Why are some churches locked?

Confined recently to Lancashire, I have been exploring the remaining medieval parishes in the local area I haven’t visited. It can come as a surprise, to those lucky enough to live in East Anglia or Wiltshire, that in some areas, it is not the norm for churches to be open. Or even seemingly any way to get inside without attending a service? It particularly annoys me when a church proudly declares it has received Heritage Lottery Fund money for a big repair, but yet there is not so much a phone number for a churchwarden displayed. Why should an essentially private building get public money?

I do believe that the ideal position of all Anglican churches is that they are open to all during the day. So for a church to be locked, there has to be some factors that exist that cause this not to be true. It is a misconception that the attitudes of vicars cause a church to be open or shut. Priests are really only in control of the services and ministry in the parish. They are usually members of the Parochial Church Council, and while they may certain extra rights of veto, but they do not in any sense control how the building is run. The custodians of the building are the elected churchwardens (usually two in a parish). But ultimately, of course, the owner of the building is the diocese, and anything that happens requires a faculty from them – even if the building is not nationally listed (and any medieval church is at least Grade II listed by default).

Here is what I think what cause churches to be locked, from the most reasonable to the less so.

1. Reaction to manifest problems

P1320041

If these were medieval cock ‘n’ balls they’d be listed

People can get up to terrible things in public buildings. And you will hear stories about how people have urinated in church pews, vandalised the altar, broken statues, stolen money or pulled up brasses. And of course, if there is an active threat to a building, why would you not protect it? But such attacks are exceptionally rare. I have been in hundreds of churches, and I have never had to report any vandalism that seems to have occurred recently (except perhaps some things a congregation has done to their own church which I suspect they haven’t got a faculty for). It can be harrowing for a congregation to have their church violated, but it is a shame to finally take it away from the public due to a one-off event.

P1250203

Brent Eleigh church had its unique 14thc high altarpiece wall painting damaged in 2016 by a mentally-ill man. The church, however, remains open as it was before the incident.

Christian churches in modern Britain are lucky that they (currently, at least) have no systemic prejudice against them, unlike Mosques or Synagogues, which can have vile campaigns against them from hate groups. If there are repeated attacks on a church, they are the acts of individuals, not a mindset. However, if a church is being targeted, it would be foolhardy to let those individuals continue and not take protective measures. But once the culprits are caught, normal opening can be resumed. But some churches seem surprisingly pessimistic about humanity, not to mention vindictive.

2. Reaction to perceived risk

A suburban church at the centre of a housing estate where even the grounds are padlocked

So this leads us to the next point. Risk. Things that are happening is one thing. Things that might happen is another. But risk must be managed. A church in a rural village, that has congregation visiting throughout the day, many events, houses nearby, has almost no risk, beyond the “crazy person” scenario. An isolated rural church, with no fittings of monetary value, has a slightly higher risk. A suburban church, which the churchwardens and priest do not live near, and bored children running about is another matter. One in a city centre, is another entirely.

Of course, perhaps the largest active threat to churches, is the theft of roof lead. Of course, this does not need access to the interior – indeed, it actually helps the thieves if they are sure the church is locked and there’s no one inside before they get up there and steal the roof. All risks however, must be managed accordingly.

3. Low level of resources

However, with all the good will in the world, some churches do not have the resources available to manage these risks. They may not be able to afford security cameras or motion-detector alarms for the sanctuary. They may not have PCC members who live near enough the church to be able to open and close it every day. Of course, this factor can always be solved by campaigning, raising interest, and fundraising, but then that leads us to the next point…

4. Low level of interest

Who would ever want to go in here anyway

Quite frankly, to overcome problems in opening churches, there has to be a desire. And some PCCs simply do not have it. Well, obviously, they can’t open the church because they live next village over and go to work. I don’t know who lives in the Old Rectory, they probably aren’t interested in looking after the key. Goodness know who runs the pub now, never go there.

5. Protectionism

P1290288

Barbed wire a good addition to any crenellated parapet

This then slips over to last point, and the most extreme. For a village, a parish church is an important asset. What is an English village without its little church? It helps house prices if your village has a church that at least plays lip service on Sundays. Great for the village to have weddings, too. So you treat it like an asset, and lock it up tight. You don’t want ramblers coming in with their muddy boots. Kids knocking over the Easter flowers.

