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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.