For the new Power Christians, God is the new CEO

With the Archbishop of Canterbury and former oilman Justin Welby at the helm, the new Power Christians of Britain are a formidable tribe whose aim is to reshape the culture of the City of London.

Welby at his enthronement as archbishop in Canterbury Cathedral
Welby at his enthronement as archbishop in Canterbury Cathedral, 21 March 2013. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Ask anyone what they’ve gleaned from the myriad profiles of the latest archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and you’d probably get two recurrent answers. He went to Eton, and he was a financial executive in the oil industry in the 1980s before he came to the priesthood. Some might add that he had a colourful father (a former whisky bootlegger who became an alcoholic), but the main observations so far are that he’s posh and well connected and he understands business.

This has led in turn to some assumptions – and I, too, have contributed to them – that Welby is about to shake up the management of the Church of England and is part of a rich and powerful network of Christians who have the money and confidence to get things done. He even looks slightly scary, with his gaunt features and rimless specs. There is talk of him inviting some of the fustier passengers in the Church’s administrative structure to reapply for their jobs. If they don’t come up to scratch, Welby will pick up the phone to one of his wealthy evangelical friends in the City and get the budget for more professional operatives.

But is that right? Are the Church of England and the global Anglican Communion now led by a no-nonsense corporate man who is part of a network of well-positioned “Power Christians”, about as far from the gentle intellectualism of his predecessor Dr Rowan Williams as it’s possible to get?

Welby is an evangelical who emerged from Holy Trinity Brompton in Knightsbridge, central London – or HTB, as it’s inevitably branded by its acronym-braying young congregants. To most of the unchurched, and a great many of those who should know what they’re talking about, HTB is hardline conservative behind its hand-waving, soppy songs; a marriage agency for busy young City execs which deploys very aggressive church “plants”, where little missionary groups of its worshippers go and take over somnolent, quieter churches.

Some of that, and only some, may have been true under HTB’s former leading light Sandy Millar (Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge), who was consecrated a bishop in Uganda, hardly the home of Anglican liberalism. But HTB has softened under the leadership of Rev Nicky Gumbel (Eton and, er, Trinity College, Cambridge). Incidentally, guess where Welby went after Eton? That’s right.

As one Anglo-Catholic friend, who might be expected to be antipathetic to these evangelicals, puts it: “HTB isn’t really like HTB any more.” If you’re looking for hardline, evangelical scriptural dogma, you need to turn to the ambitiously named Anglican Mainstream, which is unusually obsessed with the politics of gender and sexuality. HTB these days is relatively liberal; the same traditionalist friend tells me that he lobbied the congregation for support over the women bishops issue, only to be told that HTB didn’t really get involved in politics. It’s more interested in the business of converting public school boys and girls to the faith.

Welby has no choice about becoming involved in politics as he takes his seat in the House of Lords, but this is the tradition of which he is a part – well-heeled, professional, apolitical. He can also draw on an attitude emerging in the City of London that might be summed up as “More Mr Nice Guy”.

During the testosterone-fuelled boom years, Christian faith was about surviving in the City, but since 2008 and the revelation that it was all built on sand, Christians have been saying unequivocally that the gospel is non-negotiable, that working in commerce isn’t about surviving as a Christian but about transforming the way we do business, that Christianity is disruptive of systemic greed and corruption: that, in short, their work serves their faith and not the other way round. They are converting markets, not just people. These are the new Power Christians.

Welby is their spiritual, as well as titular, leader. Born in 1956 into a privileged, if eccentric family, he has managed a tension between descent from a powerful Conservative dynasty (on his mother’s side, he is a scion of the Butler family, which gave us Rab Butler, the deputy prime minister to Harold Macmillan) and skeletons in the family cupboard (it was seen fit to conceal his paternal Jewish-immigrant lineage from him until he became an adult).

This background may have contributed to Welby the Outsider, part of the establishment but also a thorn in its side. It is no surprise that the relentlessly bourgeois HTB couldn’t contain him. Note that he considerably widened not only his social but his theological circle after he left the Knightsbridge church. Via Africa and the Middle East, he arrived as dean of Liverpool Cathedral, where he operated what he and Dr Williams have dubbed a “mixed economy” of traditions. Now add that eclecticism – one might even call it a catholic taste in denominations – to the can-do attitude of the City whizz-kid and you have someone who can tap effortlessly in to the energy of any kind of Christian witness, even that of the new chrappies – a mnemonic for “Christian, affluent professionals” which I just made up.