The most extreme level of this is with Evangelical churches, who have the money for security, but keep the church locked as a statement that God is everywhere, and the church is just a meeting hall. This is certainly not true of all churches with a lower-church, charismatic leaning (as sometimes the level of worship is set by the priest, and as I say, priests often have little to do with the opening status of churches), but ones where the entire PCC share this mindset can be the hardest of all to get into.


P1660200

This just made me sad tbh

So which of these points is the most important to combat in getting more churches to open their doors? I think it’s 2 and 4, as 1 and 5, as the most extreme, are rarer. The thing is that “perceived risk” is often overestimated. Usually the worst churches for opening are in what are now satellite villages around big, formerly industrial cities, such as Liverpool. There’s a prejudice against people from “the town” who might come into “their village” and cause trouble. How do you combat this? Well, it’s point 4. Gently moan at them. Tell them people do want to visit the church.

And it’s to their benefit, in the long term anyway. If people who live in urban areas – that is, most people in England – think Anglican churches are locked, unwelcoming, private clubs, the hostility against the established church from the general public is only going to increase, and with it, available funds diminish. Yes, there will always be problems with that great mass we know as “the general public”, but if you can’t find tolerance and forgiveness in a church, where can you?

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18 thoughts on “Why are some churches locked?

  1. Philip G Bell

    Just an initial thought: a diocese does not ‘own’ a parish church. It is owned by the Benefice and is under the control of the PCC and church wardens as representatives of the bishop. Also, a faculty for repairs or changes to a building is not granted by the diocese but by the Chancellor of the diocese (Commissary General in Canterbury diocese). These independent legal officers have great power and are independent of both the diocese and the bishop. The whole rotten structure needs to be dismantled.

    Reply
    1. James Alexander Cameron Post author

      It’s ultimately owned by the Church of England though. It’s not the property of the congregation. As far as I understand it, the diocese oversee it, and if it becomes redundant, it is taken into the care of the commissioners.

      Reply
      1. C B Newham FSA

        I think you’ll find “ownership” of parish churches is not as clear cut as that. If you do some Googling, as I did a while back on this very question, I think you’ll come across a statement by someone in the CofE who researched it, stating that it’s a legal grey area and not even the CofE knows who technically owns some (or many) of them.

      2. Philip G Bell

        But no it isn’t! The Benefice owns it. I spent 22 years as a diocesan surveyor and spent the last two of those in registering the Title of every church in the Diocese of Canterbury with the Land Registry. No mention of the Diocesan Board of Finance.
        If a church is declared pastorally redundant under the appropriate legislation overseen by the Church Commissioners then yes the diocese will get its paws on a proportion of any proceeds from a sale and the Commissioners get a cut too which goes towards the Churches Conservation Trust

      3. James Alexander Cameron Post author

        But who is “the benefice”? As far as I’m aware, that is the oversight of a priest who is entrusted with pastoral care of the parish of a church or a number of churches. Is the priest not an employee of the CofE? And thus not their property?

        In the Catholic Church (in America, probably here too), a bishop can decide to close certain churches and dispose of them as they see fit. I think in England it is complicated by the Church being established and thus entwined with state law. As with the ridiculous relic of chancel repair liability, I do get the feeling that absolute ownership of church buildings is not clear cut.

        Anyway, keep replying with more information, anyone! Corrective facts are welcome to my written–in-bed-with-a-bluetooth-keyboard blogs!

      4. Allan Barton

        Here’s a view from a member of the clergy inside the system. This area is very grey one because this cannot be considered a matter of ‘ownership’ but of ‘trust’. Parish churches are not really owned by anyone. A parish church ‘belongs’ to the people of the parish, whether churchgoers or not and it is always held in trust on their behalf by certain office holders. The church building is held in trust by the incumbent (Rector of Vicar) and the fittings and furnishings are held in trust by the churchwardens. When a new incumbent is inducted into a living or benefice (and a benefice is an area that is overseen by one priest), they are given the ‘real and corporeal possession of the building’ they are granted the building’s legal title, in trust. There is no legal title deed for a church building and never has been, the incumbent’s ‘deed of institution’ is the document that effects the transfer of trust. As the Church of England is by law established, the trust affected by the deed of institution is legally binding as part of the law of the land. When there is no incumbent, due to a vacancy or the fact that the living has been suspended and a Priest-in-Charge put in place, that incumbent’s portion of the trust is then held by the Sequestrators of the parish, who are usually, but not always, the churchwardens. When an alteration to a building is proposed the petitioners for the faculty permission must be the trustees of the building, the incumbent and the churchwardens acting together and no other. As I know, having just been involved in the overturning of a faculty, as the principal trustee of the church building, incumbents have an absolute veto on any proposed work on a church building. Very useful when PCCs get themselves into sticky waters.

