Compiled by Mark Bennet, 2 August 2008
Current discussions about the former SPCK Bookshops are rather lacking in contributions from Mr J Mark Brewer, the apparent author of various “Cease and Desist” notices. Mr Brewer, as well as being a trustee of the Saint Stephen the Great Trust, and other organisations, is Principal in a firm of lawyers based in Houston, whose practice includes commercial law.
Thanks to the work of Dave Walker in collecting together all the material about the progress of this story, and others for continuing his work in recent days, we can trace from a hopeful friendly takeover in late 2006 to the current state of play where the Trustee charged with supervising the bankruptcy of “St Stephen the Great LLC” in the US Bankruptcy Court has filed a Motion to Dismiss which makes some rather surprising comments on the quality of the paperwork, and even on the correct identification of the debtor involved.
Dave’s diligence, together with Matt Wardman’s careful work in restoring the posts Dave took down, has enabled us to see the whole story through the public statements of the brothers J Mark and Philip Brewer. The following compilation is substantially from this source.
It is of course only fair to give a full account of what Messrs Brewer have been able to say at different times, and it would be good to fill in any omissions in the record. There are people who would disagree with their interpretations of facts and situations, but let’s hear the story from their side.
The story begins in hope:
Dave Walker, October 21st 2006
Orthodox charity St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust are to take over the SPCK bookshop chain, which you might remember from my campaign earlier in the year.
This is splendid news as it means the future of the shops has been safeguarded.
Then follows about a year, with reports of some internal conflicts, and a dispute over the stocking of the Koran being reported, which only gets picked up later in the sources I’ve been looking at. Within that time, the following press release was reported:
Reported by Ruth Gledhill of The Times, 18 May 2007, reposted 21 May 2007
[Ruth also published some extracts from an internal memo on her blog on the same date, but these notes deal only with public statements, and not internal communications]
Saint Stephen the Great/SPCK Bookshops
In an effort to exercise the objects of our Charity, Saint Stephen the Great SPCK Bookshops will begin offering its ministry and services on all Bank Holidays and Sundays beginning in May, 2007. There will be some exceptions, however, it is felt by the Charity Chairman, Mr. Mark Brewer and the company president, Mr. Philip Brewer, that due to the nature of the Christian Charity of Saint Stephen the Great, the most important time for this ministry would be when the Churches are open and in use.
According to Mark Brewer, keeping the bookshops open on Sundays is not only a vital part of the Charity’s ministry; it finds sanction in the Ecumenical Canons. Canon 29 of the Synod of Laodicea (AD 343-381) states that “Christians shall not stop work on the Sabbath…” (This important Council also ratified unanimously Canon 69, which decreed the present Books of the Bible.) We want to make Bibles and spiritual books available as much and as often as possible – to pilgrims and seekers alike.
As Henry Percival wrote in 1899, the Canons of the Seven Ecumenical Synods – including the famous First Ecumenical Council (325 A.D.) at which the first half of the Creed was bequeathed to us –are “infallible and irreformable.” It is to be remembered that the Canons were adopted during the Ecumenical Councils in unanimous decisions. These decisions set forth Ecclesiastic definitions. It was also the councils that accepted and defined other very important Church decisions, such as the doctrine known as the Trinity, establishing the books of the New Testament, acceptance of the role of iconography to name but a few.
It is felt that a very important part of the Christian ministry that takes place on Holy Days and the Sabbath, should by necessity include providing believers, seekers and pilgrims an opportunity to garner much needed information about their faith from our generously supplied and well run Bookshops. This policy is not only consistent with our charitable objects, but could be considered as best practice for extending the opportunity to those seeking information and knowledge about the Christian Faith at a most important time.
3 November 2007 saw the following press release:
SAINT STEPHEN THE GREAT ANNOUNCES MANAGEMENT CHANGE AT ITS DURHAM CATHEDRAL SHOP
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.
9 November 2007 – a radio interview with J Mark Brewer – the link still works as of 2 August 2008
There is a radio interview (http://www.myocn.net/index.php/CRTL-Archives/October-27-2007-CRTL-Program.html) with Mark Brewer on an 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:
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.
Interviewer (Father Chris):
Let me ask you a question Mark: Any resistance to the introduction of Orthodox Christian books and material within this Protestant setting?
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 its original form. It was dedicated to the saint King Olave who was the invading Dane. He is the same person who murdered Saint King Edmund as in Bury St Edmunds 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.]
