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?