Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Church Commissioners sell church to SSG for £100

According to this Gateshead Lib Dem blog the Church Commissioners sold a church to the St Stephen The Great Charitable Trust in November for £100:

The landmark St Cuthberts Church on Bensham Bank has been sold by the Church Commissioners to the American based St Stephen The Great Charitable Trust. The historic landmark has been sold for £100, reflecting the state of the building which is suffering from structural problems and vandalism. The building needs considerable investment to bring it back into use.

The nineteenth century church was designed by the famous Victorian North East architect John Dobson.

The Church Commissioners were keen to see the building continue to be used as a church. Work on restoring the building is expected to take a year.

The sale of the church has been welcomed by local Liberal Democrat campaigners Susan Craig and Peter Andras.

Does this sound familiar? An Anglican institution is desperate to hand over their asset(s) to someone. Things don't go smoothly with the first possible recipient, but then SSG are there in the right place at the right time and get given it for free.
The £100 price tag is not really the issue. Such an amount might be entirely appropriate given the hundreds of thousands that will need to be spent on the church. What really surprises me is that the Church Commissioners have decided SSG are suitable recipients at all given:

1. The ongoing legal cases between SPCK and SSG as well as between SSG and some former employees. SPCK gave away millions of pounds-worth of assets to SSG and got their fingers badly burnt and yet the Church Commissioners appear to be doing exactly the same thing. [If you are unfamiliar with the SSG / SPCK bookshops story see all the posts in the Save the SPCK category on this blog.]
2. The dubious aims of the Saint Stephen the Great Trust. SSG have said they are aiming to restore 47 redundant churches, one for each of the 47 battles St Stephen the great fought against the Muslims (statement now removed from their website, though I have the text recorded here). In their video SSG make it fairly clear that they see acquiring churches in Muslim areas as one of their aims. I just can't see how giving a church to such an organisation can fit within the requirements for new uses for redundant churches, namely that they should be 'sensitive to the setting and history of each building'.

It could of course be the case that the Church Commissioners are unaware of the whole SPCK/SSG situation, but this seems unlikely. It is true that this sale took place before the release of the St Stephen the Great video and the Radio 4 Sunday programme, but a lot of information about SSG was available online before that time. Surely you'd do a quick Google search before giving a church building to someone.

Here's some background reading:
• This April 2007 video by the same Lib Dem councillor shows the church before it was sold (Warning - contains local ploughing and footbridge news and also some in-depth photocopying footage)
Extremist Sect Sets Up Church - No, not SSG. This is a report relating to a previous controversy, when the The Society of St Pius X were due to take on the church.
BBC NEWS | England | Tyne | Historic church's future secured - A BBC report on St Cuthberts from 2005.
Listed Church For Sale - The Gateshead Council site listing the church as being for sale again in February this year

The page about St Cuthberts (now deleted) on the Church of England site said:

This is a rare opportunity to acquire a landmark building, in a commanding position overlooking the River Tyne. The property is being sold with the benefit of a development brief produced by Gateshead Council supporting the conversion of this Grade II Listed Church to a range of commercial and residential uses. All parties are keen to see the property sold and sensitively converted to secure the future of this landmark building. Built in 1845 to the designs of John Dobson and extended by the addition of an aisle in 1874, the church stands in a large churchyard that has been used for burials. It comprises tower, nave, chancel, vestries, aisle and west gallery. The building has suffered from subsidence due to former mining works in the area and is in need of substantial stabilisation and other restoration costs. Guidance on these likely costs is available from the agents. Offers are invited by 28 July 2007, with detailed evidence of feasibility within three months of submission of offer.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

SPCK/SSG bookshops on the Radio 4 Sunday programme

[Welcome to anyone who has found this blog from the Radio 4 programme. The posts on the SPCK / SSG story can be found in the 'Save the SPCK' category]

You can now listen to the programme again here: Radio 4: Sunday programme. The SPCK item is 25 minutes and 15 seconds in.

In summary, the programme contained the following:

• Introduction to the bookshops and the crisis
• Me talking about my surprise at statements found on the original SSG website
• Sections of text from the SSG video
• Gregory Hallam talking about Orthodoxy and Islam
• Mark Brewer
• Aude Pasquier, speaking form a publishers perspective
• Mike Ford vistits the Chester shop and comments on what is and isn't on display
• Richard Greatrex, former Bristol manager
• Christina, another former manager
• Jane Mcgarry (?) USDAW
• Interview with Phil Brewer

Some of text from the programme transcribed via hefty use of the pause button (see 'Editor's note' below):

Presenter: A little over a year ago a small charity called St Stephen the Great took over the running of Britain's most famous religious bookshop chain, SPCK. The chain was said to be on the verge of financial ruin and the staff were worried about their jobs. At the time of the takeover SPCK's 23 bookshops employed a staff of 200, but since then the staff have left in droves complaining about the style of the new management, as well as changes to their contracts and working conditions. Publishers say new books aren't appearing on the shelves. St Stephen the Great (SSG) now a limited company is run by the Brewer family in Texas who describe themselves as lay Orthodox Christians whose aim is to spread the Orthodox message by acquiring redundant Anglican churches. Mike Ford has this special report.

Mike Ford: Set in the normally genteel world of religious bookselling the saga might well have come straight from the pages of a novel by Barbara Pym. SPCK was traditionally one of the most respected chains in the business. Some of its shops had been trading since the early 1800s stocking a broad selection of theological books and supplying churches with communion wine wafers and candles. But in more recent times the chain had faced desperate financial problems and had difficulty securing a buyer. So when the Brewer brothers from Texas agreed to take over it seemed like manna from heaven.

Dave Walker: I think when SPCK wanted to get rid of the shops they wanted a solution that would involve as few redundancies as possible and I think they saw St Stephen the Great as being the best option in the circumstances.

Mike Ford: Dave Walker is a cartoonist for the Church Times who has been following the story on his blog.

Dave Walker: I was very surprised when I went onto the SSG website that some of the statements that were on the site at the time didn't strike me as being particularly compatable with the more open minded stance of the SPCK shops.

Audio from SSG video: I'm Mark Brewer, chairman of the St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust. Who was St Stephen the Great? He was a man who lived in the fifteenth century who fought some 47 battles against the Muslim Turks who were invading Eastern Europe at that time.

