. I will put it to good use during my next trip abroad (because in the U.S., it seems most churches are closed most of the time. And anyway, few of ours contain the centuries-old architectural “bloopers” that you wrote about so hilariously, and that first drew me to your blog). I adore your writing style as much as the content you provide, James.

    1. James Alexander Cameron Post author

      Yes, unfortunately, Keyholder is only for the Church of England (no Wales or Catholic churches). Partly to do with collecting the data – but hopefully could spur similar ideas in other countries. Oh, the problems I had in France!

      1. hmunro

        I was so giddy over the idea of this Keyholder app that I completely glossed over the CoE part. Thank you for pointing that out! Though, as you say, perhaps the idea will catch on more broadly — I share your French church woes!

  3. Outlier Babe

    That bit about the insurance company preferring open churches was interesting. You would think that alone would decide the issue.

    Have been away from WP for a bit (six months is a bit, yeah?). Another good post 🙂

    1. c b newham

      Thanks to James for the plug for my app.

      Why should you pay? Now, there’s the question asked of anything on the internet or on mobiles that isn’t “free”.

      Well, aside from the fact that I must have put more hours into Keyholder than I’ve spent photographing churches over the past year, there is the fact it costs me money to run a server to host the database and provide the bandwidth necessary to provide this facility. I also have to manage it – create back-ups, etc. When it comes to it, I am actually running this at a loss – the small sums charged for Keyholder do put a dent in the costs of hosting it, but they don’t cover it.

      As James points out, the price of the app per month (or week, or year – you have options there) probably more than covers the petrol used in wasted journeys to locked buildings. Forewarned is forearmed. If the status and comments made about a church in Keyholder suggest it’s locked, it probably is – so time to break out the phone and call the number given in “A Church Near You” (the individual ACNY pages being handily linked to for every church in the app). The comments made by others may indicate how best to get a key – or even where the key is hidden. For any serious church visitor, that’s invaluable information.

      I hope you can see now that you are paying for something that will save a lot of time and trouble, rather than getting something “free” that is totally useless. All for the monthly price of one large serving of French Fries at MacDonalds.

      1. James Alexander Cameron Post author

        I’d compare it more for what people are willing to pay for a tea or coffee these days: it’s hardly anything compared to a Starbucks visit. But I think people are rightly worried about paying for crap apps, essentially money for nothing, which there are a lot of. But Keyholder, as I say in the Google Play review, is a very stable app and worth the punt for one monthly subscription. A few “grey areas”, mainly urbanised ones like West Yorkshire, but a bigger userbase would help fix that.

  4. Aadil

    Love the title “knocking on heaven’s door” and it is very interesting to read about the app for door keepers. Thanks so much for sharing.

    1. c b newham

      If I had a database for Welsh churches (county, place, dedication, national grid ref or lat/long – minimum info requirements) then I could extend Keyholder to Wales. Not having the initial dataset is the only reason I haven’t done so.

  5. zoothorn

    Very interesting. However in my experience in London and Hertfordshire many RC churches are kept locked. If you are visiting Hertfordshire I have a locking guide here for CoE, RC and Orhodox churches. The CoE details are in keyholder but the others might be of interest. For other groups churches are rarely open but quite a number do have coffee mornings when it is possible to get in and a few do have out of service opening, I will add these when i get a chance.

  6. trevwhitton

    A sign of the times and a complex issue. Simplicity itself, however, compared to some of the problems presented on the continent. I’ve long lamented the difficulty of accessing such gems as St Nicholas at Tavant in Northern France and the Chapelle Notre Dame at Centeilles in southern France. And as for the unpredictability and randomness of Italy – don’t get me started. Loved the title, by the way.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s