Most Brits own a copy of the good book, they just don't open it. In other parts of the world where Bibles are scarce, people are desperate to get their hands on them. As head of Bible Society, James Catford is uniquely placed to comment on this paradox, and to imagine the way forward

Interview by John Buckeridge

Having published best-sellers written by Margaret Thatcher, Jonathan Aitken and Tony Blair during his time as publishing director at Hodder Headline and then HarperCollins, James Catford moved on to publish the biggest seller of them all. But printing and distributing Bibles is only one aspect of the ministry of Bible Society. Since becoming group chief executive in 2008, he has overseen a steady rise in both income and expenditure. Some of that money is being spent on trying to get Brits to engage with scripture in new ways.

I met Catford in October – just after he had returned to the UK from a trip to Korea. He looked tired – that and his occasional stammer made him seem vulnerable. He quickly warmed up when I asked him about the low levels of biblical literacy in the UK among Christians and non-Christians alike. But for someone who has been so closely associated with the printed word throughout his career, it made sense to begin by asking him if he thought the era of printed books was coming to an end.

With the rise of Kindle, iPad and other electronic devices, do you think that printed book sales are entering a terminal decline?

This is the first quarter ever that book sales have actually fallen. It’s been extraordinary, up until now, book sales have continued to go up and up. So I think we may be speaking at exactly the point where the market is going to change.

I think the shift to electronic format will be uneven, some genres such as education have shifted considerably. Others like fiction, will, I think take more time. I expect religious books will be quite slow to shift.

Given the recession and the fragmentation of Christian ministry in the UK, do you think that Christian organisations should be exploring ways to partner and merge much more?

Yes, although this fragmentation also happens in the rest of the charitable world, it seems to be a particular feature of Christian work. We need to challenge this because the waste in duplicating our efforts is considerable.

As group chief executive of Bible Society, you have overseen the purchase of the Christian Resources Exhibition (CRE) and merged with Christian Research. Why did you decide to make those moves?

We wanted to make these moves because the ministries involved fitted a core objective of Bible Society. So it’s important to understand that we weren’t just after anything. And it’s important to understand that those agencies that came in with us weren’t just choosing us as a flag of convenience. They wanted in on the mission agenda that Bible Society has.

Is there a tension with some of your more traditional supporter base (who would see the printing and distribution of Bibles as your primary function) over some of the other ways you spend money?

The bulk of our donation income goes overseas, and the majority of that is for the provision of scriptures. I’m vice chairman of Amity, which is the big printing facility in China, producing about eight million copies per annum. And we’re increasing that, because the hunger for Bibles in China is extreme and the paper for all the Bibles is paid for by our organisation and our sister organisations around the world. Bible production from our offices in Swindon has increased from 650,000 to 1.4 million in the last five years. And that’s just coming out of the organisation that I’m looking after, so there’s a heavy emphasis on Bibles, subsidised Bibles and the Bible poverty that there is in Africa and Asia. Now, that’s a very big hunger, a very big opportunity.

In Britain, availability is not the issue generally. There are pockets, in jails, and in some young people’s work where there is a need for the physical book. But availability is not the challenge in the culture we’re in. We’ve got to encourage people to open the scriptures, to lift the teaching off the page and into people’s hearts. That’s a big agenda and if the Church continues to struggle with the confidence in its own text as it seems to, there are going to be fewer and fewer Christians here giving the money for the work overseas. So it’s in all of our interests to tackle this credibility gap.

A significant investment of time and resource from Bible Society goes into lobbying and encouraging movers and shakers in and around political parties to have a more favourable disposition towards the Christian faith. Why?

We’re responding to the Bible being pushed to the edges of society and culture. A recent survey shows that 51% of people have a Bible in their home. Almost a quarter of people have one beside their bed. Those are remarkable figures. But the physical presence of the scripture only takes you so far. You have to blow the cobwebs off it before you open it. What we’re trying to say is how could the Bible be formative within the culture again?

This is a big challenge and we have to work out certain things. The research we did, before I started things, was into how cultures change. How did the gay issue become such a mainstream issue within one generation? The environment? When I was a school kid, environmentalists were just weird. Now it’s the mainstream. Disabled people, people in wheelchairs, when I was a child, in middle class acceptable families, you could tell jokes about people with a stammer or a wooden leg or whatever. But now, every kerb of every street, has been altered to accommodate wheelchairs. The question is how did that happen? How do you change the deep structures of a culture and how do you do that with the scriptures?

The argument is, the media, politics, arts and education are the basic things that shape the culture. They mediate ideas and so we are trying intentionally to participate in media, the arts, politics and education. So one contribution here is where we’re saying to the three main political parties: ‘Consider what the Bible has to say in your particular sphere of interest.’ Raising the confidence of MPs in the scriptures is a critically important area.

At what point does lobbying MPs or giving literature out at party political conferences flip over from seeking to influence people with a biblical agenda into trying to impose an agenda onto a person who has a different world view and a different belief system?

Well, lobbying has a particular type of connotation. Advocacy is more appropriate because at Bible Society we have no position on any of the big political issues of our day. We don’t try to tell MPs what the biblical position is on those issues. All I’m asking is for them to have the conversation with the scriptures. There are many agencies who are very interested in saying what the Bible says on x, y and z and what are the key issues. That’s important, and if they weren’t doing it then we would. We want neither a privileged position, nor a privatised position. We’re asking for no special favours, but we refuse to be marginalised into the private inner world of the individual.