To get a fair reflection of what Mr Brewer had to say, do listen to the whole extract, in which he begins by giving an outline of his background and how he got involved.
30 November 2007
News emerges of a video featuring J Mark Brewer outlining the aims of SSG and soliciting funds http://uk.youtube.com/SSTGCT
7 December 2007
Dave Walker posted an extract from the text of the 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’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.
Again, this is worth watching all the way through to get the context in which these things are said.
16 December 2007 – Extract from an interview on the Sunday Programme on Radio 4
Mike Ford (presenter)
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.
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.
3 January 2008 – Mark Brewer asks for website changes
Mark Brewer of the St Stephen the Great Trust has written to Phil Groom of the UK Christian Bookshops Directory asking that some information be removed from his website. From the UK Christian Bookshops Directory News page:
I write to request that you kindly remove the following from your website which I was most shocked and disappointed to read when perusing it today:
“Unfortunately the shops have suffered under their new management to the point where many staff have felt unable to work under the new regime and have left. Some shops have apparently closed down; of those remaining, opening times, stock availability and levels of customer service are in a state of flux and may not be as expected: prospective customers would therefore be wise to phone ahead before visiting.
Previous shop descriptions have been removed and SSG have been invited to provide up to date details; they have not yet responded: information about the shops shown here may or may not be valid. Updates on the situation will be posted in UKCBD News Section as and when information becomes available.”
This information is completely wrong. I totally disagree that the shops have not suffered under Saint Stephen the Great. Whether or not you feel otherwise, the facts are strongly to the contrary: the Truro shop and all the 22 other shops SSG acquired in 2006 have continued to be in operation and their trading is thriving – especially considering negative comments such as on this webpage!
Another fact: had SSG not agreed to take them over on November 1, 2006, Truro and the other 22 shops formerly owned by SPCK would have “suffered” closure by the end of 2006.
I am unaware of being contacted to “provide up to date details.” I can assure you that the Truro shop is open and is going to remain open including after December 24 when our manager puts in his last day of service. The hours of operation are not in flux, as he can attest (he is after all the manager).
So, please do remove these two unhelpful and incorrect comments.
J. Mark Brewer
Chairman and CEO
Saint Stephen the Great LLC
(Message dated 17th December 2007)
4 February 2008 – Press release on the Sheffield shop
SAINT STEPHEN THE GREAT LLC A U.K. CHARITY (1119839)
For Immediate Release
Contact: J Mark Brewer (01) 713-725-4788
January 29, 2008
DIOCESE OF SHEFFIELD TO ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS:
“NOT WELCOME HERE”
Whilst touting itself as “a place for all people,” the Diocese of Sheffield of the Church of England has issued this message to Orthodox Christians: “Stay Away.”
The Sheffield Diocese has been engaged in a campaign against Orthodox Christians and those who would “further Orthodox mission.” The Diocese hopes to drive SSG out of business because SSG has an Orthodox “aim.” In what can only be described as a mockery of Christian charity and ecumenicity, the Sheffield Dean and Chapter wrote [to] SSG’s trustees:
“Because of the stated aims of the St Stephen the Great Trust to further Orthodox mission, we feel unable to support the bookshops at the moment by purchasing goods ourselves, or by recommending to our visitors that they visit your shop in Sheffield.”
In contrast, Churches Together in England (which includes the Church of England) “is a visible sign of the Churches’ commitment as they seek a deepening of their communion with Christ and with one another, and proclaim the Gospel together by common witness and service. Its strength comes from people from different traditions finding new ways to work and worship together.”
The SSG “shop in Sheffield” is the Sheffield Cathedral Bookshop. It which was transferred to SSG, an Orthodox lay charity, in 2006.
According to Mark Brewer, SSG’s chairman, Sheffield’s hierarchy, from the Bishop all the way down, have rebuffed numerous attempts at dialogue.
“The Cathedral’s letter came out of nowhere and was a complete and utter surprise. It was absolutely devastating to think that our charity’s bookshop would be singled out because we are Orthodox Christians.”
Nevertheless, 4 months have now passed, and the Diocese’ boycott remains firmly in place with its position as intransigent as ever. Consequently, SSG is having to consider its options, including whether it can continue a viable trade in Christian books on the Cathedral close at 8 East Parade.
