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Outpouring of support after arson attack forces English church to cancel services

Posted on: December 10, 2018 10:51 AM
Firefighters tackle a blaze at St John the Baptist Church in Royston, Hertfordshire, in the early hours of Sunday morning.
Photo Credit: Hitchin Fire Station / Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service via Twitter

A Church of England parish church in Hertfordshire was forced to cancel services yesterday (Sunday) after arsonists caused significant damage to the building. A spokeswoman for Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service told the Anglican Communion News Service that “the . . . bell tower, roof and entrance were well alight” when crews arrived at St John the Baptist Church in Church Lane, Royston, following the alarm shortly before 3.45 am.

Fire crews attended from Royston, Letchworth and Baldock, Hitchin, Stevenage, Buntingford, Welwyn Garden City, Potters Bar, Wheathampstead and Bishop’s Stortford, as well as the aerial ladder platform from Stevenage, incident support unit from Hitchin and command support unit from Hertford, the spokeswoman said. 

Fire crews spent the day fighting the fire, which was extinguished at 5.36 pm yesterday evening.

The incident is listed as deliberate and police are currently investigating”, the fire service spokeswoman said.

In a statement, Hertfordshire Constabulary said that they are treating the fire as arson and appealed for witnesses.

The fire forced the church to cancel services yesterday. Neighbouring churches offered to assist – including the independent Trinity Life Church, which invited St John’s congregation to use its Town Hall base as a venue for tea and coffee. Trinity Life also invited congregation members to join them for their 10.30 am service, as did Melbourn Baptist Church. Neighbouring Church of England parishes have also offered support.

The Bishop of St Albans, Alan Smith, visited the scene on Sunday morning with local Member of Parliament Sir Oliver Heald, and met with the vicar, Heidi Huntley. Later, he Tweeted messages of support asking for prayer for her and the people of the parish, saying that they were “shocked but determined to keep worship going and to rebuild the church.”

The building has special protected status for its historic and architectural importance. It is Grade 1 Listed, which means it is a building “of exceptional interest”. Founded in the late 1100s, the church was originally the chapel of an Augustinian priory, which became a parish church after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. Its nave and aisles date to the 13th century. The west tower is from the 16th century and the chancel is from the 19th century.

Some reports say that the roof of the church has been destroyed.

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The blaze at St John the Baptist parish church in Royston, Hertfordshire, yesterday (Sunday).
Photo: Andrew Ward

“Understandably, this incident has caused a great deal of upset in the local community”, Detective Inspector Jason Keane from Hertfordshire Constabulary said. “Our investigations are continuing alongside our colleagues at Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service but we are treating the incident as suspicious.

“I am appealing for anyone with information about the fire, or events leading up to it, to please come forward. Did you witness any suspicious activity in the area or around the church itself? Any information could greatly assist our enquiries.”

Nobody was injured as a result of the fire.