Fears over future for historic church after spate of thefts

IT has been described as one of the 1,000 best churches in the country – yet a spate of crimes has left its members fearing for its future.

St Mary's, Birkin, a tiny village near Monk Fryston, Selby, is a listed building which has a history dating back to the 12th century.

It played a part in the abolition of slavery through the Thornton family – three of whom were clergy at Birkin, and another three who were MPs at that time.

But after many trouble-free years it has suddenly begun suffering from the attention of criminals who have struck several times.

In February, thieves removed most of the lead from the church roof and porch – resulting in rain causing severe damage. Thieves also stole the ancient brass vases, candle sticks and the base of the altar lectern.

In March last year the lightning conductor – of little value – was stolen, while in December 2006 one of the leaded windows was broken, causing 500 damage.

A member of St Mary's parochial church council, Sylvia Thompson said: "I just feel very strongly about this. How much more can a parish church take? And what is the future for these beautiful buildings with so much history and heritage?

"The police do what they can but there are just 48 houses in the village so there are not many people and we don't have a local policeman. In addition there is no street lighting in the area."

Priest-in-charge Sue Murrary added: "We have got one of the few Norman apses and architecturally it's rather nice – hence its place in Simon Jenkins's book England's Thousand Best Churches.

"These crimes have left us quite shattered because it is a sacred building – there for the good of the people in the parish and they are being stolen from.

"We are vulnerable and I would ask people to be more nosy in future. If they have any suspicions they should ring the vicar or churchwarden and note down any car numbers they are not sure about."

Pc Mark Fox, who covers the Selby beat for North Yorkshire Police, said: "We have had a nearby school – Hensall Primary School, around five miles or so away from Birkin – suffer its lead flashing being removed twice this week.

"It's an endemic problem. There's a high value on lead and copper and that's why they are being stolen.

"I would ask people to be more vigilant around public buildings especially in rural areas. Installing cheap sodium lighting that's on constantly is also worth considering."

Last month the Yorkshire Post reported that thefts from parish churches reached 8.7m last year, more than 6m accounted for by lead taken from roofs.