5 February 2008 – a message to bookshops and media contacts
Yesterday Mark Brewer sent the following to the bookshops and media contacts:
As we move into the second month of 2008, some of the SSG bookshops have experienced the same reduced footfall and sales as most every other bookseller and High Street retailer. In some of our locations for the good of the overall chain, we have taken the decision of cost-cutting.
On Friday, we therefore closed Canterbury and Cambridge and intend to reopen both after re-fitting and re-stocking these shops. We have other locations slated either for reduced operating hours, temporary closure or permanent closure.
7 February 2008 – comment on recent shop closures
Mark Brewer has commented on the recent shop closures:
SSG chairman Mark Brewer said:
This charity intends to carry on Christian bookselling in Norwich so long as we have the custom and support of the Christian community in the city.
That support is particularly important at present in view of the challenging economic environment that virtually all High Street retailers are experiencing throughout the country.
Mr Brewer said the organization had not “sacked” the staff via email.
We have recently completed new contract consultations throughout the charity. Unfortunately, certain persons have chosen to terminate their employment rather than agree to the new contract. This is a matter of the employees’ personal and individual choice; it is not the action of the charity.
18 February 2008 (Phil Brewer comments, reported by Dave Walker)
A 2 minute news item about the Norwich and Cambridge SSG shops was broadcast on BBC Look East tonight.
The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge was set up in 1698 by Anglican priest Thomas Bray. Two years ago all twenty three bookshops were sold to an Eastern Orthodox charity called St Stephen the Great. Run by two Texan brothers, they deny they’ve acted improperly and say they’ve operated within UK employment law.
When people say well it would be nice if we did this and it would be nice to do that, absolutely, it would be nice if everybody got up every day and didn’t have to work and, you know, didn’t have to worry about pay cheques etcetera, but the bottom line is that there have to be fiscal constraints to all decisions.
2 April 2008 – article from Carlisle News and Star
In its statement, SSG said that it took over the chain in October 2006 and is now operated in a highly competitive retail environment.
The company said SPCK had been desperate to rid itself to the entire chain. The chain was losing hundreds of thousands of pounds a year.
Most of the shops have thrived under the management of two Texan brothers, Mark and Phil Brewer, who run SSG, said the statement, and the worst is now over. The charity continues to look for innovative ways to sell Christian books.
6 June 2008 – filing for bankruptcy in the US
The following e-mail was sent to most if not all of the former SPCK shops by Mark Brewer:
SSG (St Stephen the Great – limited liability company) has been terminated as the trading company to operate the bookshops formerly known as SPCK Bookshops. Additionally, SSG-LLC has been placed into reorganization in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
SSG-LLC is not authorized to employ any person or incur any debt. With immediate effect, SSG-LLC payroll, redundancy and other such obligations will only be payable through the bankruptcy court. SSG-LLC employees of record as of 4 June 2008 will receive further notification directly from the bankruptcy court about how to submit a claim.
The bookshops will now be operated by ENC Management Company. Former employees of SSG-LLC are invited to apply for a position with ENC Management Company. If you wish to apply, please reply to this email so indicating.
The following message is being returned when e-mail is sent to the spckonline ‘vendor accounts’ address.
SSG (St Stephen the Great), the charitable trading company conducting business at the former SPCK Bookshops, has filed for protection from its creditors under Chapter 11 of the United States Bankruptcy Code in Houston, Texas.
The case number is 08-33689-H1 11.
This case is recorded in England and accordingly, all adverse actions and all actions in either the U.S. or the U.K. purporting to affect the property or rights or liabilities of SSG are prohibited in accordance with the automatic stay provisions of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Similarly, efforts to collect an alleged debt from SSG are subject to the automatic stay provisions of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.
Saint Stephen the Great LLC
21 July 2008 – J Mark Brewer, Email to Phil Groom
I just visited your site dedicated to the destruction of my personal reputation and that of Saint Stephen the Great/Saint Stephen the Great Charitable Trust. I am absolutely appalled and devastated by what you have written as well as by what you have encouraged and allowed to be posted on your various sites especially after your last written communication to me, below which ended Assuring you of my prayers.
You have successfully blocked my efforts to get my and SSGs side of the story out. You have done this with your sites and Mr. Walker’s with whom you obviously collaborate. No matter what I say or do not say, the three of you continue your relentless attacks on me and the charities. You have now broadened your attacks to include my wife, my daughter and my religion. You will obviously stop at nothing. You must, therefore, be stopped.
Clearly it is time to give Mr Brewer’s own contributions a full hearing. Hence this note.