Mike Ford: Mark Brewer and his brother Philip describe themselves as lay orthodox Christians. They named their charity after a Saint who built a church after each of his 47 battles against the Muslims. The brothers want to follow in that spirit by acquiring 47 redundant churches from the church of England and turning them over to Orthodox use. Posters in their shops use the slogan 'Buy a book - Save a church'.

Audio from SSG video: The second major project of the Trust is a lovely old Victorian church in the city of Bradford. Known as Saint Mary Magdalene, the abandoned building would most likely have become an Islamic centre as it is only two blocks from what is already the second largest mosque in Europe. Now, thanks to (fades)

Mike Ford: Many Orthodox Christians have been alarmed by this video. Father Gregory Hallam, an Orthodox priest in Manchester thinks it could suggest that the Orthodox church has a confrontational attitude towards Islam.

Father Gregory Hallam: I belong to a church in the Middle East that has lived alongside Islam for over 1400 years, and some of Mr Brewers statements about Islam strike us as being very un-Orthodox in the sense of not being consistent really with our whole approach to interfaith relations. We in the Orthodox church regard all religions as being an indication of God's graciousness to mankind.

Mike Ford: The staff at SPCK became increasingly unhappy about the changes the Brewers were making. They related to the range of stock, the way it was ordered and the working conditions. The new management style didn't go down well either. The staff voted with their feet. More than two thirds of managers have left along with scores of others. In Exeter the entire team walked out. But the chairman of SSG, Mark Brewer, said the new measures had to be taken.

Mark Brewer: We came into the bookshops a year and a month ago facing mounting losses on the trading operations and set about the very difficult and sometimes unpopular task of trying to make the shops profitable enough to at least pay their own way while continuing to spread the word of God through the printed material as well as of course church requisites and some religious articles of one kind and another.

Mike Ford: It was understood from the start that the shops would continue to sell a range of materials, but according to staff in some shops the stock is narrower and they aren't receiving supplies. Aude Pasquier, sales and marketing director for a London publishing house says the changes are posing serious challenges to religious publishers.

Aude Pasquier: Basically I think the range of books is not being carried any longer. Potential customers can't find the range of books that they used to be able to find in the SPCK bookshops. Writers have been coming to us asking why - how come I cannot find my books on the shelves of the SPCK bookshops. For publishers it means that we have lost 23 shops in 23 different locations where we had clearly a good customer base and we have to be able to reach those customers by some other means from now on.

In summary: I felt it gave a good summary of the situation. The nature of such programmes is that each person's contribution is reduced to one or two sentences, but I think a good number of points were made nevertheless. I'd have liked what was said on to have gone further - for example the various Anglican dioceses who have said nothing about the fate of their local SPCK shop escaped without mention - it wasn't for a lack of talking about it on my part. Phil Brewer's responses in the final interview will, I'm sure, be the topic of some debate. As Richard
has said in the comments below he misrepresented the reason that many of the staff left, avoided the Islamophobia issue and his comments about 'broadening the stock' are just not born out by reality.

Thanks to the BBC for running this story and for the producers for ensuring that such a wide variety of voices was heard. If you have comments on the programme then do of course post them below, but you can also comment on the Sunday programme website.

Other comments on the programme:
Neil: Radio 4 again
The Need to Maintain Critical Dialogue Between Religions: SPCK / SSG Bookshops | The Wardman Wire
Madame Arcati: St Stephen's bookshops fight the Muslim heathen!
Posters on the Ship of Fools bulletin board give their reactions
Room515 | SPCK: The fight club continues

Other links not directly about the programme:
• A pro-SSG Anglican priest - de cura animarum: St. Stephen's Trust: Restoring Britain's Christian Heritage
[Editor's note (Sunday pm): I need to get on with work, so the transcript of the programme is incomplete. If anyone else wanted to do any more transcribing (from 31 minutes) that really would be marvellous - I know that you can listen to the programme but it would be good to have a written record.]

Update: a comment by Richard Greatrex has been added to the Sunday programme site:
Re: The takeover of the SPCK Bookshops by St Stephen the Great.Many of the points made by Phil Brewer need challenging. Go into your local SPCK/SSG Bookshop and look for any of the new titles published since August by the major Christian publishing houses in the UK - SPCK, DLT, Church House, Kevin Mayhew, etc. I doubt whether you will find more than 5%. The range has radically diminished and not got broader, as Phil Brewer said. In some cases even the range of Orthodox material is less than before the takeover. Phil Brewer states that many of the staff left because they couldn't cope with attempts to modernise business practice. But most of us welcomed this with opened arms, we were willing to work hard to remodel the shops in a more businesslike way. We left because we and our colleagues were treated in most unbusiness-like and unchristian ways.

Friday, 14 December 2007

The SPCK saga on Radio 4

The Sunday programme on Radio 4 is due to feature the story of the former SPCK shops this Sunday, the 16th December 2007. The programme is from 7-8am, so ideal for those limbering up for church.

This is what I was talking about yesterday in a veiled sort of a way. I was asked not to say anything straight away, but since I've been out all day some of you have beaten me to it in the comments. Being a bit dazed and confused I can't remember when I am allowed to talk about it, but I think it might be about now.

I went into London today to the BBC studios to record an interview. My feeling was that it didn't go very well at all. Despite doing lots of revision yesterday I don't think that I'm good at talking on the radio as I panic and just say the first thing that comes into my head. (If I ever say I'm going to apply for the diplomatic corps please attempt to dissuade me on these grounds.) I've probably said all the wrong things in all the wrong ways because I'm not good at thinking on my feet. If it turns out to be really bad I may have to go into hiding and live the rest of my life under a nom de plume. I'll decide on Sunday.

A number of other people who read or comment on this blog are being or have been interviewed, but obviously I have no idea what they'll use or how long the piece will be. The programme will be available to listen to on the internet for, I think, a week after it is broadcast.

I'm glad that at last this story is being given some wider attention. I for one have been really very frustrated, angry even, that so few people with influence have wanted to talk about it. I may or may not have said something about that in my interview.

