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Book Trade – What Future for the Christian Book Trade?

August 12, 2013 2 comments

As I write, the fallout from the Kingsway – D. C. Cook distribution decision remains unclear. What is clear is that we are facing yet further consolidation within the distribution sector. Change is unsettling and disturbing and we should say a prayer for all those affected by it.

I benefitted much from reading Steve Mitchell’s (m.d. Authentic Media UK) closely argued seven-page monograph, What Future for the Christian Book Trade?, published as the lead article in the quarterly journal, Faith in Business (available online, £2).

I greatly admire Steve’s ability to look forward, assess future direction and consider those aspects of this trade that many of us would prefer to leave well alone – in short, to cause us to think. Melanie Carroll described the piece as ‘honest and insightful, and as such not without elements of controversy and pain for all elements of the trade’. Steve wrote it as ‘an academic article aimed at church and business leaders explaining the issues facing the Christian book trade’. 

I was particularly encouraged by Steve’s statement – cited twice in the text – that ‘the majority of books are still sold in a physical form from physical retailers’.  I was struck by his examination of the ‘disloyal consumer’ and the stark observation that ‘publishing is likely to see the cold wind that has blown through the retail world enter its domain’.

Yet the essence of the Gospel remains unchanged. Tom Wright in his New Testament for Everyone translates Romans 16:25-26 as,

Now to Him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel, the proclamation of Jesus the Messiah, in accordance with the unveiling of the mystery kept hidden for long ages but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings, according to the command of the eternal God, for the obedience of faith among all the nations‘.

Quite a task – and still this remains our mandate.

There remains compelling content for us to distribute, albeit in what are now differing and changed formats. What has been described as the historic Guttenburg to Google Revolution is playing out in our own lifetime. Parchments were then turned into printed books and these are morphing in shape and feel into digital content. Quite what all this means for us as a trade is still being worked through but I found Steve’s article to be an eloquent resume of these hugely important issues and highly commend it.

17th century MSS in St Peter's Church in Brooke, Rutland.

Seek first the Kingdom and …

Increasingly I have come to accept that spiritual insight stands worldly wisdom on its head.

The Bible says ‘God chooses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise and the weak things of the world to shame the strong’. How we hate this. It’s not very cool and gets little recognition from the secular movers and shakers. For our part, we chase after professionalism and eschew the amateur. We love to be seen as wise, hating to be foolish. I was brought up short by the sheer impact of this statement in Henri Nouwen’s book, In the Name of Jesus,

My own thinking about Christian leadership had been affected by the desire to be relevant, the desire for popularity, and the desire for power. Too often I looked at being relevant, popular and powerful as ingredients of an effective ministry. The truth, however, is that these are not vocations, but temptations’.

These truths are as important for us in business as they are within the Church. As a trade, we should be even more profoundly aware of them. All our business plans and strategies are of little significance in the light of the deeper principles of the Kingdom: ‘Seek first His Kingdom and all these things will be added to you‘. Other ministries and practices which we judge, sometimes harshly, as ineffectual may be, in the economy of God, quite the opposite. If they result in the spiritual turnaround of just one person, they will have been worthwhile.

In my experience, we tend unconsciously to turn this verse around and to do our adding up before any seeking of the Kingdom. Business culture and worldly practice rears its ugly head and takes us in another direction entirely and we think that our ways are the best ways – they are not. The wisdom of Scripture should be rediscovered for the way that we do business. I have a small plaque hanging in my office recording the words of a captain in one of the Roman legions, discovered in the Libyan Desert; ‘I have learnt and pondered this truth: there are in life but two things to be sought, love and power, and no-one has both’

All of this is far easier said than done, particularly in the inevitable pressures of the moment. We probably accept it in our hearts but our heads overrule the idea as naive, one which is unworkable in the day-to-day. In the end, God is left out and we then wonder why we flounder! Brennan Manning wrote in his book, A Glimpse of Jesus:

The glory of Christ lies in this … He has called forth disciples to come after him … they are ‘marginal’ people, not part of the scene, irrelevant to ‘the action’. In their ministry of quiet presence they do not need to win or compete. The world ignores them – but they are building the Kingdom of God on earth’.

Someone said to me recently: ‘We are where we are to do the work God has called us to do’. In this trade, this is so true. Calling is critical. It clarifies both purpose and direction.

Just how many Christian trade outlets are there?

This is the one question guaranteed to be discussed whenever book trade people get together. It’s a question with no simple answer because it depends on what you actually mean by ‘outlet’. It’s also compounded by issues of theology, inclusion (who’s in, who’s out) product type and definition.

The most accurate place to go for answers, however, is the UK Christian Bookshops Directory. This has been a labour of love over several years for webmaster, Phil Groom; to whom this trade is deeply indebted for what is a magnificent and free resource. I thought it would be fun to delve into the detail and pull out some of the facts from this archive.

