SPCK rift widens: shops renamed; trustees resign

31 October 2007

Different stories: the SPCK shop in Exeter. Seven staff are reported to have resigned APEX

Different stories: the SPCK shop in Exeter. Seven staff are reported to have resigned APEX

SPCK BOOKSHOPS will no longer trade under the name SPCK: they have been retitled “Saint Stephen the Great”, with effect from yesterday. The change is the latest move in a growing rift between SPCK, the book publishers and mission agency, and the Eastern Orthodox charity the St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (SSG), which acquired the chain of 23 SPCK bookshops a year ago (News, 27 October 2006).

Last Saturday, it was announced that the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Michael Perham, who chairs the governing body of SPCK, and Simon Kingston, the chief executive of SPCK, have resigned as trustees of SSG. Continuing as trustees was no longer helping any of the involved parties, they said. The only proper thing for them to do was to resign, “with the best interests of the shops strongly at heart”.

The Bishop said: “We felt an increasing conflict of interest in our duty to represent SSG, while also representing what we felt to be best for SPCK.”

Mr Kingston said on Wednesday that he was taking legal advice over the shops’ name-change.

SSG said that it was no longer carrying the SPCK name because “more and more SPCK books [are] carrying a decidedly ‘liberal’ agenda”. Its trustees “feel the time has come to distance themselves from SPCK”.

When SSG took over the bookshops, which were running at a loss, it promised to “enhance and broaden its mission of distributing Christian literature”.

Commenting on the acquisition in its 2006/07 annual report, SPCK stated: “This charity undertook . . . 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.”

Since the acquisition, however, there has been a series of complaints about staff morale, working practices, censorship on stock control — the sale of the Qur’an was banned within a month of the takeover (News, 1 December 2006) — and new contracts (News, 14 September). According to the shops’ website, 12 shops are without managers, and staff at both Exeter and York publicly walked out last month in protest at new contracts.

One of the many letters, phone calls, and emails to the Church Times over the past year came from “a concerned employee of the SPCK Bookshops” last month. It stated: “I, along with my colleagues, have faithfully stood by SPCK and have actively and enthusiastically promoted Christian knowledge through the selling of religious books and paraphernalia, only to see this enthusiasm crushed by the oppressive regime now implemented in the chain.”

Mark Brewer, the lawyer from Texas who chairs SSG, has always strenuously denied the complaints, and this week accused the Church Times and other media of unsubstantiated reports. He said that the decision to change the bookshop name was part of the charity’s Orthodox campaign. “St Stephen the Great is our patron saint. By conducting charitable business under his name, we mean to honour him and ask him to intercede for our charitable trading activities.”

Commenting on current staffing, he said: “Our bookshops continue to trade, and I have the utmost confidence in our management from top to bottom.” The unspecified conflicts of interest cited by Bishop Perham and Mr Kingston included press and employment issues, he said. Their resignations had not been requested, but were not totally unexpected; he respected their decision.

SSG is part of the St Stephen the Great Foundation, which promotes the Orthodox Church in the UK. It had established an Orthodox congregation in the redundant St Osmund’s, Parkstone, in Dorset, which it bought in May 2005. Last week, however, Fr Chrysostom MacDonnell, the Priest-in-Charge of St Dunstan’s (from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East), said that the congregation he led had removed itself from St Osmund’s, and had relocated to a Roman Catholic church in Bournemouth.

“We parted company with Mr Brewer and his organisation, as we found that the way in which they operated was contrary to our deanery statutes regarding the control of parishes.”

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