London (CNSNews.com) - A senior Church of England official has highlighted a growing problem in Great Britain: violence against clergy and property crimes against church-owned buildings.
Archbishop of York David Hope, the Anglican Church's second-in-command, warned that high crime rates in some inner city and rural areas have resulted in a decrease in clergy applying to take up posts in areas with the most severe problems.
A recent University of London study found that one out of every eight Anglican priests in London and southeast England were assaulted at some point over the course of the two-year survey. Some British unions have even offered self-defense courses for the priests they represent.
Martin Sheppard, director of communications for the diocese of York, said Monday that crime against clergy wasn't a "new problem," but he noted that vicars and priests have increasingly found that they have had to deal with threats and abuse.
"In some inner city parishes, churches are subject to the same conditions that blight other institutions and businesses in the area," Sheppard said. "Clergy can be particularly vulnerable, especially since most of them live close by their churches."
Clergy, by virtue of their roles, are also more likely to encounter a broad range of people in their own neighborhoods. Sheppard recounted the story of one Church of England vicar who had developed a rapport with local youths, only to find a more aggressive group loitering outside his church one day.
"He had a word with them, and when he turned around, he was attacked from behind," he said.
Similar problems also exist in poor rural areas in the north of England, the archbishop noted.
"It's becoming more difficult to fill posts in these areas, but it's not impossible," Sheppard said. "We're finding that in these areas, a higher proportion of single people choose to take up positions." Church of England vicars are allowed to marry or stay single depending on personal preference.
The Church's parish-based system encompasses the whole country and means that clergy attempt to serve every community, even where economic decline is at its worst.
"When we can do it, we try to make sure we retain a presence when other things have pulled out," such as rural post offices, businesses and local police branches, Sheppard said.
Nick Tolson, national coordinator of Churchwatch, said that this dedication to declining towns and inner city areas marks priests out as targets.
"Clergy are often the last official presence in a place," he said.
Tolson said violent acts against clergy have risen by about a third in the past three years.
"Clergy get no training whatsoever to deal with these assaults," he said.
Churchwatch is funded by insurance companies and runs courses to help clergy avoid violent situations. Tolson said that in many seminars he holds, more than half the vicars present have been assaulted at some point during their careers.
"We're great believers in having churches open to the public," he said. "(But) now we need to work on a solution to this problem, and that's training...It's good that this is now being acknowledged as a risk."
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