Welcome to the secret world of Christian books

08 September 2010

Churches need to do more to promote religious reading. Their spiritual health depends on it, argues John Pritchard

CALL me old-fashioned, but I enjoy reading books. I know the under-25s live in an electronic world, and would regard my respect for books as quaint, but I am seriously worried about the Christian literacy, not just of our nation, but also of our Church.

If Christians aren’t reading Christian books, then who will? Some of us try to write books to feed the spirit, but we fear that they will be so little known as to be almost confidential. Christian bookshops such as SPCK and STL/Wesley Owen have closed down — only some of them reopening under other labels.

Possibly the reason why the quantity of religious titles sold has not gone down appreciably in recent years is that the “four horsemen of the secular apocalypse” — Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Harris — have been selling by the bucketful.

Obviously, there is a significant shift from the High Street to the internet. The sad loss of Borders and the burgeoning of Amazon are in­dicators of this. The number of book­stores in the Christian Group of the Booksellers’ Association has drop­ped to 400.

Of course, change is inevitable in this marketplace. It is no good being hopelessly romantic about a lost Christian literacy, harking back to a time when people were hungry to read popular theology — although some of us remember John Robin­son’s Honest to God selling like hot cakes in the 1960s. New ways of sel­ling are bound to develop, and Chris­tian publishers have found Amazon, Eden.co.uk, and their own websites increasingly effective as points of sale.

Nevertheless, there are distinct downsides to this continuing revolu­tion. The disappearance of Christian books from the High Street makes them seem esoteric and cult-like. We want people to select from a range of available titles, not just go online to buy the one that has got through to popular consciousness. We want people to browse, explore, and be attracted to alternative titles.

Yet, even if we keep our Christian bookshops in the marketplace, these booksellers know they are selling against a background in which less than one in ten regular church­goers ever enters a Christian book­shop.

IN THE midst of all this change, we need to remember that we are people of the book, and reading the Big Book (the Bible) and all the Christian books that have flowed from it has a vital part to play in the formation of Christian lives and the shaping of churches.

Reading Christian books is im­portant for many reasons. It shapes an intellectually credible Church. It provides resources for our apol­ogetics. It makes for more confident lay people on the front line. It sustains our curiosity. It stimulates our imagination. It challenges our prejudices. It deepens our faith and keeps us on the move.

Above all, it allows the wisdom of the Church to spill out over the river- banks of academia, and irrigate the surrounding territory — the minds and hearts of those many Christians who live in a secular and post-secular culture, and wish there was more to help them. The sadness is that help is easily at hand, but it is kept under the counter.

We in the Churches need to be much more active in encouraging spiritual reading. In the diocese of Oxford, as part of our strategic vision, “Living faith”, we have been emphasising this year the central theme of “Sustaining the sacred centre”. This is about deepening our enjoyment of God, and recognising God’s presence in the fabric of every­day life. We have produced DVDs, prayer walks, website material, monthly ideas in our diocesan news­paper, and given away 35,000 simple guides to prayer. Parishes have been splendidly innovative.

Yet how is that sacred centre to be nurtured without a focus both on making more space for God, and also on the input that comes from reading? We have much to fear for the long-term health of the Church if most Christians stop their learning when they leave Sunday school, con­firmation class, or Alpha (and I write as a fan).

We must not be a Church where people are adult in their working lives, and infants in their Christian lives. How many people in the average congregation would be able to name three Christian books pub­lished in the past year?

CHURCHES could recommend good reading regularly — not just for Lent, but also for Advent and the summer holidays. Books can be bought on sale or return. There might be a book-of-the-month scheme, or perhaps a book-of-the-quarter is more realistic. There could be a special display, three times a year, of some of the best seasonal material. Churches could also help to run reading groups, since these have become so popular.

Personal commendation is a huge motivator. I know at least one bishop (me!) who recommends three books with every letter he writes to the clergy (the ad clerum). The weekly newsletter in church could do the same. It would have the added bene­fit of keeping the clergy’s reading up to scratch.

Many churches have bookstalls and children’s corners. My experi­ence as a roving bishop is that many of these worthy areas are dire. The books are faded, misshapen, out-of-date, and often look terribly sad and unloved. Yet there is so much at­tractive material around, just crying out to feed young minds and hearts.

Yes, if books remain unsold, then a loss quickly builds up, but sale or return, fund-raising (perhaps second-hand-book sales), and a com­mitment from the PCC to budgeted expenditure on the book­stall — all can help with this.

The key, of course, is finding someone, or preferably a team of people, with real enthusiasm to lead this ministry of reading, with per­mission to badger the incumbent. They could keep up with reviews of new books through websites such as www.thegoodbookstall.org.uk.

The key, of course, is finding someone, or preferably a team of people, with real enthusiasm to lead this ministry of reading, with per­mission to badger the incumbent. They could keep up with reviews of new books through websites such as www.thegoodbookstall.org.uk.

  They could also encourage us to buy from Christian book­shops rather than online, and give us a lead in pray­ing for those shops and their unob­trusive ministry. They could be reading champions for an increasingly literate Church. As so often, under God, the answer lies in our hands.

Dr Pritchard is the Bishop of Oxford and author of Living Jesus (SPCK, 2010) and other books.

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)