Bats must leave the belfry in order to fulfill their missionary role

They leave vicars dodging nasty surprises, holes in dilapidated ancient buildings and volunteer wardens spending hours scouring excrement from church floors. 

Yet bats in the belfry could soon become a positive thing for the Church of England – and perhaps even “a tool for mission”. 

As hundreds of members of the clergy descended on the historic city of York for the General Synod yesterday [FRI], bishops have been asked to find a solution to the influx of bats that reside in churches across the UK which leave parishioners feeling “afflicted”.

It is illegal to stop a bat reaching its roost, leaving many churches unable to patch up holes in their walls and doors which bats use for access. As a result, congregations have often found themselves at the receiving end of their excrement. “They always seem to live above the alter,” one exasperated Somerset parishioner sighed, “You end up covered in it”.

However, the Chair of the Church Buildings Council (CBC) has revealed that the small nocturnal mammals could soon become tools for spreading the message of Jesus Christ – “if we can get them to behave politely”.

All Saints Church at Braunston in Rutland, where bats are roosting and causing damage
All Saints Church at Braunston in Rutland, where bats are roosting and causing damage CREDIT:  JOHN ROBERTSON, 2017/X

As bishops prepare to descend on York on Friday for General Synod, they have been asked to answer more than 100 questions involving an array of controversial topics such as reporting abuse during confession, non-disclosure agreements and ethical investments in large technology companies. 

Among the other questions, published on Thursday is one on bats. The Archdeacon of Lincoln, the Ven. Gavin Kirk, asked for an update on the progress of the Bats in Churches project, and “how those afflicted by bats may find out more about it?” 

To which Sir Tony Baldry, CBC chair, responded: “A number of projects involve volunteers from the community in managing and even exploiting the presence of bats, for school projects and the like. Bats might even prove to be a tool for mission, if we can get them to behave politely,” he said. 

More than 100 churches have applied for the Bats and Churches Partnership, which monitors bats to see whether church managers could be allowed to take action to protect their historic buildings. It is funded by a multi-million-pound National Lottery grant. 

Sir Tony added that the first 20 projects across UK churches are already happening and that “new techniques for excluding or restricting bats within churches are being tested, making use of a new class of Bat Licenses which Natural England has introduced”. The Bats in Churches team have set up a website and will be issuing regular newsletters to report on progress.

Asked how bats may prove to be tools for mission, Sir Tony told the media:

“We have to work out how to encourage them out of the belfry to roost in bat boxes in churchyards.

“They could then be of interest for projects for schools and A-level students studying the life cycles of bats and so on. They are part of God’s creation and are interesting mammals.”

A bat casts a shadow on the wall of All Saints Church at Braunston in Rutland, as it leaves its roost to go hunting for the night 
A bat casts a shadow on the wall of All Saints Church at Braunston in Rutland, as it leaves its roost to go hunting for the night  CREDIT:  JOHN ROBERTSON/X

“There are serious challenges. They poo and urinate over large parts of the church, it is very distressing for parishioners on a Sunday to have to clear a whole load of bat poo off the altar and pews and so for some churches that bats have made almost unusable.”

The General Synod is the national assembly of the Church of England and approves legislation affecting the whole of the Church of England, formulates new forms of worship, debates matters of national and international importance, and approves the annual budget for the work of the Church at national level.

At least 60% of pre-16th Century churches are estimated to contain bat roosts and at least eight species are known to use churches. The last century saw a dramatic decline in bat populations, largely due to loss of habitat. As a result, bats are now protected by law. 

Although bats often go unnoticed, some churches experience problems which restrict the use of the church and its maintenance. 

The Bats in Churches project is comprised of Natural England, the Church of England (Cathedral and Church Buildings Division), Historic England, the Bat Conservation Trust and the Churches Conservation Trust which are researching solutions that support churches with bats. 

Speaking in the House of Lords last year, the Rt Revd Graham James, former Bishop of Norwich said that bats had moved into churches in his diocese because old barns were being made into homes. He also joked that a longstanding deterrence method, the use of incense, was becoming less effective. 

“I used to recommend the regular use of incense, partly because I’m very High Church, and love incense, and bats appear very Protestant, since they normally departed where incense was used. “But even that is not now guaranteed to do the trick – clearly bats have gone up the candle in their churchmanship,” he said.

Written by: Gabriella Swerling

First published 09.07.19:

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