One upside to all this: it was quite exciting to go to Western House (next to Broadcasting House) where Radio 2 and Radio 6 music do their radio broadcasting. I used the toilets on the Radio 2 corridor. As it turned out I wasn't sitting alongside Terry, but rather in a little cubicle with a set of headphones and a microphone attached by some miraculous means to a studio in Manchester.

Update: Father Gregory, another possible contributor to the programme (I say possible because no-one knows what will be edited in or out) says some things about the Orthodox involvement here.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Former SPCK employees

If there are any former SPCK employees who would be prepared to talk to a media organisation could you send me a quick e-mail with your phone number. If you can do it this afternoon (Thursday) that would be great.

Many thanks.

[Just to add - I'll probably remove this post before too long as it doesn't have any enduring interest. If you have a comment you might be better adding it to one of the previous SPCK posts]

Update (10.30pm): I've had a number of people contact me and have passed details on to the interested party (a major player in the media world - hopefully there will be more to say in the next few days). On this occasion I probably don't need anyone else to get in touch, but if you do it will still help me if there are future requests for people to speak to. Thanks again.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

New St Stephen the Great website

St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust, owners of the former SPCK bookshops have a new website.

I was interested to note the following sentence on one of the pages:

In the ensuing 3 years, the Trust has acquired redundant churches in Dorset, West Yorkshire, County Durham, Suffolk, Norfolk and West Sussex. It has succeeded in putting these into use as Orthodox Christian Churches or is in the process of doing so. At least three of these buildings were due to be knocked down while a fourth was to be turned over to a wholly secular use.

So, which are these redundant churches?

Dorset: St. Osmunds, Parkstone, Poole (early 2005)
West Yorkshire: Saint Mary Magdalene in Manningham, Bradford (May 2007)
County Durham: St Cuthberts, Gateshead? (Is this the church in the video? The 1845 date fits and it looks like it. Gateshead isn't in County Durham though.)
Suffolk ?
Norfolk ?
West Sussex ?

I have no idea about the Suffolk church. Any ideas? As for Norfolk and West Sussex - are these last two the SPCK shops in Norwich and Chichester? Does this mean that the Trust has plans to turn all of the former SPCK shops that are in church buildings back into churches?

The new website allows comments and Mark Brewer says 'Please feel free to contact me at your convenience', so perhaps someone would like to ask.

In other related news:
The comment thread on the SSGCT video is still very active. Users SSGCT and warriort38 are continuing to respond to comments made.
• One poster commenting in support of the video is 'edolhausen'. I wonder if that poster is any relation to Ed Olhausen, Supply Chain Director of St Andrews Christian Bookshops.
• In the Guardian Stephen Bates has mentioned the former SPCK bookshops. The paragraph looks as if it is based on the Bookseller piece I linked to a week or so ago 'More resignations at SPCK'.

Friday, 7 December 2007

From the 2007 SPCK Annual Report: SPCK gave SSG £3.3 million of assets

The SPCK Trustees report and accounts for the year ending 30th April 2007 (pdf document) is now online on the About SPCK page of the SPCK website. It might have been there for a while, but if so I hadn't taken the time to go through it with a fine toothpick.

Here are some extracts that relate to the transfer of the bookshops from SPCK to the St Stephen the Great Trust.

Under 'Notable events of 2006-07, page 6:

On 31 October 2006, all our Bookshops and their staff were transferred to St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust. The Society will retain six freeholds for a period of seven years, when (subject to agreed conditions) they will also be transferred. A further freehold, that of the Bristol shop, was offered for sale and has since been sold, with the shop moving into premises ten doors along the street.

Page 7:

SPCK Bookshops
Last year we noted that the trustees and senior management were considering ways in which SPCK's bookselling mission could be carried forward bearing in mind our financial resources. We noted that "some hard decisions are inevitable". In the event, it was decided by a unanimous vote at the trustees' meeting that the bookshops should be transferred to St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust. This charity undertook not only to take on all the staff and to try to keep all the shops open, but also to ensure that the stockholding carried a breadth of materials from a variety of Christian denominations, including those of differing views on contentious current debates.
This transfer seemed significantly better than any achievable alternative, leaving the staff in place and the Society with the opportunity to re-group and begin to move towards a more sustainable financial future

Under Note 7, page 20:

On 30 October 2006, SPCK entered into an agreement with St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (SSGCT), a registered charity no: 1109008, for the creation of a new Christian Resources Group including the SPCK Bookshops in operation at that date. Under the terms of the agreement and in furtherance of its charitable purposes, SPCK transferred its Bookshops activities to SSGCT on 31 October 2006 including the transfer of certain freehold and leasehold properties, fixtures and fittings and stock. SPCK also agreed to grant leases to SSGCT, at peppercorn rents, on certain other freehold properties for a period of seven years, after which time they will be transferred to SSGCT if the SPCK Bookshops Group remains in operation on an agreed basis. From the date of completion, SSGCT became responsible for the trading activities of all bookshops continuing to trade under the 'SPCK Bookshops' name, which is being used by SSGCT under an annually renewable licence.

The net book value of assets transferred by SPCK to SSGCT on 31 October 2006 is as follows:


Freehold Properties 1,665
Stock 1,619
Fixtures and Fittings 97
Net book value of assets transferred on 31 October 2006 3,381
Impairment of freehold properties (see Note 9.) 2,512
Total reduction in net book value relating to the transfer of Bookshops 5,893

If I understand things correctly SPCK transferred a total of £5.893m of assets to SSG, £3.361m from October 2006, and £2.512m in 7 years time if certain (unknown to me) conditions are met. The fact that the SPCK name has not been relicenced might imply that the conditions haven't been met, but that is just speculation. (I've only put the £3.3m in the headline to this post owing to this uncertainty.)

The valuation of the freeholds seems very low to me, given that the Bristol shop was, according to note 20, worth £1.25m alone. From Note 20, page 25:

On 15 May 2007 the Society exchanged contracts for the sale of its freehold premises in Park Street, Bristol. The sale was completed on 13 June 2007 and the net proceeds of sale amounted to £1,250,000

But then I'm no property price expert.