        The trustees do not of course have responsibility to maintain the fabric and can’t dispose of it. In times past the Rector had to maintain the chancel as his own cost and the laity the nave at theirs. These responsibilities for ordained rectors were commuted in the 1920s when tithes were abolished, but not to lay rectors who still have that responsibility. Now is not the time to go into the whole history of lay rectorship! The responsibility for the upkeep of the whole building passed to the newly created Parochial Church Councils, who were made up of the representatives of the laity The Parochial Church Council can’t itself own property, but can hold financial assets and has responsibility to work with the incumbent and churchwardens, to maintain the parish property and pay any work required.

        As an incumbent of five churches I take my role of holding my churches in trust seriously. I tell my church councils time and time again, that the buildings are not theirs, but are held in trust by me and the churchwardens for the people of the parish. In my view no congregation, PCC or diocese has any business treating a parish church as though it were their property. The building is held in trust for the whole parish and should be at their disposal whenever they need them.

        The only time a “diocese” owns a church property incidentally is when the incumbent and churchwardens relinquish it as a consequence of a redundancy scheme under the pastoral measure. It then passes to the diocesan board of finance and it’s future is assessed by the redundant churches used committee.

        Incidentally Anglican clergy are not employees, but like judges are ‘office holders’. Thankfully we are not employed by the diocese, that gives us independence to speak out mind without the need to two a particular line and I am thankful for it.

      5. James Alexander Cameron Post author

        Thanks Allan – I have learned a lot about the machinations of the CofE from you. Certainly “in trust” is a very helpful concept to understand. In my time at The Courtauld I learned that The Courtauld Institute itself don’t own something like the Bar at the Folie Berges (that would be worth hundreds of millions and could solve any fiscal problems in one sweep if it was sold). It’s in a separate trust and selling it would be almost impossible to get through the trustees.

  2. John Hawes

    Attitudes in Derby vary, but a lot of the churches away from the towns are kept open. The Diocese has done a lot to encourage access. Yet pass over the boundary into Lichfield Diocese and you will be lucky to find an open church.
    Whilst I’m not trying to excuse locking, I do think a lot of churchwardens are old, tired and scared. They have rarely received any proper training in their role and very often are trying to make the best of a bad situation. But I have no sympathy for the warden who has been in post for the last 900 years and is determined nobody shall change the manner in which their church is run!

    Reply
    1. James Alexander Cameron Post author

      The diocese thing is a mystery to me. Dioceses deny they have any policy on church locking, but there are often quite obvious differences when you pass through borders that show that is not just regional coincidence in some cases. It might be lack of a positive influence (like you say, the Diocese of Derby has an active church tourism policy, providing churches with banners, etc) rather than a negative one.

      Reply
  3. ChurchCrawler

    Locked churches, especially grade I-listed ones, can ruin a day out. They can also preserve the “club” to the exclusion of potential new members who move to the parish.
    Valid reasons for locking can be Health & Safety, for instance if there are repairs or redecoration in progress; the church is readied for a special service or even regular service (Saturday afternoons visits can often be difficult for this reason); redundancy.
    Other reasons given to me for locking “All the churches round here are locked, people have emptied entire churches of their contents” (complete fiction usually) “The Insurance insist on it if we can’t have someone here at all times” (as most churches are insured by Ecclesiastical this is not true as that company recommend open churches – they pay out more cash for broken locks and windows than anything else) “We are in an interregnum” (Churchwardens don’t want to take the risk if the vicar is not leading and taking responsibility – I can never understand this one and was refused entry to Woolpit church because of it) “We were always open but we had the theft of xxxx 18 months ago so have to keep the church locked” (Stable door, horse bolted long ago) “There is nothing of interest, it’s Victorian” (Well hello! I love Victorian churches, even C20 churches.
    I visited a locked church yesterday which had a history leaflet and paddles for visitors. Yet turning back six pages in the visitors book I was back to 1981. Big chunks of names on the same day reflected a few flower festivals between 1981 and 2018). It did have a new keyholder notice unlike another church in the same benifice (the main one, where the rector lives) which was locked up tight. The third church in this benefice was open, as I have always found it. My church-opener was sympathetic to leaving the church open and was interested in the points I raised. The church will be having some minor alterations in the coming months and it was hoped thereafter to leave the church open. In fairness I recognised this church had no real secure area at all to put the “kit” away which is to be rectified in the alterations.