With the emergence of this generation of self-confident, no-compromise disciples, the older City Christian benefactors – represented by figures such as Brian Griffiths (the vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs), Ken Costa (the former chairman of Lazard’s) and Stephen Green (the former chairman of HSBC, who is now a coalition trade minister) – have had their day. It used to be that you made your money in the City and gave away big lumps of it to good causes.

Griffiths was a driving force of the Christian Association of Business Executives and its “principles for those in business” – “Strive for excellence”, “Create wealth”, “Work ethically” – which now look a bit like serving the system through the Christian gospel rather than making the system serve the gospel. He is a low-church evangelical who once good-naturedly admonished me for wearing a dog collar to visit him at his office at Goldman Sachs. Costa appears to have taken his brief from the Bishop of London to “reconnect the financial with the ethical” as a means of appeasing the Occupy anti-capitalist protesters; once they had moved on, so did he. As for Green, an Anglican priest, he had his moral authority cruelly holed below the waterline by the HSBC money-laundering scandal.

These aren’t bad men. Quite the opposite. They are philanthropists and witnesses to their faith, in the Victorian tradition. But it might be fair to suggest that their faith served the old City system rather than the other way round. After Welby’s talk of being “baffled” by bankers’ bonuses from his seat on the parliamentary inquiry into the LIBOR rigging scam – “What is it essentially about bankers that means they need skin in the game? We don’t give skin in the game to civil servants, to surgeons, to teachers” – it is also fair to assume that he is unlikely to be one of those who would seek to bend God to the City’s will. As an outsider, he can speak as he finds. He recently told the Financial Times: “In banking, in particular, and in the City of London, a culture of entitlement has affected a number of areas . . . in which it seemed to disconnect from what people saw as reasonable in the rest of the world.”

It looks as if Welby’s potential network of Power Christians, relieved from the yoke of money-making for its own sake, is on the rise. Nat Wei, the Conservative peer and social reformist who, as a charismatic evangelical, is one of parliament’s more high-profile Christians, tells me: “We have to ask whether the redemptive work of Christ is just for people, or for organisations, too. The British model used to be that you came to church on Sunday, rather than equipped yourself to be a Christian wherever you were. Now people spend 60 to 80 hours a week in a workplace and they’re not always equipped for dealing with it through their faith. Sunday churches can be great, but sometimes they’re just cash cows to fund a ministry, or to fund the building. So the question being asked now is: ‘What is your business for?’”

There is plenty of evidence that this question is being asked rather more searchingly by Christians in the City since the collapse of its false gods in 2008. And this could mean that a new theology of wealth creation characterises Welby’s archiepiscopacy.

James Featherby was with the blue-blood City law firm Slaughter and May for exactly 30 years until 2011, and had been a partner there since 1990. He rode the boom years – in fact, two or three separate corporate booms. He’s in his fifties, so it is odd to think of him in terms of a new generation. But then it’s people of his age who have the money and power to change things.

These days he writes books with titles such as Of Markets and Men (with a foreword by Edward Bonham Carter, the chief executive of Jupiter Asset Management and, yes, Helena’s elder brother) and The White Swan Formula: Rebuilding Business and Finance for the Common Good.

To anyone from Occupy, which pitched camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral in 2011 a few months after Featherby retired from Slaughter’s, he could be presumed to be a creature from the belly of the beast. Featherby has led on highly lucrative corporate and commercial property work for such temples to Mammon as the Grosvenor Group and the giant developer Lend Lease in relation to its Olympic Village project. However, there is a sense of contrition, even repentance, about him now. I put it to him that there may be a more noble generation of operators coming through the City.

“I hope you’re right,” Featherby says. “I think the older generation operated in the context where survival as a Christian in the City was high up on the list. There may be a new generation which is more activist coming through, asking: do we need to fix the system? And whether there is something in our faith to add to that system.”

He doesn’t evade his and his contemporaries’ role in what went wrong. “I used to think it was a good system. I was fooled by it. The system hasn’t delivered on the promises that were made. But the system grew up with us. I pre-date Big Bang [the deregulation of the financial markets in 1986]. We let credit build up and created the economic and philosophical model we had. Then things changed – and we didn’t notice. So we mustn’t blame others, because we crafted the system. We took the enlightenment too far, with all that reductionism and individualism.

“We’re seeing the end of that now. In the west, we’ve all sorts of social problems we haven’t seen since the Second World War. This crisis we can’t ignore, because it has pound signs in front of it. At the moment, it’s business as usual, but there are alternatives. We used to have mutuals, we used to have building societies. Capitalism hasn’t always looked like this.”