I still don't understand why, as desperate as they were, the board chose to give the shops to SSG, a group who have expressed the following views over the last week:

"The second major project of the trust is a lovely old Victorian church in the city of Bradford. Known as Saint Mary Magdalene, the abandoned building would most likely have become an Islamic centre, as it's only two blocks from what is already the second largest mosque in Europe serving Bradford's population of nearly sixteen percent Muslim. Now, thanks to the diligent work of the Saint Stephen the Great trust the church will be repaired and consecrated into the Orthodox Christian community.

I'm Mark Brewer, Chairman of the Saint Stephen the Great charitable trust. Who was Saint Stephen the great? He was a man who lived in the fifteenth century who fought some forty seven battles against the Muslim Turks who were invading Eastern Europe at that time. During his lifetime, after every battle he commemorated a church, built a new church to the glory of God throughout eastern Romania. He restored churches that had been destroyed by the Ottoman Turks. He is therefore a very fitting patron saint for this trust. We want to aspire to do the very same thing that Saint Stephen did, we want to rescue restore and re-energise the churches of this great country to the glory of God and to the salvation of the people."

It is true that I was very pleased when I heard the news about the transfer on 21st October 2006. But it was only one day later when we looked at the views expressed on the SSG website that we realised that all was not going to be plain sailing.

In the absence of any statement to the contrary one can only assume that the SPCK board members saw these views on the SSG website and still thought that these were the best people to be given the SPCK bookshops.

If giving the shops away was the final remaining option, were no efforts made to give the shops away to their managers or some other group with a local interest?

Again, in the absence of any statement to the contrary one can only assume that the Church of England is happy that the nearest thing to an Anglican chain of bookshops has taken the direction it has taken.

It seems to me that an invaluable asset has been squandered, and no-one really cares that much.

Update: Links to the different Saint Stephen the Great charities on the Charity Commission website are here. The accounts from November04 - March06 are here (pdf document).

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Comments on the SSG video etc

The St Stephen the Great video 'Rescuing Britain's Christian Heritage' which I posted last week has had (at the time of writing) 29 comments posted on it. These include some responses from the user 'SSGCT', who posted the video. A sample comment:

You obviously have a great deal of anger and it is good for you to rid yourself of it in any way possible. You are quite incorrect in saying SSG "deceived" anyone - much less the CofE. SSG has never had any dealings whatsoever with the CofE. Nor has it been anything less than transparent about its intentions: to spread God's love through Christian bookselling and saving churches.

See the YouTube video page for the context.

Also (not relating to the video):

• The Bookseller has put up a new article since my last post: More resignations at SPCK
• Blog post from June Austin, a non-fictional writer: Podding Along Nicely: Trouble in paradise?

Update - the latest from the comment thread:


That's kind of what I figured: you are just re-hashing the old "news" from Dave's blog. Trouble is, the stuff on that blog is grossly inaccurate, exaggerated and completely lacking in factual basis. Citing to that certainly lends no credibility to your assertions about SSG having "deceived" the CofE or anyone else! As for fruits: how about the fact 23 shops are still trading but 14 months ago, they were set to be closed? Why are you intent on ignoring that?

Friday, 30 November 2007

St Stephen the Great video

The following video outlines the aims of the St Stephen the Great trust and features some of their projects.

A direct link to the SSG YouTube page is here.

Please note (for anyone who has happened upon this post): The video above does not represent the views of the writer of this weblog.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Religious Bookshops

[Click on the image for the full sized version.]

This is the cartoon I did for the Church House Bookshop late night shopping event. The image is a bit off-colour as it is taken from a photograph of the original which is A1 size. The shelves on the left, by the way, say 'charismatic worship' at the top, and 'prayer' at the bottom. The shelves on the right say 'high church' at the top, 'middle of the road' in the middle and 'low church' at the bottom.

I may well do a version for the Church Times but if so I will redraw it. I forgot to label the 'extreme browser' who is clambering over the shelves. Not that I drew it in a hurry you understand. Thanks to the various people who supplied ideas, especially commenter 'Jaded for Jesus' who sent me the 'kneeling for prayer' gag months and months ago.

On the subject of bookshops: I don't have a lot to report on the SSG shops front. Christian Marketplace have a report here: The SSG saga goes on. Unfortunately there seems to be some problems with paragraphs dropped out of the online version - I'll contact Clem in case it's a technical glitch.

There are some quotes in the article with which I do not agree, as you might guess. I can't really say more though as it is all a bit close to home.

SPCK have, since I last wrote, updated their news page with the following:

Bookshops: a statement from SPCK

SPCK would like to emphasize that they do not own, manage or otherwise run the Bookshops which transferred to SSG's Charitable Trust in October 2006.

Saint Stephen the Great (SSG) was contacted by SPCK's lawyers in October 2007 concerning its use of the SPCK name for what used to trade as the SPCK Bookshops group.

In October 2007, SSG put out a release clarifying that from 1 November the bookshops
would be trading under the name Saint Stephen the Great.

The front page still says:

In October 2006, the SPCK Bookshops were transferred to another charity, the St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (SSG), who run them independently of SPCK.

SSG will not in future be using the SPCK name for these shops.

The SPCK name continues to be used in the shops - signs, bags etc.

Meanwhile on the internet the site remains empty, with links back to SPCK and the St Stephen the Great Trust site, which has been 'down for maintenance' for a week or so. It looks like they are designing a new site.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

SSG / SPCK latest

The shops saga has made a mainstream paper, albeit in a limited sort of a way. From the Guardian:
There's an unholy row in Christian bookselling, with an exodus of staff from the leading chain SPCK (the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge). Apologies for the religious puns, but they are hard to avoid when the company's president compares his shops to "the talents the Lord spoke of in the parable". To recap, a year ago a charitable trust took control of SPCK, whose 23 cathedral shops were struggling. But new owners St Stephen the Great (SSG) ran into trouble when they tried to impose a more orthodox stocking policy and ban promotion of the Qur'an. Staff in some branches such as Exeter resigned en masse. Now SSG wants to drop the 200-year-old SPCK name because the books released by SPCK's publishing arm are too liberal.