    Reply
    1. James Alexander Cameron Post author

      Oh yes, churches with health and safety risks are fine. I couldn’t get in Lyminster last year because it’s having a lot of work to it (and it’s still shut). Visitor books are a great source of information and a study of them would be so great: but make sure you always sign them, everybody!

      Reply
      1. Allan Barton

        Sometimes the reason for locking is nuanced and the solution to the problem complex to achieve. All but one of my churches is open every day. The one that isn’t is the most important of the lot and as an advocate of church opening and a trustees of the churches visitor and tourism association, it pains me terribly that it is still locked. In the past I have been hyper critical of clergy for locking their churches, but often it is not their fault, This church of mine is seriously locked too, it take four keys to get inside and I find it a faff to get in. There are issues with safety and location, it is in a secluded spot that is a magnet for trouble and has very sensitive furnishings. There are also issues of culture, the congregation are very jaded and rather weak and I have work to do to build their trust, before getting them to open the church I am beginning to make some headway, but the problem needs careful handling for a creative solution to be found.

      2. James Alexander Cameron Post author

        It is a good point that some locked churches can’t really have a keyholder scheme because they have a porch padlock, a south door that needs be unbolted from the inside, and a burglar alarm that needs to be disabled from the vestry. It’s not easy to turn something like that into an accessible church!

  4. David

    Ecclesiastical insurance companies positively recommend open church policies and the whole culture of closed CoE churches is an anathema to me. The very thought that the nations/state religious buildings should be locked is appalling and speaks to the fact that the CoE is an old boys club that is dying in front of our eyes. To allow God’s house to be internally accessible only when services are conducted is a crime against our heritage.

    Having visited, to date, 1285 churches in the SE, access rates are as follow [either open or keyholder listed]:

    Cambridgeshire [194 visited] 76.8% accessible
    Huntingdon as was [129] visited 71.54% accessible
    Hertfordshire [239 visited] 58.16% accessible
    Suffolk [143 visited] 55.76% accessible
    Essex [530 visited] 50.69% accessible

    I have to say that I’m more shocked when I find a RC church locked since they are truly going against doctrine.

    Reply
  5. Froghole

    Yet another really sage and beautifully written post from Dr Cameron, and many interesting comments. A few points:

    My understanding is that when a pastoral scheme is sealed and a church becomes closed the PCC is dissolved and the building vests in the DBF. Then, a further scheme is passed by the uses and disposals committee at Church House, and the building is momentarily vested in the Commissioners prior to its transfer to the relevant purchaser. I have never been wholly convinced that the ‘Church of England’ has much in the way of a legal personality: it certainly never used to.

    I have never had an issue with finding Woolpit locked (with its wonderful bench-ends). It has a friendly congregation of about 17 or 18 people. In my experience, locked churches are much more common in the Breckland districts of Norfolk and Suffolk, and in parts of the Waveney valley, or near Haverhill and Ipswich.

    Sometimes catastrophic damage can occur with respect to churches, whether locked or not (viz. lightning, as at Goltho in Lincs or some sort of electrical fault, as at Ropley in Hants). However, there are instances where there is outright arson: the loss of the thatched church of Bixley in Norfolk was attributed to a rouge gas heater, but the common consensus amongst locals is that it was arson (of the kind that wrecked the remains of Panxworth on the other side of the Yare): Bixley prett well stands on its own, just to the south-east of Norwich.

