To some, church cell towers send bad signal

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Churches throughout England are facing uncertain financial futures, so they've been renting out space to earn some spare change. Some ecclesiastical authorities are not pleased. Stephen Beard reports.

Photo: St. Barnabas Church in Beckenham, England, which put a cell-phone transmitter in a rooftop cross.


KAI RYSSDAL: Today is Easter Monday. Just another working day in this country. Over in the U.K., though, it's the tail end of the four-day Easter weekend.

It's a fair bet most of the faithful haven't been thinking about parish finances as they've been attending services. But dozens of churches and cathedrals throughout England are facing uncertain financial futures. So they've been renting out space to earn some spare change. But Marketplace's Stephen Beard reports now from London higher-ups are unimpressed.

STEPHEN BEARD: Church towers are lofty in every sense. They point heavenwards. They summon the faithful to worship and prayer. But in recent years, they've been involved in a less spiritual form of communication.

BARRY FOX: A church spire is a wonderful place to put an antenna. It's because it's very tall. And also, there aren't a lot of people living in the building to complain.

Science writer Barry Fox. More than 50 English churches are renting out their steeples to cell phone companies — for up to $20,000 a year.

A godsend for the churches, which are often in urgent need of repair, says Jonathan Petre, religion correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.

JONATHAN PETRE: A lot of them are medieval and, of course, it costs a huge amount to keep them up, let alone in good shape. The cathedrals, of course are even in worse state, and a lot of them have buckets catching the rain coming through the roof.

PRIEST: Let us go forth in peace praising Jesus, our Messiah.

But the mini-deluge of cash from the cell phone companies is causing strife and discord.

[SOUND: A congregation singing]

The congregation of St Peter and St Paul Church in North London worship at an open-air ceremony. The church's vicar wanted to have a cell phone mast installed in his steeple, but some parishioners objected. The matter was referred to an ecclesiastical court — and, says Jonathan Petre, the judge made an unexpected ruling.

PETRE: He said pornography can be transmitted through mobile phones and that the Church's mission was to promote the Church's work. Putting up mobile phone masts which could transmit pornography was outside that legal remit.

[SOUND: Bells]

Yes, the judge decided that while the church bells were summoning the faithful to prayer, the cell phone mast inside the tower might be conveying a set of rather different signals.

SEX PHONE OPERATOR: You have called the filthiest and most explicit telephone sex service in the U.K. I must warn you that if you are easily offended by explicit adult material, you must hang up now.

[SOUND: Hang-up]

The judge said that the original concept of mobile phones was totally innocent, but they could now be used to download vast quantities of obscene material. He banned St. Peter and St. Paul from installing the mast.

The views from the pews are mixed.

MAN: We're unhappy with the idea, for the reason that the possibility of pornography . . . it just doesn't seem appropriate to have things like this in a church, is my feeling.

WOMAN: I've got a mobile phone. I use a mobile phone. I can't use it without a mast somewhere.

BEARD: So why not in a church spire?

WOMAN: Why not in a church spire where it's hidden. Can't see it, it's not a blot on the landscape, and some revenue for the church.

BEARD: What about the argument that mobile phones can be used to download pornography and that would be inappropriate for a church spire?

OLD WOMAN: Well I'm 97, and I never think of those sort of things.

This may not prove a laughing matter for the Church of England. The case is now under appeal. If the banning order is upheld, it could deprive the Church of an important new source of income.

SIMON HEANS: The lord be with you.

The reverend Simon Heans would like to have seen a mast in the steeple of his church in south London. He thinks the court decision is frankly ridiculous, even though he is worried about pornography.

HEANS: Pornography per se worries me, but the issue of using mobile phones for that purpose is neither here nor there. Because of course, it can be transmitted in all sorts of ways.

SEX PHONE OPERATOR: You're one-to-one with an experienced women is about to begin. Get ready.

Indeed, this message arrived down an ordinary fixed telephone line that could easily have travelled across Church property.

With thousands of dollars at stake, Church leaders await the appeal court's decision with trepidation, hoping — and praying — for those pennies from Heaven.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

©2007 American Public Media


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