The Church needs to be careful about that too. Yes it’s true that Jesus is Lord in my heart, but he’s also Lord of my finances, my children’s education, the way I spend my cash, what my plans are for my old age, how I relate to others in my local area...So we want a faith that is confident in scripture and living it out in the real world.

Biblical literacy does seem to have fallen to pretty desperate levels in the UK, and yet you say that the issue isn’t access to scripture, it’s the engagement and the understanding and the appreciation that scripture is in some way relevant.

Well, relevance is a word we’re cautious about, because relevance can easily slip into chasing the culture. So, the culture says a phenomenon like ‘fashion’ and we say ‘relevant’ and we start putting on fashion shows, which we have done actually. But, the quest for relevance means that the culture sets the agenda, which can lead us to compromise. It’s a balance. We want to speak into the issues of the culture, rather than our issues. We don’t want to just be talking about issues that the Church is interested in, because the culture often isn’t.

We prefer the word credibility. And that’s the challenge that is going on within the culture. They’re asking us: Are you credible? Can I trust you? And that’s why we’re particularly interested in that. We’re trying to raise the credibility and confidence in the scriptures.

What about biblical literacy among Christians? Is that something that Bible Society is looking to address?

Yes, we’re very concerned about that, but that’s all about the confidence issue.

So you say Christians are not engaging with scripture because of a lack of confidence, rather than a lack of discipline, or finding scripture boring, or feeling like their lives are too busy...

I think there’s a crisis of confidence within the British Church in what the Bible is and does. If you believe that keeping fit is important for your physical health, you will go to the gym and jog. If you believe the Bible is important for your spiritual health – and I would say, the rest of your health, relational health and your physical health too – you will engage with the scriptures. That’s the critical issue there.

If we don’t understand what this book is and offers, then you could understand why people struggle with it. And the Church doesn’t know what to do with it either. It reduces it to a filleted form that is therefore not appealing to many people.

What do you think this lack of confidence is down to?

Well a theology of the Bible is related to a theology of God. So we need to start there. What is God’s agenda and how does the Bible fit into that? The Bible isolated is very hard to persuade people to consume. Once you start with what God’s agenda is, then the whole thing starts to make sense. So it’s a bit like teaching the Bible as disconnected Bible stories. It’s great that our children understand some of the classic Bible stories, but how do those stories connect with the big story? That is God’s agenda. What is God trying to do in our world and how do we fit into that? What part does the Bible play in that story?

You’ve just come back from Korea and you’ve travelled to many other countries with Bible Society. In all of those countries you’ve visited, which do you think is the toughest to live in as a Christian today?

I can’t really answer that without mentioning Palestine, because in the Gaza Strip one of my colleagues was assassinated a few years ago. So, I can’t really get beyond that in terms of the struggle there is and the cost people pay, and the importance therefore of our work here to support them. The decline of the Christian community within Palestine is a great concern and I’m hugely impressed by the believers who stay. It was incredibly hard to persuade our staff to leave Gaza even though threats were made. There are other places around the world where it is very hard, and I don’t think it would be helpful for me to name them, but in some Islamic areas the Facebook assassination lists include Bible Society staff.

Some people say that a good dose of persecution in this country may be a good thing. Do you subscribe to that, having seen close up and personal what the actual cost of persecution means?

I can’t believe anybody would wish persecution. When you’ve seen the sort of persecution I’ve seen and heard their stories of families split up, of children taken away, of loss of a job and income, of threats of physical attack and even death – it’s only someone very insulated from the real world that would ever say, ‘we could do with persecution here.’ However, I do recognise the way that the Church has thrived through some very difficult times.

I am conscious that we often think that the secret of success in Britain would be more electronic gadgetry in our churches and better facilities and more PowerPoint presentations. I think a much better answer to this issue is that we need to get a vision for a global Church. That means the well-off and the poor, the north and the south, the majority world and the minority world – we’re the minority. And realise that if we have that global ecclesiology, then I think we’d all gain. We’d gain, they’d gain, the kingdom would gain, because that is really what God’s agenda is: the formation of an all-inclusive community of loving individuals with Jesus Christ at the centre. That’s what the Spirit is actively pursuing, and we see it happening with the breakdown of church arguments and the fact that it really doesn’t matter now, the difference between a Baptist, a Pentecostal, an Anglican – nobody’s really arguing about those issues anymore. This is the first time in the history of the world that we’ve seen the Pope visiting the Archbishop and celebrating at Westminster Abbey. I was at that service and I was very touched by the humility going on. Now it’s not perfect and doctrine is important, I’m not saying it isn’t. We discredit our history by saying it isn’t, however, we need to understand that the vision is for this all-inclusive community. That straddles the whole world and it’s exciting to be involved in it.


James Catford is the group chief executive of the British and Foreign Bible Society of England and Wales. The son of Sir Robin Catford, who was a senior civil servant acting as Secretary for Appointments to both Margaret Thatcher and John Major, James joined Bible Society in 2002 having previously worked in commercial publishing. He is the only person to have been publishing director at both Hodder Headline and HarperCollins. He is a former board/council member of a number of organisations including LICC, University of Gloucestershire Council, Prison Fellowship, Premier Media Group and was chairman of Third Way magazine and J John’s Philo Trust. Currently he is a board member of IVP, vice-chairman of Amity Printing Company in Nanjing and RENOVARÉ US, and chairman of RENOVARÉ Britain and Ireland. He has overseen the merger between Bible Society and Christian Research and the acquisition of Christian Resources Exhibitions Ltd. In the latest published accounts (to 31st March 2010) Bible Society had total funds of £14.39 million, up from £12.24 million in 2009.