Thieves in Britain are using Google Earth to target lead roofs on Church of England buildings to sell on the lucrative metals market, a Church spokesman said.

About 8,000 churches have made insurance claims for lead theft worth about 23 million pounds during the past three years, the Church's estate commissioner Tony Baldry said during a debate in Westminster Hall.

In many cases, churches have replaced their roofs only to be targeted again, in one case 14 times.

Many of the Church of England's 16,000 churches are listed, which provides planning protection for buildings of historical value, and date back hundreds of years.

The effect on the morale of parishioners and communities is devastating, Baldry said in comments released Thursday.

Congregations felt police were reluctant to act, despite growing evidence showing that organized gangs were involved, mirroring the price of lead on the world metal markets, he added.

The higher the price of lead, the more churches are stripped of it, Baldry said.

The economic downturn, coupled with fears over sovereign debts in the euro zone, has seen investors turn away from paper assets in favor of base and precious metals.

Lead can currently sell for nearly $2,400 per metric tonnes on the metals market -- up from below $900 at the end of 2008.

Baldry called on police and local authorities to regularly spot-check scrap metal yards and inspect registers.

Lead theft is one of the most serious threats at present to the Church of England's churches, he said.

This is a crime that has to be taken seriously. Night after night, lead is being stolen from church roofs, and thieves now use Google Earth to identify targets, including church roofs.

Home Office minister, James Brokenshire, said the government and police were taking the theft of metals seriously.

We have seen the significant disruption that metal theft causes to critical national infrastructure throughout the United Kingdom, he told the debate.

That includes power and transport networks, with the stealing of live copper cable, which has resulted in death and serious injury for people involved.

(Editing by Michael Holden)