• An article I haven't linked to: Leicester SPCK goes independent - The Bookseller
• All is blank on the 'SSG Bookshops formerly owned and operated by SPCK' webpage
• Here's the blog of a former SPCK manager who has opened a new shop in Lincoln: Unicorn Tree Books Blog

One more thing whilst I'm on the subject. I'm having to edit or not post a reasonable number of SPCK / SSG related comments. This isn't necessarily because I don't agree with the sentiments expressed, as I often do. The problem is that some comments could be straying into legally dubious areas or they contain allegations that I can't substantiate. In neither case can I afford to take a risk on this as it will be me who carries the can should there be a can to be carried. I really don't like to have to do this, but sometimes it is unavoidable.

I'm aware that my comment policy isn't very clearly stated, something that I plan to rectify shortly. In the meantime if you feel that a comment that hasn't been posted deserves to be read there is nothing to stop you posting it on your own blog, or even starting one if you don't have one. Try the link I posted in the previous post about getting started on if that whole area is a mystery. It is possible, by the way, to stay up to date with what blogs are saying by keeping an eye on searches such as this one.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Radio interview with Mark Brewer

There is a radio interview with Mark Brewer on this Orthodox radio station in which he outlines his plans for the former SPCK shops. It starts about 9 minutes in and ends at 25 minutes in.

An excerpt from the show:
Mark Brewer:
"At that time it was an entirely Protestant chain serving mostly the needs of the Church of England. We have gradually, as quickly as we can - but it is a gradual process - been working to transform these into Orthodox bookshops. Our biggest selling item by the way is Bibles, and that was true before we took it over, so, you wouldn't call that Protestant obviously."

Let me ask you a question Mark; Any resistance to the introduction of Orthodox Christian books and material within this Protestant setting?

Mark Brewer:
There's been a substantial amount of resistance and it's manifested itself in a lot of ways that frankly I would not have expected. For the most part our staff has been supportive but not entirely, and we've tried to take their feelings and attitudes into account and approach this in a loving Christlike way, but at the same time Father we just don't feel comfortable selling theological books that are really what I would call inimical to Orthodoxy.

He goes on to talk about the banning of the Koran from the Bookshops, and then this about the Chichester shop:
England is so rich with the blood of the martyr saints. We have, just as an example: one of the shops that we have taken over is in a church - you're gonna love this Father - this church was built in the 11th century. It's one of the oldest buildings in the kingdom, and it's still standing in it's original form. It was dedicated to the saint King Olave who was (?) the invading Danes. He is the same person who murdered Saint King Edmund as in Bury St Edmund in East Anglia near the eastern shore of the country. Well we're in his church there selling books. The SPCK started that over 50 years ago, and we're now in the process of making a transition - it's a very small building but it's right in the middle of the heaviest pedestrian shopping area of the town of Chichester in southern England. And we're going to make this into a usable worship space for Orthodox worship, so that we can continue to sell books towards the back sort of like you might do in a parish church, but turn this building back into a church.

He then discusses imminent plans to buy a derelict church overlooking the Tyne in Newcastle and turn it into an Orthodox church.

Thanks to Ursula for the tip. As she says:
He clearly states that the intention is to make the shops "Orthodox shops" - for the Orthodox community. This interview took place on 27th October 2007 as far as we can

When is he going to announce that to the staff and also his plans for Chichester? Do they know?

Phelim McIntyre, former assistant manager of the Chichester shop, has posted these comments below:
Having spoken with people who know the Chichester situation this blog page is the first they will know about it.

The Chichester shop is a consecrated building. That is it is still a Church of England church, owned by Chichester Diocese. It is used rent free under a covenant dating back 50 years. An Anglican communion must take place once a year as part of that Covenant. The Brewers/SSGCT are responsible for the upkeep of the building, something neither they or SPCK before them did anything about. Because of this Mark Brewer can not just turn the building into an Orthodox Church. I know all of this because I was assistant manager at the Chichester shop and we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the shop just before I left.

I have been in contact with Chichester Diocese about this, and this blog was the first they knew about it.

To anyone affected who is reading - I'm really sorry you had to find out this way.

As recently as 8th May 2007 a special evensong was held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Chichester SPCK bookshop. The Bishop of Chichester preached, and his sermon is here as a pdf (I'd link to the Chichester Cathedral website but it uses frames). A short extract:
I am glad of this opportunity to honour the fiftieth anniversary of The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in Chichester and the very distinguished service given by Barbara Scott over very many years. Not only have I benefited greatly from the bookshop itself and from Barbara's own expertise and knowledge and that of her colleagues, but I also have a rather personal reason for being grateful to be standing here today. Twenty-five years ago this year (when SPCK was celebrating its first quarter century in St Olave's Church) I was installed as Bursalis Prebendary in this Cathedral, a stall which had, not many years previously, been occupied by William Kemp Lowther-Clarke, long-time editorial secretary and distinguished historian of the Society.

According to its mission statement, SPCK exists
"to promote Christian knowledge
by communicating the Christian faith in its rich diversity,
helping people to understand it and develop their personal faith
and equipping Christians for mission and ministry."

Thursday, 8 November 2007

SPCK bookshops: the hidden music

The staff at the SSG (formerly SPCK) bookshops are forbidden from using a wide range of music at 'events', as this short segment from the new contract shows.

I think the musicians in our midst would be doing a service to the bookshop community if they were to come up with some music suitable for use at SSG bookshop events. These are my guidelines for such a composition:

• Singing looks as if it is OK, as long as it is done in a non-secular manner. The minute you stray into secularism you're in trouble.
• No rapping, but perhaps we could have some spoken words here and there like on old country and western records. You know the kind of thing.
• Drumming or percussion is out, unless it uses a piano. An odd but welcome exclusion clause. This loophole could I think form the basis of our composition - we could have a whole troupe of people drumming on pianos. I can see the video now.
• I've tried to find out what 'a-tonal' music is but failed. Beware of a-tonalism is all I can say. You think you can dabble in it, but it'll get you in the end.
• And you people who are thinking of using a 'boom box' whilst doing some dancing and singing operatically. No no no!

There may be a short break in transmission whilst some of us head off to the recording studio.

Leicester SPCK goes independent

Some good news at last. The Leicester SPCK Shop has gone independent. It will henceforth trade under the name 'Christian Resources' - the new website is here.

I found the following press release on the St Paul's Oadby blog:

SPCK Bookshop, 10 Bishop Street Leicester

We are pleased to announce that from the 1st November 2007 ownership of the SSGCT/SPCK bookshop in Leicester is transferred to Reverend Peter Hebden.
As a consequence we shall once again be able to emphasize the ethos of SPCK and will trade under the name of CHRISTIAN RESOURCES.

