A wave of violence has engulfed church workers in England and Wales, with, on average, more than one assault every day of the year.

In 1999, the latest year for which figures are available, 462 church workers, including ministers and priests, were injured in attacks. And because many crimes are not reported, the figure is recognized by the British government as greatly understating the actual level of violence against church workers.

At the same time a sample survey by researchers at London University has found that 12 percent of Anglican clergy in England—about 1,300 priests—were attacked in 2000.

Crime against churches and church buildings, including arson, malicious damage, and theft, is also running at a high level, with an average of 10 Anglican churches coming under attack every day. The figures, from security specialists Churchwatch and church insurers Ecclesiastical, point to Britain's growing problem of drug abuse as a major factor, with addicts seeing clergy as easy targets to help fund their habit.

Nick Tolson, national coordinator of Churchwatch, said that other professional groups like doctors and teachers no longer lived in the deprived communities they served, so that ministers and priests were often "the last official figures left there." This made them a magnet for those trying to find money.

Tolson told ENI: "Many clergy find the hardest thing is to shut the front door. Our advice is never give money. But also never just say no. Provide alternatives, like giving food from the house."

Tolson travels around the United Kingdom running security courses for clergy and other church workers. The courses are free, sponsored by Ecclesiastical and other companies. More than 100 people attended a course on January 11 in Bournemouth, in southern England. Three months earlier in the seaside town, Graham Wheeler, a Church of England priest, was attacked in his vicarage and found himself engaged in a wrestling match with his assailant.

Tolson, who was a policeman for seven years, explained that the course explained ways to prevent encounters reaching the stage of physical violence. "Nothing happens suddenly," he said. "There are 156 signs of impending violence. For example, stance. If somebody is going to hit you, they must stand sideways."

Someone about to attack would show warning signs and then danger signs, Tolson explained. Warning signs included a flushed face, standing tall, pointing and other exaggerated gestures, and keeping the weight on one leg while lightly kicking with the other leg—an instinctive movement that Tolson described as "testing the ground."

Article continues below

Danger signs included a lowered chin—to protect the throat—standing lower, hunched shoulders, clenching and unclenching fists and an arm pulled back.

When danger signs were reached the target had just one or two seconds to respond, especially by keeping out of range.

For Tolson, there are no bonus points in trying to be a hero. It was better, he said, to escape rather than lay hands on the intruder. "Even if he is setting fire to the nave altar, don't interfere, but go and get help."

Graham Wheeler, who was attacked in his vicarage, told ENI that it was the second attack he had suffered, while the vicarage, in a wealthy area of Bournemouth, had been broken into five times.

Alone in the house three months ago, he had opened the door in the early evening "and found a hand pushed round my throat." A wrestling match followed, lasting 25 minutes. Eventually the man learned the whereabouts of a large amount of cash, and made off with 150 pounds (roughly $225 U.S.).

The intruder has never been found.

Despite the attack, Wheeler said he did not experience post-traumatic stress: "In fact, I slept very well that night."

On advice from the diocese, he has now installed closed-circuit television and a panic button connected to the police station, but he is "distressed" about these precautions. "This is a vicarage, not a castle," he said. "It's supposed to be open. It's our calling.

"Certainly a clerical collar doesn't make any difference these days. There is a lack of respect for any form of authority."

Studies show that theft is not the only reason for attacking a church. Ecclesiastical, the market leader in church insurance, with 16,400 churches covered, had more claims for arson and malicious damage than for theft in 1999. Thirty-eight claims for arson and 1941 claims for malicious damage were settled for a combined average of 835 pounds ($1,250 U.S.) per claim. Theft claims totaled 1,666, and were settled for an average of 724 pounds ($1,085 U.S.) per claim.

Ecclesiastical spokesman Toby Barker told ENI that the level of church crime had risen sharply five years ago, and since then had remained fairly constant. "We don't know why crime rose. Maybe churches are thought of as a soft touch. Maybe they are seen as offering rich pickings."

The company has recently noticed a slight downturn in crime against churches. "We're putting a lot of effort into raising security consciousness in churches," said Barker. "It would be good to think it's all having some effect."

Article continues below

Related Elsewhere:

The Big Issue in the North, an English periodical, offers this story on church crimes. Stateside, the New York Daily News and Associated Press looked at the topic in the wake of incidents in St. Lucia and New York.

A church in New Mexico is taking a different approach to crime prevention: prayer. Read more from Christianity Todayhere.

Your Church, a Christianity Today sister publication, offers tips for making churches safer.

The majority of documented U.S. crimes against churches have been arsons:

'Missionary of Lucifer' Pleads Guilty to Church Burnings | Indiana man confesses to more than 25 acts of arson. (Dec. 6, 2000)

Suspect Arrested in Church Burnings | (April 26, 1999)

Rising from the Ashes | Congregations rebuild after Satanist arsons. (Nov. 17, 1997)