How does Featherby’s Christian faith fit in? “In terms of the Christian spin, as it were, I think the generation I was in – and I don’t mean just Ken Costa and Brian Griffiths, I mean me, too – found it difficult to express Christian ideas in the business forum, because there was a lot of anti-religious feeling in the debate. That was particularly strong after 9/11 [and criticism of Islam, in 2001]. In fact, it was quite dangerous. So our faith wasn’t discussed. Revealing the origin of your viewpoint as Christian would not hope to win any argument – you’d immediately be thought of as bigoted, unscientific, fundamentalist.” Is there another generation of Christians coming through in the City? “There’s something in that. You catch glimpses of it. Matters are changing in small, incremental ways.”

In a quest to find someone who is making this change in City culture, I call Manoj Raithatha, a property entrepreneur whose business stood within a whisker of going into administration in 2008. He’s taken time out to drive to Stoke-on-Trent to be interviewed by a Christian radio station. You might think that’s enough ministry for one day but he pulls in to Watford Gap services to call me. They’re like that, these New Christians – nothing is too much trouble.

Raithatha, who runs the South Asian Forum for the lobby group the Evangelical Alliance, peppers his conversation with references to “the Lord” and what He tells him to do as others might talk of their life coach. He was buying and selling new-build flats with the likes of Taylor Wimpey until 2008, when he had a conversion experience (he was raised a Hindu). His severely asthmatic two-year-old son stopped breathing and nearly died at Northwick Park Hospital in London.

“I battled through with my business for two years with my Christian faith challenging me – I had been a huge risk-taker. Crazy, really,” he says. “That was my introduction to Christianity in that two years. I was on my knees.” He means in business terms, but laughs when I check. “God intervened with 15 different creditors with personal guarantees from me. They all did a U-turn – and that was two years of praying. I’ve traded out of it, rather than thrown the towel in. Every huge creditor came after us and each one came to a compromise. It was miraculous.”

Well, maybe. Or maybe it was down to his hard work and talent. Plenty of atheists, presumably, have picked their businesses up after 2008 in similar ways. That’s a problem we non-evangelical Christians have with all this: the idea of God as some Fat Controller, waiting for our prayers to persuade him to throw the points on life’s railway.

Raithatha formed a think tank, Business as Mission, with Bridget Adams, which now claims a presence in 25 countries, as well as a book publisher called Instant Apostle. Adams was a research scientist and Church of England priest. She died prematurely last year. One imagines that many prayers were offered for her, but apparently God didn’t answer those. Perhaps He was busy with all the creditors. But no one should doubt Raithatha’s sincerity. “The Lord is doing so much in the area of business,” he goes on. “A whole new generation of people are coming up who want to use business as a means of advancing the Kingdom of God.”

Does he think God runs his business? “Totally. God is the CEO and we’re surrendering and giving everything to God. We take His direction on all the big subjects.”

This seems to be the in-your-face confidence of the new commercial Christians. Had they been hiding away before? Raithatha thinks many of them still are. “Lots of Christians in the workplace are still living the sacred/secular divide. But if you’re a lawyer or whatever, you’re a minister in the workplace, just as much as a priest is.

“In the past, a lot of Christians have thought that what makes a Kingdom business is if it’s run ethically. But it’s more than being ethical. It’s about having a spiritual impact, encouraging Christians to think what impact their business is going to have. Everyone in the workplace has to explore how they can have a spiritual impact.” He concludes curiously: “Just imagine if Steve Jobs had borne witness. Imagine what that could have done.”

I need to see one of these Power Christians in their natural habitat, in the City, if only to see whether it’s all for real. I visit the office of Truestone Asset Management, which is in one of those refurbed grey-granite Victorian blocks in the heart of the City, on Fenchurch Street, just around the corner from that old bastion of financial clout, Lloyd’s of London. Truestone’s chairman, Paul Szkiler, is a Christian. There’s no doubt about that – his faith informs everything he does. But he doesn’t run a Christian firm. “You won’t see a fish symbol in my office,” he says when we meet. Early in our conversation, I ask if he tithes, the biblical injunction to give a tenth of your income in the service of God. “We do rather better than that,” he says simply and, later, talks unassumingly about his interests investing roughly $20m in developing nations such as Mozambique and Tanzania “to empower them”.

Szkiler looks the epitome of the City magnate, in navy-blue, chalk-stripe suit with immaculate open-necked white shirt. He bears a passing resemblance to a youthful Max Clif­ford but is a thoughtful and accomplished theologian. He is also quite frightening – not in his manner, but in what he has to say.