The address and telephone numbers remain unchanged but there will be an increase in the use of e-mails for facilitating credit accounts for parishes. Thus the preferred method of ordering, invoicing and statement production for parish accounts will progressively use e-mail thus dramatically reducing the amount of paper being used. There is no need to travel into Leicester just telephone or e-mail your needs.

We are determined to retain and improve this Christian resource centre by serving those whose mission is necessarily rooted in the parishes. For this to succeed and be a foundation for the future we would like all P.C.C.'s to consider if they can use our facility even more than they do at present.

Please contact us (by e-mail if possible) and allow us to open a credit account for your parish even if you may not use it for a while.

Tel; 01162854499 e-mail; peter at

Best wishes from Peter, Janette, Harriet, Alison and Helen.

Also this letter from the Bishop of Leicester, Bishop Tim. Once again thanks to Revd Simon (who incidentally I met at the Christian Blog Awards) on the St Paul's Oadby blog:

I am delighted to add my support and encouragement to this courageous initiative that Peter Hebden is taking to keep the SPCK Bookshop ethos and resource available to us in this Diocese. It is vital that we all maintain our reading and awareness of Christian issues and the presence of a high quality Christian bookshop at the heart of the Diocese is a matter of real interest to all Christians. We owe it to Peter to do our best to support this initiative and to ensure that it does not fail.


Well done to these people and to the Diocese for making this happen. If you are local please do publicise and support it.

Let us hope that similar arrangements might be possible in other Dioceses.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Durham Cathedral SPCK

There has been drama at the Durham Cathedral Shop, one of the former SPCK shops. This is the Press release from St Stephen the Great (thanks to Annie):

Mrs. Carole Burrows, manager of the Durham Cathedral Shop, has resigned her position, effective 31 October 2007. According to Mark Brewer, chairman and CEO, "Mrs. Burrows served the charity with competence and aplomb, and she will be greatly missed by the staff and customers of the shop." He said that the charity had agreed to transfer the operations of the Cathedral Shop to Mrs. Burrows and expressed regret that this had not gone through. Saint Stephen the Great's president, Mr. Phil W. Brewer will serve as interim manager of Durham Cathedral Shop which is the flagship shop of the chain. Meanwhile, qualified candidates are being actively sought and interviewed for the position of permanent manager. In 2006, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge transferred ownership of the Durham Cathedral Shop as well as 22 other shops to Saint Stephen the Great. Commenting on the Durham shop Mark Brewer said, "Saint Stephen the Great considers it a great privilege to serve as the 'face' of Durham Cathedral through our operation of the Cathedral Shop. We seek to be a part of the pastoral ministry to both the Cathedral's visitors and to the employees of the Cathedral Shop." Saint Stephen the Great is an Orthodox Christian lay charity. It aims to share Jesus Christ's love and saving grace in a society suffering from the stress of a modern world engulfed by secularism. It seeks to do this by distribution of Christian literature and restoration of redundant churches for Orthodox Christian worship.

However, from the comments elsewhere on this site, Pax Vobiscum gives a different view:

A press release was issued on 2 November 2007 by J. Mark Brewer stating that 'Mrs Carole Burrows, manager of the Durham Cathedral Shop, has resigned her position, effective 31 October 2007.'

He then goes on to say some gushing things about Mrs Burrows qualities (so true, she is a brilliant bookseller and caring person) and that the charity had agreed to transfer the operations of the Cathedral Shop to Mrs Burrows and expressed regret that this had not gone through.

HOWEVER - and you knew that was coming - this is not the case at all. Mrs Burrows, who was trying to work with her solicitors on a proper affordable deal to take over the shop - a deal instigated by the Brewers and not by her - was told by Mr M Brewer that she must either accept his deal (with no amendments) or clear her desk within the hour. As the deal offered was not affordable she didn't have much choice. That is not resigning - that is being sacked.

So, 2 members of the staff representative body who were trying to work with ACAS on legal contracts have now been booted out.

I think you will be hearing more about this story in coming days, if not hours.

Also from veritas in the comments below:

The Brewers say that Carol Burrows has resigned. I saw the press release. Carole says she was fired. Being told to "clear your desk and take nothing with you" does not sound like a resignation to me. Nobody who has spent time with Carole can imagine that she's a quitter. She stood up for part-time workers who were set, via the new contract, to become casual workers with enormous financial ramifications for them. And nobody should doubt that Carole has been anything but loyal to the SPCK cause. I'm left wondering why the Brewers need to be advertising for a new manager? Do they want another "yes boss" person in charge so that the shop can be further decimated and will that new person be on the forum discussing new contracts. Oh dear, I forgot! Durham is special isn't it - apparently whoever is in charge can delete the directives sent via e-mail to other bookshops because "Durham is the jewel in the crown." Well the jewel in the crown has books on the shelves face up rather than spine up so that the shelves can look full. Some jewel!

Some further news. Nigel Oakley launched his book, "Engaging Politics?" in the bookshop. By all accounts it was a fantastic evening thanks to the staff members who stayed behind after working hours without pay. It's what dedicated people do. Unfortunately, the bookshop staff could not order the book because the publishers had not been paid. Nigel had to buy copies himself and the bookshop had to pay him. This is no secret. Bishop Tom Wright told this to the synod members today. Bishop Tom is launching a book at the Durham shop soon. Wonder if he'll have to buy copies too?

I don't think this is the last we will hear of this story.

Surprisingly, given that it is 'the flagship shop of the chain', the Durham shop does not currently appear on the map on the bookshops page of the SPCKOnline site:

The red arrow is mine by the way. Oddly though it does appear on the SPCK Bookshops site. I've no idea whether this has significance.

On a related but probably less important note the web address was registered by the Dean and Chapter of Durham cathedral on the 29th of October just gone, perhaps because they thought the shop was about to turn independent. It is only being used for email thus far though - the web address doesn't bring up a webpage.

