AN OXFORD church has banned begging after worshippers complained of feeling threatened by insistent demands for money – at times of service.
The Oratory, in Woodstock Road, has put up a notice in the church saying begging is strictly forbidden on the premises.
A note was also sent out in the parish newsletter advising parishioners not to give money to beggars in church but to find other ways to help.
Parish priest Fr Anton Webb stressed there was no intention to exclude anyone from the church, which is kept open all day.
But he said a line needed to be drawn after an increasing number of concerns were raised both by worshippers and the priests based there.
Fr Anton said: “People have come up to me feeling vulnerable or threatened by people asking for money.
“It has got to the stage that we are keeping a log and informing the police about it.”
He said recently he was approached by one person who he said was a persistent visitor to the church who asked him for money.
When Fr Anton said perhaps they needed to have a conversation, the man said he would return at 6pm for mass and ask his parishioners instead.
Fr Anton said: “That’s not on. Our parishioners come first and some are very needy themselves and we do get vulnerable people coming here so it is important everyone feels protected.
“It is in everyone’s best interests that we make the boundaries clear.”
Provost Fr Daniel Seward echoed his views.
He said: “It is important that we provide for those who are homeless and marginalised.
“But it’s not a good idea generally just to give money – it exacerbates the problem.”
On another occasion, while the priests based at the church were praying together in silence, a man came into the church and shouted “God is dead”.
Before Fr Anton was able to respond, an elderly woman who had also been praying at the back of the church, replied, “God surely is love”, at which point the man left without causing any further problems.
He said the recent move of homeless charity The Gatehouse to Woodstock Road had allowed the congregation to become more involved in supporting the people who used the charity.
Project director at The Gatehouse, Andrew Smith, said: “There has been a problem for that congregation of people hanging around at service times for the last 13 years.
“We do try to influence people’s behaviour and encourage them to be responsible but I don’t think we can direct their begging – it is part of a much bigger issue, which is poverty. We are always looking to work together with the church.”
He also encouraged people to donate to the Church Poor Box, and Oxford Poverty Action Trust to ensure any donation would be fully beneficial.
Thames Valley Police spokesman Elizabeth Hill said police had not received any complaints about begging at the Oratory Church. She added: “In order to curb begging we increase police officer and police community support officer presence in the area of concern and run plain-clothes operations to catch persons breaking the law.
"We also work closely with our partners at Oxford City Council street services team and the community response team to offer support to people in need of help, and gather evidence of criminal behaviour.
“If members of the public want to help vulnerable people we urge them to donate to the relevant charities and not to beggars on the street.”