The UKCBD County Index lists 462 Christian trade outlets including London (as at 30th June 2013).

The largest concentration of trade outlets is Yorkshire with 29 listed, followed by London 27, Kent 20, Devon 14, Glamorgan 14, Hampshire 13, Surrey 12, Sussex 12, Cambridgeshire 11, Somerset 11, West Midlands, 11 Dorset 10 and Lancashire with 10.

In terms of the UK regions; Scotland (including Highlands & Islands) has 43 outlets, Northern Ireland 25, Wales 37, Islands (CI, IOW, IOM) 5, Northern England 86, Central England 91, East Anglia 32, South West 42, South & South East 74 and London with 27.

Christian trade outlets exist in hospitals and café’s, in abbeys and cathedrals, in city missions and conference centres and in traditional denominational settings. One internet retailer is listed: Christian Bits, Haslemere and there are a number of chain booksellers on the list: Quench, St Andrews, Pauline Books & Media, Faith Mission Bookshops, CLC Bookshops and the Blythswood group.

One question is what proportion of these shops operate from church and cathedral premises rather than from the high street or market stalls. 42 of the shops listed here are within church premises, some of which are full-feature shops such as Origin, Woking, but some of which are probably more akin to large bookstalls. This raises the hoary old query of ‘when is a trade account really a trade account’.

The Cathedral and Church Shops Association has 120 members. However, only 29 Cathedral shops are listed on UKCBD, some of which are no doubt far more focused on souvenirs and gifts than on books, once again highlighting the debate in terms of what type of outlets should be included in our definition?  Part of the problem is the perceived (and perhaps actual) decline of the traditional High street Christian bookshop. Reports of such closures are seemingly constant and rumours circulate on a fairly regular basis of shops that are about to close.

The periodic Bookseller Association numbers bear out the brutal fact that bookshops are indeed closing at a rather alarming rate. However, what strikes one in reading though this data is that there is a great deal of creativity out there when it comes to making Christian resources available. Long may this be the case. Perhaps trying to categorise outlets in some way or other is counter-productive. Rather, maybe we should simply celebrate diversity and variety, recognising that so many areas actually do have Christian materials available, often in the most surprising of places.

Design used courtesy of Yeomans Marketing

In closing, let me hypothesise, using the data, in terms of the probable numbers of High street Christian resource centres. The best estimate seems to be around 300 shops trading as part of the traditional high street. Of these, possibly around 200 to 225 are doing the type of business which could ensure a sustainable future. Massive challenges face these shops, most obviously the internet and digital content, but not least the matter of demography as many of these owner/operators come up to their retirement without necessarily having any succession plan in place.

In terms of visibility, the trade no longer has a fully obvious High Street presence across the country. Christian resources are not as widely available as they once were. Sadly, there are entire cities now without any Christian on-street presence.  In my view and given this situation, digital activity on the part of Christian online retailers such as Eden Interactive or Christian Bits is to be welcomed if we are to continue to reach out to this nation with quality Christian material. The irony could be that Christian resources are actually more accessible now given the ubiquity of the internet, but that’s a debate for another time.

This article was written in early July for Together Magazine (August – September 2013)

Reflection: A growing awareness of the daily presence of God

September 2, 2012 3 comments

Stephen Hawking opening the 2012 Paralympics in London said: ‘Look up at the stars. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the Universe exist. Be curious’.

G K Chesterton: To those given to behold God’s glory: ‘There is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect’.

Exodus 33:14-16: The Lord replied, ‘My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’ Then Moses said to him, ‘If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? 

C S Lewis: ‘Oh Aslan, said Lucy, it was kind of you to come … I’ve been here all the time, said He, but you have just made me visible’.

Dr David Benner: We do not have to do anything to gain access to God’s presence. We must simply recognize Who is already present.

Charlie Cleverley writes about ‘Epiphanies of the Ordinary’, David Benner speaks about ‘Transformation’. Whatever it is, it’s both about seeing and knowing God.

The awareness of the presence of God in our lives today is key. It will determine how we live today and how we respond to those around us.

The Lord is here, His Spirit is with us; an awareness of God’s presence transforms how we respond to ourselves and to those around us.

Consciously practice the presence of God today. It doesn’t come easily or naturally. Other things can dominate and crowd out our intentions.

I notice on a train how people are immersed in their phones – a pointer to how being immersed in God’s presence works; the strength of our desire to connect.

However tough & challenging life is for you today, rest in an awareness of the reality of God’s presence with you. He desires to bless you.

Give yourself space today to be aware of the reality of God’s presence. He IS with you and He loves you. Enjoy the moment. Be blessed!

Find space to experience God today. Don’t wait until you’re next in Church. In fact Church is not always conducive to the experience of God.

Henri Nouwen: The core of all prayer is indeed listening, obediently standing in the presence of God.

