More than half of female parish priests are afraid of personal violence as they carry out their duties, a survey of five Anglican dioceses in southern England has found.

Their concerns are shared by almost two in five of their male counterparts.

The priests have good reason for their fears, according to the survey by the Royal Holloway college, University of London. Seven out of 10 respondents had been verbally abused, while 12 percent had been physically assaulted.

Most of the priests (67 percent) lived in suburbs rather than the inner city. The survey's authors point to "growing concern" about violence against clergy and other community-based professionals like doctors and probation officers.

Nick Tolson, who runs National Churchwatch, an advice service aimed at preventing crimes against church people and buildings, has found clergy are increasingly interested in personal safety training.

"The safety problem is particularly acute for women clergy living alone," Tolson said. "A bedraggled character knocks on her door late at night. Half of her wants to feed him and get him warm."

Clergy homes, often clearly identified as The Vicarage or The Rectory, are obvious targets for begging approaches, which sometimes turn violent. Churches may come increasingly under attack as commercial premises and private homes become more secure.

British government statistics do not specifically identify crime against churches, but National Churchwatch contacted police forces throughout England and Wales. From the replies of 26 forces, it estimated that nationwide in 1999 there were about 460 violent attacks in places of worship. These included at least two murders.

Overall crime against churches and other places of worship, National Churchwatch estimated, was around 18,000 cases (excluding London) in 1999. The incidents, which included burglary, theft, and arson, represent 49 offenses against religious people or buildings every day.

"The figures are completely unacceptable," said Toby Barker of Ecclesiastical Insurance, which in 2000 paid out U.S. $4.1 million in claims for burglary, theft, and arson involving places of worship.

"In the early '90s churches woke up to the fact that they were being targeted," he said. "But it still needs a concerted effort from everyone to halt the flow of crime. That is where organizations like National Churchwatch are so valuable."

National Churchwatch runs training seminars for clergy and other church people. Tolson, a former policeman and cathedral verger, tells participants: "Be aware—and you may just avoid serious injury."

Tolson's survival strategies include lying. For example, if asked for money at the front door, the residents should say they're going to get some, and then close the door.

"Everyone laughs when the subject of lying comes up," he admitted. "But so far only one person has objected. I tell them that personal safety is about adapting and being realistic."

With proper security, Tolson would like to see every church in the country open during daylight hours. Thousands already are, but many stay closed.

He said: "After the September 11 events [the attacks on New York and Washington], people wanted a place to go and be quiet, but some found churches locked. It's a Christian duty to the community to open."

Related Elsewhere

Also appearing on our site today:
Criminal Attacks on Polish Churches Prompt Security Campaign | Armed robberies of Roman Catholic parishes have quadrupled since the early 1990s. (Oct. 9, 2001)

The official National Churchwatch web site includes history of the organization, advice for church security, and information to obtain Tolson's The Complete Security Guide for Places of Worship.

Crime statistics for churches in Wales and England are also available on the Churchwatch site.

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

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.

Previous Christianity Today articles on church violence:

Church Attacks Increasing in the U.K. | Insurance figures show attacks on church workers and property are growing. (Jan. 29, 2001)
Rising from the Ashes | Congregations rebuild after Satanist arsons. (Nov. 7, 1997)