The murder of Fr Christopher Gray in Liverpool highlighted the risks faced every day by the clergy. JOE JENKINS reports
ASTORY TOLD BY a nun attached to a south-west London parish illustrates the everyday challenge of urban ministry.
"A man we know with a very serious drink problem came to the church and we fed him and found him a bed for the night in a hostel," she says. "But he wouldn't go because he wanted us to give him money. Then he got into a fight with another man and we had to put him out.
"It doesn't look good when we have to put someone out like that, but what else can we do? When I am alone, here, I carry an alarm button. I have had a man pushing in through the door before, when I have been on my own. You always take a risk when you open it; you never really know who's going to be on the other side."
Has the man been back? Yes.
"Yesterday, he told me I was evil. Today, I gave him a sandwich and he said that he loved me."
This story is not extraordinary, like the killing of Liverpool vicar Christopher Gray last week or the attempted murder (with an axe) of a vicar in Walsall the same week. But it is the sort of testimony that last year inspired 600 churches of all denominations on Merseyside to set up a scheme enabling parishes of varying resources to safeguard their property and their clergy.
Churchwatch, which was founded by the Rev Harry Ross of Anglican St Luke's, in the shadow of Everton Foot ball Club, after the church sustained £2,000 worth of damage to its stained glass, liaises with police and the fire brigade to advise churches on security. It is a subcommittee of the WorlockSheppard axis the Merseyside and Regional Christian Ecumenical Assembly and a paradigm that other areas Chester, Greater Manchester and Warrington among them are soon to immitate. The innovation it espouses is a wider involvement of laity in security Neighbourhoodwatch meets God.
Churchwatch estimates that to introduce effective although not infallible security measures, each parish must spend between £5,000 to £20,000. Alarms, polycarbon covering on windows, steel shutters and closed circuit television do not come cheap and to help finance these measures, Churchwatch is preparing a case to be put both to the British and European governments for funding. With or without the hardware, the involvement of the laity is good commonsense (and free), a resource being exploited to its full potential only now, as society becomes more violent, more volatile, more unpredictable.
There is a tragic irony, then, in the killing of Fr Christopher Gray last week, his death coming at a time when clergy in and around Liverpool had become the most streetwise and wellprotected in the country. Since Fr Gray's death, a debate has raged about whether clergy should withdraw from the inner cities. The resounding conclusion is No. The debate began when John Humphrys of Radio 4's early-morning Today programme put it to the barely-awake Bishop of Barking that perhaps they ought to. He was later misquoted; he actually said that priests would have to face up to the dangers of the city and be trained to do so. "We need to learn from other professions who work with people," he told the Herald this week.
The presence of a manned church in the city is at the very least to many symbolic of a small element in society that still cares. It represents continuity, a haven, perhaps simply a place to sit quietly, regardless of belief.
The problem is, however, that this haven can attract people who most priests are not trained to cope with. Most are harmless, some deadly.
Talking to a cross-section of Catholic clergy, it is evident that most take things in their stride. Horrific violence is the exception and a risk that must be taken on board especially in the city.
Fr Clive Birch, four years at the French Church, in London's Leicester Square, and now based in Walsingham where he will be appointed Marist Provincial in October, blames the Government's closure of mental hospitals for many problems faced in the urban ministry. "It's added to the burden of all society," he says.
At the French Church, people would wander in off the street to use the church as a toilet rather than paying 20 pence to use the chemical loo outside. Two or three times a week, "strange people, clearly with learning difficulties or with mental illness" would disrupt Mass, sometimes with threats of violence. This caused Fr Birch "a lot of psychological pressure. You have to be as gentle as you can," he says, "but at the same time be firm. It was very difficult to strike the right balance".
"A strange thing was that we found that the church was more secure when the doors were left wide open with all the lights on. It acted as a deterent as they could be seen" an observation that would no doubt draw the approval of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's Open Churches Trust.
The contrast with rural Walsingham and its Marian Shrine is great, but it is "a place of pilgrimage, a place for everyone" and this includes some "broken people".
Fr Timothy Swinglehurst of St Robert's, Harrogate, says that in the sedate town famed for its tea rooms and antiques shops, "it has become worse and worse over the years. There are strange people around and people are becoming more daring".
It is not just a case of kids trying to extract change from the poor box with a stick and some chewing gum, but on one occasion arson. But the church remains open. "We'd like to keep it that way," he says.
Arson was also a problem for the parish of St John's in Balsall Heath, Birmingham. But during Fr Joseph Carroll's eight-year incumbency there has been just one break-in and a few stones thrown at windows.
This bucks the trend in the run-down inner cities, reinforcing the fact that the death of Mr Gray was exceptional. It is no more open season on men in Roman collars than it has ever been. It is both sad and instructive that his death is not the result of a new phenomenon, but part of the continuing fight in the front line of society that our pastors and their helpers face every day.