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Church Safety

by msecadm4921

From the May print magazine. E-mail us for a request copy.

A trainer who holds personal safety seminars for church people reports that groups of youths hanging around are a common worry for church folk. He outlines the problem; and his advice.

Youths gathering in a church porch or churchyard are a national problem, reports Nick Tolson. That problem is much the same whether in a rural parish or a town or city where the church building may be next to a shopping centre which itself throws out youths. Somerset-based trainer Nick Tolson says of such youths: “Now most of the time it’s merely their intimidating presence rather than any particular action. Old people get scared because there is a big group of young people. However there are a significant number of problems wherever young people gather; there is vandalism. Often it’s related to if anybody from the church challenges the youths. Often they will move on, but then vandalism occurs at the church where the problem has happened.”

How to move them on

It’s the way that you move on youths that may cause the problem: “It’s normally an older person going up and being rather rude – ‘get out of this place, don’t you realise it’s a church?’ and it isn’t always the best way to deal with it, because they then respond, and one of the methods of responding is vandalism and theft. There are a few cases where youths have been confronted by the church people and the church people have been attacked. In Bridgewater in Somerset a vicar who had had trouble with young people was actually bricked at a funeral.” That is, a brick was thrown at him in the churchyard. Apart from gangs, clergy like anyone else may confront burglars; the Bishop of Lichfield made headlines recently after detaining a teenage intruder and calling 999.

‘Be nice’

What advice does Nick give to church folk at his seminars? “When you make your first approach, be nice, be friendly; chat to them, ask their names, even if they are up to no good. Usually it’s better if two of you approach – try not to do it on your own, although it is difficult sometimes if you are locking up. If you don’t want them on your property, ask them to go, in a nice way. That often works, especially in smaller towns and villages. When it doesn’t work, that’s when you need to start being a little bit more firm with them. You need to start what I call hassling them, speaking to them every day. Using different people, maybe, from the church community, linking up with your local police. Just to get them fed up that people are constantly having a go at them.” If a gang is in your church porch, wash it down morning and night – the youths will not be able to sit somewhere dry, as they would like to.

Ecclesiastical Act

If the youths ignore you, and perhaps drinking or abusing drugs, there is the 1860 Ecclesiastical Court Jurisdiction Act. It bans all ‘indecent’ behaviour in churches, churchyards and any consecrated ground. As Nick adds, what a vicar deems to be ‘indecent’ can be anything. The Act has been used, Nick says, more often as a threat than in a prosecution. When Peter Tatchell of gay rights group Outrage! stormed Canterbury Cathedral when George Carey the then archbishop was at the pulpit, the 1860 Act was the one used against him. Magistrates (showing they do have a sense of humour) fined Tatchell £18.60, Nick recalls. The Act does have a use where the Public Order Act may not cover persistent drunks and drug users in a churchyard, say. The bad news, Nick says, is that this Victorian Act is to be repealed, and replaced by a new law on religious hatred. Though Nick gave evidence to a House of Lords committee, it looks like a new Act will not be of use against gangs in a church porch – who are not doing so out of religious hatred.

Pizza works

Nick quotes the unorthodox but successful scheme of a church in Arnold, Nottinghamshire that was suffering from youths outside their church: “Every Wednesday night they [church members] would give out free pizza and cola; and the idea was to make the church be seen as a good thing. And they found after a couple of weeks the vandalism and theft virtually disappeared.” Rather than a sledge-hammer approach, Nick suggests engaging with the young people, trying to find out what they want. If they say there is no youth club, why don’t church people write to the council and ask for one, and show the letter to the youths?

Busy is secure

Speaking more generally, Nick makes the point that a busy church is a secure church. That is, youths may gather there because they will not be seen. “There’s a message in that,” Nick says. “If lots of people come in and out of church, young people don’t like it.” In other words, natural surveillance, as recommended by crime reduction advisers. Nick is also a believer in churches being open, rather than shut and locked. A locked church, he argues, will only encourage drunks and the like to use the building and grounds. Do church wardens and others show sympathy for rough sleepers, youths with nowhere to hang out – more sympathy than, say, a shopping centre operations manager? Not really, Nick reports; most church wardens look to kick out a tramp looking to doss, although there are some exceptions, such as Martin in the Fields in central London. Nick feels that yes, those responsible for the fabric of a church may have to kick out tramps and the like – but Nick would encourage the warden to engage with the person first.

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