February 9, 2016

Bloomsbury mysteriously pulls book about the Church of England weeks before publication


Church-320x507Pulling a book from publication is never painless. Once a publisher announces a book, many processes are set in motion: sales reps begin to sell the title, booksellers begin to think about how many copies they’ll carry, publicists send out galleys and prepare for reviews and events, and so on. The closer to publication a book is withdrawn, the more these processes are jeopardized, and the work that went into them wasted.

So it couldn’t have been an easy decision for Bloomsbury to pull Guardian journalist Andrew Brown and sociologist Linda Woodhead’s That Was the Church That Was only a couple of weeks before its publication date in the UK, February 11. The book, a look at the decline of the Church of England, was also supposed to be published in the US on April 11, and while it’s listed as unavailable on Amazon, it’s still available for preorder on the Barnes & Noble, Indiebound, and Bloomsbury websites.

The news seems to have been reported first on January 22, on the website Anglican Ink. George Conger, Anglican Ink’s editor, wrote:

A history of the Church of England since the Second World War has been withdrawn by its publisher, who has requested all review copies be returned, after a legal complaint was made.

On 21 Jan 2016 the publicity agent for Bloomsbury Publishing sent an email to those who had been given a copy to review before publication: “Please note that following the receipt of a legal complaint Bloomsbury are recalling all review copies of this book and ask you to IMMEDIATELY return the copy received” . . .

Asked to comment on the reasons for the recall and for the grounds upon which a libel action was laid, Bloomsbury’s publicity agent responded: “ I only know that there’s been a legal complaint.”

Two weeks later, Religion News Service’s Trevor Gundy reported on the story, and his piece got picked up by the Washington Post and The Bookseller, among others. Still, while Conger speculated about many of the book’s salacious details, no specific information about the nature of the complaint has emerged—at least not publicly.

But despite the vagueness, the book has still caused quite a stir, largely due a provocative piece published last week by the Spectator’s Damian Thompson. Thompson’s column appeared on February 4, a day before the Religion News Service story, and it seemed to be the basis for Gundy’s most concrete claim about the book’s withdrawal:

Speculation mounted that the book’s publication was pulled because it contains a disputed passage about the sexual activities of various Church of England bishops and other leading lights in the Anglican community.

Writing in the weekly magazine The Spectator, Damian Thompson said the book contained rumors and speculation about the sexual identity of key figures in the established church whose membership figures are at an all-time low.

Thompson’s piece is indeed rich with rumors and speculation, but it doesn’t clarify if anyone’s sexual identity actually has anything to do with Bloomsbury’s decision to pull the book. He writes that, per the message he received from Bloomsbury, the source of the legal complaint was “‘a disputed passage about a Christian leader.’”

But he then goes on to note that Brown and Woodhead’s “atrocious” book “reads . . . like a compendium of [the Church of England’s] most malicious gossip,” which seems pretty damning, but doesn’t actually bring us any closer to the truth behind the withdrawal.

Thompson’s column is biting and personal (“it was [co-author Andrew] Brown who casually ‘outed’ me many years ago”), but it’s tame compared to his Twitter exchanges with Linda Woodhead. On Saturday, Thompson implied that Woodhead had lied about her academic credentials:

The conversation turned to Woodhead’s Wikipedia entry, which ended with her definitive assertion of her educational background:

And on the same day, Thompson became more direct in his accusations of unscrupulousness on the part of the authors:

This exchange then led, in a somewhat circuitous way, to the publication of an editor’s note—appended to the Spectator column—unlike any editor’s note I’ve ever seen:

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Church of England is in trouble, but its pews are not emptying at 10,000 a week an earlier version of this story said: this error was introduced at the editing stage. Damian Thompson would never have made such an error. Read his full account of the precise speed of Christian decline in England, here.

It’s certainly generous of the Spectator to stand behind an author so vigorously. Woodhead and Thompson’s back-and-forth continued yesterday. But even though Thompson has directed a number of biting comments Brown’s way, he has mostly stayed away from the hubbub:

So what happens now? As of this writing, Bloomsbury hasn’t released any additional statements about the fate of That Was the Church That Was, and Thompson’s and Conger’s reports remain the only sources of information about a book that no one has read. And as Brown pointed out the day Conger’s story was published, that information is necessarily speculative:

For my part, I hope the book receives a proper publication, and that withdrawal doesn’t mean permanent cancellation. I’m not familiar with Woodhead’s work, but Brown’s 2008 book Fishing in Utopia, which won the Orwell Prize, is a brilliant, beautiful, deeply moving piece of nonfiction. (Full disclosure: I tried—unsuccessfully—to acquire the American rights to Fishing in Utopia years ago, at an earlier job, though I don’t think I ever corresponded directly with Brown.) I’m curious to read his writing on any topic—including the decline of the Church of England.

Editor’s note: This post was updated to clarify the Twitter exchange between Damian Thompson and Linda Woodhead on Friday, February 12, 2016. 



Mark Krotov was a senior editor at Melville House.