[You'll get these results if you put the domain into any domain registrar website (and have nothing better to do):]
Domain name:

The Dean & Chapter of Durham Cathedral

Registrant's address:
Chapter Office
The College

Onyx Internet Ltd [Tag = ONYX]

Relevant dates:
Registered on: 29-Oct-2007
Renewal date: 29-Oct-2009

Friday, 2 November 2007

SPCK reports (latest)

I'd like to keep SPCK and the places where it is being talked about at the top of the blog over the weekend, as it is what most people are coming here for at the moment. (Scroll down if you'd prefer an in-depth discussion on the subject of 'heaps' in 2 Chronicles, and scroll down further to advise me on my recent accidental purchase of a low quality folding bicycle.)

• My own blog entries: Save the SPCK
• Church Times report: SPCK rift widens: shops renamed; trustees resign
• Response to the Church Times report from the Brewers (printed on MetaCatholic): The SPCK saga and Texan "Orthodoxy"
• Bookseller article: Schism develops at troubled SPCK
• Ship of Fools thread: "SPCK" book shops
• Facebook Group: A group for all those people who mourn the tragic demise of SPCK Bookshops (Over 50 members in one day)

I'll add more if they become available.

• Clem Jackson of Christian Marketplace would like to talk to people who have knowledge of what is going on. I can vouch that he is a trustworthy individual who is not going to take your words out of context etc. His contact info is here.

• Someone asked in a comments thread below whether anyone has a SSG contract so we can see what has been going on in terms of that side of things. Well, I'm sure someone has, but not me. I'm not sure whether I or whoever gave me the said document would be in any sort of legal hot (or even lukewarm) water if I was to publish one. I suspect possibly so.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

The future of the SPCK shops

From today (1st November) I understand that the SPCK shops will cease to trade under the SPCK name. I have had a report in the comments to a previous post that they will be trading as 'SSG'. I don't know whether that means as the letters 'SSG' or as 'St Stephen the Great'. We will find out very soon. I have been told that all SPCK logos and carrier bags (like the one above) will be removed from one shop, and therefore one assumes all of them, today.

Information has been hard to come by, but I really am quite surprised (actually very surprised) that no-one else seems to be reporting on this. As far as I am aware there have not, at the time of writing, been any media reports on this week's developments. (Update: There has since been more written elsewhere - see towards the end of this post.) A thread on Anglican 'Mainstream' has been posted, where, incidentally one poster wrote "it seems the Cartoon Blog has a less than 'orthodox' agenda about this issue?"

Lots of things are still uncertain. The main question is of course what is now going to happen to each of the shops. But I'm also wondering, for instance, what will happen to the website for the SPCK shops and the SPCK Online site.

It is clear from the comments here on the blog on the various SPCK posts that a lot of people feel very sad and angry about what has happened. Please spare a moment to say a prayer for those involved, particularly those who work in the shops. If you live near one of the shops why not pop in and, I don't know, take them some chocolate or something. Better than nothing.

My opinion is that those of us who can should continue to support the shops with our trade despite the uncertainty. If we don't then there really is no future for them.

One theme has come up a number of times in the comments: The SPCK Governing body have some very serious questions to answer about the way the shops were transferred to the new owners. As a first step the Governing body really should be making some sort of public statement about the immediate changes so that we know for certain what is going on. Silence isn't good enough here. In the longer run I hope that there will be some means by which some of the difficult questions can be asked.

I do have some information about developments in some of the individual shops, but I'm not posting information at the moment as (1) I have no way of verifying much of it and (2) I do not want to prejudice arrangements that may be being put into place. It is likely that some of these changes will become apparent very soon. If anyone directly involved would like me to make any developments known as they occur then please do get in touch.

There are doubtless some people reading who are wondering why I keep going on about this and wish I'd get back to posting nonsensical drawings. To my mind this is why it matters:

Why does any of this matter? Because the shops still employ some wonderful, talented people who are being treated very poorly. Because the shops were safe places for Christians of all denominations and people of no faith to meet, discover new and more challenging aspects of theology, discuss, debate and explore. They were 'fresh expressions of church' before the term was a cliché. Because many of our most thoughtful, dynamic and provocative Christian publishers would struggle to exist without the support from these shops. If they close, if their stock breadth is reduced, then informed, intelligent Christian debate will begin to be stifled in this country and new, challenging authors will find it harder to get their work published.

In short, the fall of the SPCK Bookshops means the triumph of knuckle-headed fundamentalism and a crushing of openness to the true, radical, empowering spirit of the living God.

To read all the posts on this site about SPCK from May 2006 until now click the Save the SPCK category. The various comments threads on the recent SPCK posts contain a lot more information than I've posted here, though I must emphasise that I have no way of verifying the accuracy of everything posted.

I will post updates on this post if there are any. I am away from the computer for much of the day so such updates and comment moderation may be slow.

Update: A Facebook group has been created - see the comment below.

Further Update: (1st November pm) The situation is confused. At least one Bookshop is operating entirely as normally, with the same signs, the same bags and the SPCK name given over the telephone to describe the shop. As has been pointed out in the comments the SPCK Online site is using the SPCK name in conjunction with the SSG one, describing them as the "Saint Stephen the Great SPCK Bookshops". I have no idea whether the top bods at SPCK have allowed this, but from the homepage it would appear not:

In October 2006, the SPCK Bookshops were transferred to another charity, the St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (SSG), who run them independently of SPCK.

SSG will not in future be using the SPCK name for these shops.

The link from the SPCK homepage to the SPCK Bookshops has been removed.

In other news, there is a thread on the Ship of Fools.

Additional Update: (2nd November AM)
Church Times article: SPCK rift widens: shops renamed; trustees resign
The Bookseller: Schism develops at troubled SPCK

Additional Further Update: (2nd November PM)
MetaCatholic has the text of a letter responding to today's Church Times report: The SPCK saga and Texan "Orthodoxy". They are unhappy with SCM-Canterbury Press.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Licence for the SPCK name is withdrawn from the bookshops

May I draw your attention to two comments that have been left on my site today:

Pax Vobiscum:

So, SPCK's AGM came and went with nary a murmur. The usual suspects in the Governing Body got away without censure on their appalling decision to hand over £6million worth of assets to be systematically stripped by the brothers Brewer. Several shops have declared UDI, including the brightest and best star in the firmament. SPCK has agreed not to continue with the license for the name and those shops where SSG does not hold the freehold stand a good chance of fading into distant memory. Meanwhile, those shops where SSG does hold the freehold could be in for a very interesting time indeed. It is enough to make you weep into your incense-infused orthodox coffee, served in a an agate cup hand-carved by nuns in Texas.