    As to lead, there has been a falling off in thefts as the price of metals subsided, but just go down the road from Bixley and you will see Toft Monks currently shorn of the lead on its chancel roof. I was told at Prittlewell in Essex (a well-populated area – Southend is the south-end of the ancient parish) that they caught the thieves, who had stripped the roof at least once before, but the magistrates just gave the gang a sentence of a few weeks. Hardly a deterrent. The churchwarden was really quite bitter about it. I heard much the same story at Hoo Allhallows in Kent.

    I frequently come across churches where porches are locked and it is impossible even to identify when services are scheduled to take place. However, there are cases when even churchyards are barred to the public. The worst instance of this is at Owston in Leicestershire, where the churchyard is actually alarmed, and the notice board by the lychgate does not give any contact numbers of details of services. Now east Leicestershire has had some serious instances of theft (as at Withcote last year), but this is going much too far.

    Once churches are closed they do often become ‘fair game’ – either because landowners are content to let them fall into ruin (as at Stratfield Turgis in Hants or Berners Roding in Essex), or because the Church itself has been negligent (as I understand at Newington Bagpath in Glos, now being converted to residential use or Wolferlow in Herefordshire – also being converted to residential use), or on account of access problems (viz. Daylesford in Worcs/Oxfordshire, which is being rehabilitated with Bamford money), because purchasers become insolvent (as at St Mary the Less Thetford, since re-sold for conversion to flats), or because of vandals, as at Houghton on the Hill in Norfolk (now rehabilitated) or old Pitsea in Essex (now reduced to a mobile phone mast) and neighbouring old Vange (also rehabilitated). However, there are some places where there will be groups of locals who are out to ‘get’ churches: Castle Eden in Co. Durham, suffered repeatedly from gangs supposedly emanating from nearby Hartlepool. It has now closed and is currently for sale as a residential conversion (as is the neighbouring big house), but neighbouring Monk Hesledon had to be razed to the ground.

    A couple of weeks ago I went to evensong at Wingfield in Suffolk (with its monuments to the de la Pole dukes of Suffolk). Putative burglars had hacked away the jambs to the north door – the main access, and this would have been in full sight of the neighbouring pub and associated housing.

    I once even saw an attempted theft of church plate by an interloper during a service at St Gabriel’s Pimlico. The priest calmly engaged the thief in conversation and gently removed the plate from his hands.

    PCCs are perhaps right to be cautious. Ecclesiastical, the captive insurer, cannot afford to be too generous: there is no compounding on its assets because of net negative interest rates, and there hasn’t been for most of this century – the longest period of suppressed interest rates in recorded history. This means that it has to raise premiums in order to remain in business (as per the whole insurance industry, which is critically dependent upon elevated share prices in order to avoid collapse). With many PCCs straining beneath the burden of their main outlay, the parish share – the contribution of ageing and fading congregations, many simply cannot afford escalating premiums. This can be make-or-break for those many churches which are barely subsisting and are otherwise at risk of conversion to residential or commercial use following closure.

    The only way of being assured of access is to attend services: that is one of the main reasons why I have been undertaking a church-by-church pilgrimage of much of England, though based between Tunbridge Wells and East Grinstead. It is hard labour, but at least I get to see each church being used for its intended purpose.

    Reply
    1. C B Newham FSA

      “The only way of being assured of access is to attend services”. Or you could use my Keyholder app which gives you plenty of good information for access across all of England (and now includes Wales too). Services are no guarantee for access – I’ve been to more than a few that lock up as soon as it’s finished and won’t allow visitors to look around. https://www.parishchurches.org/keyholder-app

      Reply
  6. Administrator

    I was in a West Sussex town on Bank Holiday Monday. The sign outside the church said that the church was open daily 9 – 5. I was there at 4 and the church was locked.

    Reply
    1. Froghole

      In fairness to West Sussex – I went down there on Monday to visit Stansted Park and Parham House, rounded off by evensong at Chichester. On the way to Chichester I looked in at St Giles Merston. Merston closed in 2009 – the victim of a botched ceiling job a few years earlier and the relative indifference of the two stronger churches in the benefice (North Mundham and Hunston). For a while its future hung in the balance (it is quite an ordinary and modest building), but the CCT came to the rescue, in part because one of its then trustees (Jane Weeks, deputy chair) is based in the area, and also because of its supposedly unusual pews.

      Anyway, it was supposed to be locked at 4 PM, but I was able to gain access after 5 PM.

      Reply

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