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As Price of Lead Soars, British Churches Find Holes in Roof
EDMONDTHORPE, England — Thieves peeled long strips of lead from the roof of St. Michael and All Angels, until a barking dog sent them fleeing from this tiny Leicestershire village. But by then, they had left a hole of about 100 square feet in the top of the 800-year-old church.
For centuries, people have stolen religious artifacts in Europe, including chunks of religious buildings, but Britain is in the midst of an accelerating crime wave that some experts call the most concerted assault on churches since the Reformation.
Instead of doctrinal differences, the motivation is the near record price that lead — the stuff many old church roofs are made of — is fetching on commodity markets.
“The local parish church has become a victim of international demand for metals,” said Chris Pitt, a spokesman for Ecclesiastical, a company that specializes in insuring religious buildings and other heritage sites in Britain.
Lead’s price on global markets has rocketed sevenfold in the last six years, largely because of rising demand from industrializing countries like China and India. Centuries ago, its malleability made it a popular building material; now it is sought mainly for use in batteries for vehicles and backup power systems for computer and mobile phone networks. It is also used to make bullets and shot, cables and paints.
Because of booming demand, new mines are opening in South America and Asia, where deposits are plentiful. There is also a growing business in recycling lead, mainly from used batteries (where 75 percent of lead ends up) but also scrap metal.
Lead prices reached a record of $3,900 a ton late last summer mainly because of supply problems from mines in Australia, consumer demand in China for cars and motorbikes, and speculation by hedge fund managers on volatile commodities markets, said William Adams, a metals analyst at BaseMetals.com in London.
The price has pulled back since, trading at about $2,750 a ton, he said, but it could climb again on continuing supply problems and steady Chinese demand.
One of the oddest consequences of the historically high price is that idyllic corners of Britain — a nation that gave birth to the Industrial Revolution — are suddenly feeling the strain of Asia’s industrialization.
“Churches have become pretty savvy at protecting property inside their buildings, such as the altar ware and money in boxes,” said Mr. Pitt of Ecclesiastical, “but now the most valuable thing these churches have is being taken away piece by piece, and that is tearing away the very fabric of these buildings.”
Ecclesiastical is raising its premiums for churches after paying out claims last year totaling £9 million ($18 million), mostly for thefts of lead from roofs, he said. Before 2005, such claims were almost unheard-of.
A crucial problem for Britain’s churches is that many go unused for long periods of time, largely because of a decline in churchgoing. Services here in Edmondthorpe, for example, are often held just six times a year.
In some cases, clergy members and parishioners discover roof thefts only once rain pours into the building, damaging cherished items like carved wooden screens and ancient organs. The thefts can lead to thousands of pounds of structural damage, too.
In Edmondthorpe, the damage will cost £10,000 ($20,000) to repair.
“It’s ruthless how they do it,” said Nigel Peters, an inspector with the Leicestershire constabulary, describing lead thefts at Edmondthorpe and seven other local churches. “It’s such a skill to lay down the lead, and then it is literally just ripped away.”
Mr. Peters said his force had carried out raids on two local scrap metal dealers but had found no evidence of wrongdoing. He said no arrests had been made in connection with thefts in his part of the county.
Historical preservation rules require many churches to replace roofs with original building materials, including lead, despite its attractiveness to thieves and its cost. Many fear thieves will return after the repairs.
“Whenever I get an early morning phone call these days, I think, ‘Oh no, they’ve taken the roof again,’ ” said John Deave, 80, a retired barrister and a churchwarden at St. Guthlac’s Church in Stathern, another Leicestershire village, where the church was vandalized in January.
Mr. Deave suspected that thieves had climbed up the drainpipe, peeled a three-foot-wide strip from the roof, and threw their haul down into the churchyard, where they left a piece of metal and an indentation in the grass, before driving away.
Insurance paid most of the £2,300 bill to fix the roof. But the church had to pay the £500 deductible with parishioners’ money and reserves from tiny “peppercorn rents” still collected on nearby lands.
Mr. Deave has put special paint on the drainpipes to make them slippery to would-be climbers; has marked the roof with SmartWater, a kind of indelible ink that can be used to identify stolen property; and has pitched a thicket of signs around St. Guthlac’s warning thieves to stay away.
He wanted to put a bright light on the roof as an additional security measure but neighbors opposed the move.
Some churches in larger and more prosperous towns have upgraded their internal security, little changed since medieval times, to systems that are distinctly 21st century.
After lead worth £7,500 was taken from the roof of St. Peter & St. Paul, in Rutland, a county neighboring Leicestershire, the church canon, Stephen Evans, installed a security system with outdoor cameras. Movement on the roof sets off warnings that are sent to up to six mobile phones.
For churches with less money, the introduction of more rudimentary deterrents may be inevitable.
“Nobody likes to think of barbed wire or that kind of thing on these buildings, but churches seriously have to look at that,” said Tom Bates, a former insurance manager in the village of Waltham-on-the-Wolds, where lead was removed from the church of St. Mary Magdalene late last year.
“Ultimately insurance companies will say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” he said.
At St. Michael and All Angels in Edmondthorpe, Barbara Coulson, a lay minister, went ahead with a Good Friday service even after the theft. Thirty-six people attended as wintry gusts flapped the blue plastic covering the hole in the roof.
Ms. Coulson expected the roof to be repaired soon and said new security measures would be put in place.
Still, she said, churches like hers would remain vulnerable, in part because respect for faith traditions is often too weak to offset the temptation of cashing in on global markets.
“We increasingly seem to live in a world where the question ‘Is nothing sacred?’ so easily springs to mind,” she said.