He is no great fan of the established Church (“The Temple does one thing well – it robs authority”) and speaks of “Churchianity”: “The traditional opposes the new. The established Church has a poverty mentality. But God is a God of superabundance. And what does the Church say? We haven’t got the budget. It’s the attitude of ‘keep the pastor poor and you keep him humble’.

“It’s impossible to create disciples in the Church structure, in pews, dipping in to scripture. Disciples can only be created in markets.” And he sees a holy elision between economic prosperity and investment in the poorest developing nations. After we meet, he sends me a link to a MoneyWeek video, the thrust of which is that the UK economy is shot for the long term – no country with the level of debt that we carry has ever recovered. We are slipping the way of Japan.

There is something of Armageddon, of the End Times, about Szkiler, but not in a depressing way. “Two years ago, JPMorgan estimated that social-impact investment was now a trillion-dollar asset class,” he says. He adds that seven of the world’s top-performing economies are in Africa and argues that, with proper governance and “measured outcomes”, there is no reason why serving the gospel and economic prosperity cannot coexist. “But in terms of capitalism that takes quite a bit of execution,” he says.

Before committing to Christianity, Szkiler, motivated vaguely by “doing good”, had done some mission work, flirted with Buddhism, which he found “too complicated”, and was into American west coast New Age spirituality. He then had a startling conversion ex­perience in South Kensington at St Paul’s, Onslow Square, one of those HTB church plants, when he found himself in the presence of Jesus.

His wide experience has given him an objectivity that can sound aggressive: “St Paul told us not to conform to pattern and to be countercultural. Most of us are subcultural rather than countercultural. We’re not causing enough ‘offence in love’ to make a difference. Take the City.

“There’s all this Oxbridge intellect, and we won’t touch them through intellect. What I’ve seen over a dozen years or so is people unravel and question the nature of their purpose. It means laying a new foundation, pouring into people more than they are able to do and expecting no thanks. We need to die to ego. The more dead you are, the more God potential there is.”

Radical stuff. I doubt if any of the old Christian guard in the City would have talked like this even five years ago. Szkiler and his friends run A Call to Business, a “growing community of business people who believe that God has called them into business”, and it has expanded fast – though Szkiler talks of “multiplication”.

He returns to the dualism of Churchianity. “They think they can give their money away and that’s enough. But the Kingdom isn’t interested in money. Discipleship is about the here and now, not being in that temple.

“I see 40- and 50-year-olds in the City and they’re overconcentrating on the money, but it’s their skill and brilliance that got them the money in the first place and we try to reconnect them with that. They sweat the detail, when really they have so much experience. It’s a reason to get repurified.”

Can that be a credo that takes root in the City? “Jesus didn’t promise happiness, He promised joy,” Szkiler replies. “Amidst all this suffering, there isn’t a man following Jesus hard who doesn’t have a limp. Everything is up for transformation.”

It occurs to me that Szkiler’s is a prophetic voice in the City. It doesn’t make for comfortable listening, but that is the point. There is a new confidence in the Christian alternative, a voice crying in the City wilderness, but one that doesn’t have to make any apology for itself any more. And one that is now being listened to rather more attentively.

Which brings us back to Archbishop Welby. Given his antipathy to conventional Church structures, Szkiler is surprisingly charitable. “I have a sympathy verging on pity,” he says. As it happens, Rosalind Runcie used to teach him to play piano at Lambeth Palace, “So I know a little of what it’s like there.”

His view of the archbishopric is much the same as his analysis of the City. And, in contrast to the Church of England’s hand-wringing milquetoasts, he is a powerful City man, unafraid to state that view. “He will be part of a structure that will try to rob him of his energy. His diary will be full of about 80 per cent that he shouldn’t do and about 20 per cent that’s creative.

“What I’d ask is: what can Justin Welby say that would be so authentic as to create division? We have this concept of unity, but Christ always said that He was going to create division. ‘I come not with a ploughshare but a sword.’ It’s about establishing a non-Temple authority. We need confrontation and division to be authentic. And I’d tell him not to be afraid. Otherwise in ten years he’ll be asking: ‘What was that all about?’”

A decade is not long in the archbishopric of Canterbury. The excruciating progress with reforms leading to the acceptance of women bishops demonstrates how slowly things move in the Church. But there is talk of Welby “streamlining” his staff and possibly reinstating the role of bishop at Lambeth, vacant for a decade, which would tackle the bureaucracy that restricts any archbishop who is ambitious and creative.

Welby must free himself from the can’t-do shackles of Church administrators. If he does that, he will have an opportunity to play to a fresh spirit moving in the City. His job, already started, is to give it voice.