When thieves steal lead from the church roof, they steal the heart of the community

PUBLISHED: 13:40 11 September 2018

James Marston in Icklingham.

James Marston in Icklingham.


James Marston’s church in west Suffolk has been targeted by thieves and he isn’t happy.

There’s been some bad news at my village church.

Lead has been stolen from the roof.

In the middle of the night a group of men climbed the medieval church of St James in Icklingham in West Suffolk and stripped the nave roof. Criminal investigations are underway.

This is not the first time. It happened four years ago – also in the middle of the night – thwarted only by my parents who confronted a gang of young men who were stripping the lead after spotting torch lights on the roof.

But first let me express an interest, as regular readers of my column will know I am an organist at the church and currently training to become a priest in the Church of England. Churches are important to me. My outrage, annoyance and sadness at this turn of events is real.

My sister, also a member of the congregation of St James, cried when she heard the church had been targeted by thieves again.

Other members of the congregation, and it’s only small, have been most upset – not least because a great deal of effort goes into keeping the place going and the loss of the lead causes yet more work and worry.

As one of the ladies of the church said to me, “We’ve got a lot of cakes to sell to sort it out.”

I expect St James in Icklingham is not alone, and the theft of lead is a problem for many rural churches.

Indeed your own village church may have been targeted.

When this happens it cannot help to make those who care for churches – and indeed those who don’t – angry, sad and confused.

Why would someone vandalise these ancient buildings?

Where do they sell the lead?

What can be done?

Who are these people?


The strength of feeling about this runs high when it happens.

This is because for many villages – in Norfolk and in Suffolk – the village church is the last bastion of community life.

In Icklingham, as in other places, there is no pub or village shop. The church is all there is and the congregation there have responded to this dearth with coffee mornings, festivals, as well as non-religious events to bring people together and foster community life.

This is, of course, what churches were built for all those years ago, and to my mind the effort of the congregation is not wasted with many in the community coming together at various times to celebrate, to occasionally mourn, to mark time, and to simply spend time with each other.

Which brings me to my point, whatever you think of Christianity, churches in our villages are usually more than religious buildings, or places of prayer, worship and spiritual succour. They are also, as part and parcel of their religious life, often vibrant and busy centres of community life with many things going on all the time.

They offer a focal point, especially to rural communities that cannot be underestimated or ignored. They are, for many, a sort of second home, a place of welcome and safety and this is why an attack on them is so painful and unpleasant.

These days it is easy to bemoan the fact that we don’t know our neighbours as we once might have done, that communities are broken and fragmented, that there are virtual online communities not real face to face ones, that we don’t come together in mutual support and communal life, that no one cares anymore.

I’m not sure this is totally true.

All my years as a reporter on the newspaper, have shown me that community life is strong in Norfolk, Suffolk and elsewhere. People are interconnected in all sorts of ways and schools, churches, village halls, clubs, groups and the like all go to show that people are interested in their communities and the communal life of their village or town.

It is when the lead gets stolen, the school is burnt down, the community centre is vandalised that, though painful, often has at least one positive effect – it reminds us all how we need each other and how important each other is to us all of us, how community life and our place in it remains as important as it ever was, how we live together whether we think we do or not.

Does your village or town have a string community life? Has your church been targeted by thieves? How does your community react to adversity? Write to James at

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