Tag Archives: Locked churches

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

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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.

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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

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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.


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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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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.