Let us hope that the shops that go independent can build a good, workable model to keep resourcing their communities - we must support them where we can. Meanwhile, prayers and cheery words for all the staff who are left.


Come Wednesday, when the current license expires, they will no longer be able to use the SPCK name on their shops. What name they do trade under remains to be seen - I withhold offering suitable suggestions!! The Brewers have managed to systematically strip the leading Christian bookshops of their reputation, their standing, the respect they held amongst clergy, laity and the wider Christian publishing and retail trade, as well as completely destroying the morale of, or losing altogether, the highly experienced and dedicated staff who have built up the reputation However, the blame cannot be placed entirely on the shoulders of the Brewers. Those within SPCK who took the original decision to hand over their assets to a group of unknowns are also to blame.

Mark Brewer did not get his wish to be elected to SPCK at their AGM, in fact I am told the motion was not even put. Furthermore, I am told Simon Kingston and Michael Perham, Bishop of Gloucester, have both withdrawn from acting as trustees to SSG. Such was the Bishop of Gloucester's assurance 12 months ago that he would serve as a trustee to ensure SSG maintained the reputation of the bookshops. Did not Pilate wash his hands?

A meeting the week before last between 4 of the staff, Mark Brewer and ACAS resulted in, you will not be surprised to hear, nothing constructive. The following Monday, the shops represented by those 4 members of staff had their e-mail disconnected. Suppliers have been told under no circumstances are they to send stock to certain named shops (not that they would do until outstanding bills were paid) two of which are in the process of, or have, negotiated a buyout. Presumably the fate of the remaining shops will be revealed within a matter of weeks, if not days.

Please note that I have no means of verifying the accuracy of every detail of these comments, but I am drawing attention to them as they are both by people who know a great deal more than I do.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

SPCK boss steps in to run the Exeter shop

SPCK boss Phil Brewer is running the Exeter SPCK shop himself, according to this report in the Exeter Express and Echo website. This is, if you remember, all to do with the fact that the staff all walked out as they were being made to sign contracts that some staff members have described as 'unsignable'. See the 'Save the SPCK' category on this blog for the whole story over the last year or two.

I know that one or two journalists have been finding it difficult to contact Mr Brewer, the boss of SPCK. Well, here is your chance. Phone up the Exeter shop with an enquiry about the latest brands of incense and it looks as if you might get to speak to the man himself. Actually, you would do well to vary your initial enquiry subjects a bit. Some of you could ask about palm crosses or bulk orders of 'Two ways to live'.

Update: Ruth Gledhill has posted. See also a very interesting comment from (I assume) an insiders perspective by 'Pax Vobiscum' on her previous post.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

The staff of SPCK Exeter resign

From the Express and Echo in Exeter:
One of Exeter's oldest shops is facing upheaval after all its staff resigned in a row over new contracts. All seven employees with the SPCK bookshop, in Catherine Street, handed in their notice and are due to work their last day on Saturday.

Of course this won't be news to you if you have been following the comments thread from my last SPCK post where Neil posted the same thing yesterday. I don't know whether other shops are facing a similar situation.

Other SPCK news:
• In Christian Marketplace an article 'Concern rising over SPCK bookshops' which quotes the Church Times article 'SPCK shop staff voice concerns about their future'.
• The Truro shop is apparently closing 'next week' according to a commenter, but I only have second hand knowledge about this.
• Sadly it is not proving possible to order items from certain well-known Christian publishers in certain SPCK branches. I've no idea how widespread this problem is.

The future looks uncertain. In the meantime the best we can do is heed the advice of Richard, a former SPCK bookshop manager who posted in the last comments thread:
Please pray for my former colleagues, especially those still working in the bookshops, and please support them any way you can - cream cakes are always welcome.

Update: Western Morning News - Shop staff resign in contracts row

Sunday, 30 September 2007

Someone, please buy the SPCK bookshops

Somebody needs to buy the SPCK chain of bookshops, and quickly.

This is from my friend Neil, who has just handed in his notice:

Handed in my notice just in time, I have found out that our owners want to run each shop with just one person, and as they presented us with an unsignable (by which I mean only an idiot would sign it, not that it is printed on ink-proof paper) contract they will be lucky if they have enough staff left to run any shops at all. It has nearly been a month since we have been allowed to place a stock order and the shop is running out of stuff. In fact I predict that in a few months the shops won't exist at all, hundreds of years of bookselling torn apart in one year, very sad.

Things really are that bad. I know some people reading are not affected by this and so don't really care, but for those who have books / resources / newspapers and suchlike of interest to Anglicans and others it really is bad news.

Wesley Owen? Hymns Ancient and Modern? CPO? Premier? Anyone!

Friday, 18 May 2007

SPCK staff must work Sundays

More odd goings-on have been going on at the SPCK bookshops. Ruth Gledhill has the text of some memos sent out by the management to the shops - see her two posts today: 'If you go down to an SPCK bookshop today' and 'Why
Christians must work on the Sabbath
'. The staff are apparently being asked to work on Sundays, greet all customers within 3 seconds, and all sorts of other crazy things.

I've been aware, from various contacts, of some absurd goings-on at SPCK recently, but I hadn't written here for the sake of my highly secret sources, who understandably want to remain nameless and employed. But if true these latest missives really do take, as they say, the biscuit. I suspect the Sunday-working one is illegal too, depending on the fine print.

Meanwhile, I noticed at the Christian Resources Exhibition that the main Anglican publishers have banded together to form This will be an online shop for Anglican things.

I spoke to one of the new managers of this site at the CRE who just happens to be moving from a certain chain of Christian bookshops, but I can't tell you which one.

Apparently the shop will feature 'interactive' elements. I'm not sure what this means, but perhaps we will be able to talk to each other whilst we are shopping. I suppose it will be a bit like talking to fellow shoppers in Tescos and asking them which particular ready meals they have enjoyed recently.

Update: Ruth has taken down the two posts for some reason. I'll try to find out why.