Orthodox Organisation Takes Control of British Christian Bookshop Chain

Decrees Koran must not be sold

Sad news about the chain of bookshops formerly run by the venerable Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge:

BRITAIN’S oldest chain of church bookshops is to remove the Koran from its shelves because it believes it is “inimical” to Christianity.

The decision not to stock any non-Christian holy text has been taken by SPCK Bookshops, formerly part of the 308-year-old Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

…The new policy follows the society’s sale of a majority stake in the chain on November 1 to the St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust, which is tied to the Eastern Orthodox church.

“Stocking books which are inimical to Christianity, which without question the Koran is, could well create the wrong impression among some that we endorse the belief systems of other religions as equal or viable alternatives,” said Mark Brewer, the Texan lawyer who chairs the trust.

The stated aim of the trust is to take the bookshops back to the missionary roots of the SPCK and reverse the advance of Islam and secularism.

The involvement of the SSG Charitable Trust in the SPCK was announced in a press release a few weeks ago:

St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (SSG) is an Orthodox Christian charity. Its partnership with SPCK will enhance and broaden its mission of distributing Christian literature.

SPCK have agreed that the Bookshops and their staff will transfer to SSG, continuing to operate as SPCK Bookshops (under licence) by SSG, with a maintenance of their breadth.

…Under the new arrangements, SPCK Bookshops will continue to stock a broad and diverse range of Christian books and resources.

The press release contains no indication that the SSG would be dictating that the shops would no longer be allowed to sell certain books.

The SPCK was founded an Anglican vicar, Thomas Bray, in 1698, and as a publisher (among other activities) the organisation was originally a mouthpiece for the Anglican establishment. Bray complained that:

All the Grand and Fundamental Articles, both of Natural and Revealed Religion, are now most furiously storm’d by Atheists, Deists, and Socinians on the one hand, or secretly and dangerously undermined by Enthusiasts [i.e. Evangelicals] and Antinomians [Quakers] on the other. (1)

The SPCK was supposed to remedy the situation – the conversion of Quakers was a particular obsession, and early titles published by the Society included Against Enthusiasm and Against Popery. However, the organisation soon adopted a broader perspective, and members included evangelicals such as John Wesley. Eventually, the Society stopped being a didactic publisher, and came to see itself as providing a forum for discussion; in 1919 William Lowther Clarke expressed his hope that the SPCK would soon

stand in relation towards Anglican theology as the Oxford and Cambridge Press stand towards learning generally. (2)

That is indeed what happened in subsequent years, and today the SPCK is one of most important UK publishers of intellectually serious books on subjects like church history and Biblical scholarship, as well as theology.

This was also the ethos of the bookshops, which first opened in the 1930s – and as an undergradate studying religion in the mid 1990s, I found the local SPCK bookshop to be an incredibly useful and stimulating scholarly resource. As well as books published by the SPCK itself, the shops stocked a range of material from other sources, such as the SCM Press. Some of the books were doubtless controversial: you could find material by, for example, the “non-realist” Christian Don Cupitt, or radical Biblical scholarship by the likes of Gerd Lüdemann, or books sympathetic to gay Christians. However, the philosophy was that these were issues which intelligent people, particularly clergy, ought be aware of, and the SPCK was providing a useful service by stocking them. Hence also the reason, I’m sure, for selling the Koran.

The Church Times has further details of the SSG’s agenda:

Concerns over Islam are apparent on the SSG’s website, where the charity reports: “England has not only become extremely secularised in recent years, but has witnessed the explosion of Islam. . . In an effort to stem the growth of non-Christian faiths and re-establish Christianity in areas where it has been driven out, the Trust has acquired a beautiful building [the redundant St Mary Magdalene’s] in Bradford. (This city has one of the highest percentages of resident Muslims in the UK.)”

Text on the website has been amended since the Church Times published the report announcing the partnership. References to the “misguided beliefs” of those who turned to the Roman Catholic Church, and other references to the Orthodox Church as “the only Church true to the Word of God, and therefore the only one that offers true salvation and eternal life”, have been removed.

…The charity is headed by Mark Brewer, managing director of the Texan law firm, Brewer & Pritchard, who is a former judge advocate for the US Air Force at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk.

According to the Brewer & Pritchard website, Brewer is a member “of Saint Joseph (the Betrothed) Orthodox Christian Church (Antiochian Archdiocese)”. That would appear to be this church, in Houston. The Antiochian Orthodox church split from the National Council of Churches in the USA last year.

How long before the SSG decides that Biblical higher criticism, or certain positions on homosexuality, are “inimical to Christianity” and should therefore be banned from the SPCK shops? Will certain books published by the SPCK eventually be excluded from the bookshops that bear their name?

(Hat tip: MediaWatchWatch)


(1) C. Rose, “The Origins and Ideals of the SPCK 1698-1740” in J. Walsh, C. Haydon and S. Taylor, eds., The Church of England c.1689-c.1833, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 178, quoting Thomas Bray, A Course of Lectures upon the Church Catechism, Oxford, 1696, epistle dedicatory (no pagination).

(2) William Kemp Lowther Clarke, A Short History of S.P.C.K., London: SPCK, 1919, pp. 84, 86. This work should not be confused with his A History of the SPCK, published forty years later, in which “S.P.C.K.” has become “SPCK” – an important point in the days of computer catalogues.