Our culture of chasing results and targets can adversely affect our relationships. Seek a balance and more especially in finding time with God.

Live in your experience of God for today. Don’t assume it will perhaps happen tomorrow or in the future. Enjoy the moment now. He loves you.

Say this prayer today: For the awareness & reality of your presence with me today, I thank you Lord.

Lord, I’m grateful for my waking hours. Come to me today. Remind me of your love. Immerse me in your Spirit. Jesus, you are with me today.

Never underestimate the blessing of your presence to others; of you just being you. If you were not you, others would be so much the poorer!

These sentences are taken from my Twitter stream describing a growing awareness of the daily presence of God.

Review – The Circle of Love; Ann Persson (The Holy Trinity by Andre Rublev)

August 11, 2010 4 comments

I can think of at least two paintings that have impacted me spiritually over the years. The first is The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt; wonderfully explored by Henri Nouwen in his well-known book of the same name. The second is a 14th century icon – The Holy Trinity – painted by Russian Monk Andre Rublev, a superb copy of which hangs in my office at work. The original is displayed in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

I was given this beautifully haunting image of the Trinity a number of years ago by Kevin Mayhew on a visit to his offices in Suffolk. I happened to admire the icon hanging behind Kevin’s desk and commented on it during the meeting. Kevin stood up, took it down and handed it to me – an act of great generosity – one which resulted in not a little embarrassment on my part! 

However, I’m so glad that he did as it’s become an important part of my professional life, displayed as it is in my office.  When I moved jobs, it has moved with me. I think I’ve learnt to ‘read’ it. I understand its beauty and what the iconographer attempts to communicate about the Godhead in this vibrant, visual image containing so much Christian faith and truth.  I am constantly surprised by how many people comment on it – it has a capacity to arrest – and I never tire of it.

There are so many articles on the internet about this icon but I’d always hoped that someone would do for Andre Rublev in a book what Henri Nouwen had done for Rembrandt.  However, I’ve concluded sadly that this book by Ann Persson is not it – that book is still to be written.  

Circle of Love is not a patch on Nouwen’s treatment of his famous subject. The book, in places, is positively lightweight and would benefit from much tighter editing. However, it’s not all bad and I ended up enjoying it, if only for two excellent chapters; No’s 3 and 5.   Overall, it’s a helpful piece of devotional reading which can most certainly lead to a deeper understanding of Christian icons in general and Andre Rublev’s The Holy Trinity in particular.

One point is worth making. If this book can lead to a greater acceptance and understanding of icons by the evangelical community then it will truly have done the wider church a great service. I was delighted to find – and buy – Circle of Love in a CLC Bookshop (of all places). Why do I say that? Well, for many evangelical Christians; Icons = Idolatry. In fact, I mentioned I was writing this review to Christian friends recently and they raised their eyebrows and their concerns!  

One thing the book makes very clear is that ‘worship belongs to God alone, so icons are not to be worshipped, only venerated’.  There is a big difference.

The book starts well and chapters 1-5 are well worth reading. I regard the rest of the book as optional as, after this, the book tends to peter out.

Here is my star rating of each chapter with a quick content resume:

Chapter 1 – The long look – a personal intro – how the author came to study the subject **

Whatever we gaze at for a long time, we remember’

Chapter 2 – History and ‘writing’ of icons – from the early church to Russian Orthodoxy ****

‘The space and silence of an icon invite contemplative prayer’

Chapter 3 – To Russia – a visit to Tretyakov and the St Sergius Monastery *****

‘Contemplation of the unity that exists between the Trinity destroys all discord’

Chapter 4 – A look at Genesis 18 – The Hospitality of Abraham; the subject of the icon ***

‘Do not neglect to show hospitality … as some have entertained angels unawares’

Chapter 5 – Rublev’s Holy Trinity – contemplates this magnificent icon in detail *****

‘Let the icon serve as a bridge into prayer and the worship of God’

Chapter 6 – Exploring the Trinity – this is not a theological treatise – more of a homily *

‘The magnificent vision of God that transcends our capacity to understand’

Chapter 7 – The Divine Dance: Prayer – God’s world – Called to care – Church community **

‘Perichoresis – the Dance of Relationship taking place at the centre of God’

Chapter 8 – Now and forever – I’m afraid I gave up at this point – sorry! *

However, after reading this, I too feel the urge to make the trip to Russia. First I’d go to St Petersburg to view the Rembrant in the State Hermitage Museum, and secondly to Moscow to see the Rublev at the State Tretyakov Gallery.

Anyone want to join me?

 www.hermitagemuseum.org/html_En/03/hm3_3_1_4d.html

www.tretyakovgallery.ru/en/collection/_show/image/_id/70

The Circle of Love – Praying with Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity

Ann Persson

2010  96pp  BRF

ISBN 978-1-84101-750-1

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