The relationship between faith and finance runs deep. Quaker-run banks such as Barclays – founded three centuries ago on Lombard Street – survived when many of their peers crumbled during the crashes of the mid-1700s precisely because of the Christian ethics that underpinned their businesses. More recently, Stephen Green stepped down as chairman and chief executive of HSBC to take holy orders. And over the past decade, a specific type of evangelical Christianity has taken hold of the Square Mile, although only recently has it dared speak its name (at least in City circles). Foremost among them is the Alpha course, whose extraordinary expansion has been funded in part from the deep pockets of former Lazard chairman Ken Costa. k
Founded at Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) in Knightsbridge in 1991, Alpha has grown from an initial four churches to operate in more than 55,000 locations in 164 countries. It is estimated that more than 16 million people have taken the course worldwide. Jonathan Aitken, Geri Halliwell, Sir Ian Blair and Bear Grylls are all regulars.
While the course draws those from all walks of life, its heartland in the UK is leafy west London, and the wealthy, youthful (average age: 27), 4,000-strong congregation of HTB is the model upon which its success is built. Rumours circulate of Alpha demanding a tithe from its richest members; wilder stories suggest it is a brainwashing cult. What is clear is that while traditional Anglican churches have seen their congregations dwindle dramatically over the past several decades, the packed pews of HTB and its sister churches attest to Alpha’s remarkable spiritual pulling power.
The Alpha course is presented as a friendly, accessible introduction to Christianity aimed specifically at non-churchgoers. Led by charismatic barrister-turned-priest Nicky Gumbel (also vicar of HTB), the course is made up of 10 weekly get-togethers where the members eat dinner, listen to a talk, then discuss the week’s topic in smaller groups. It twins sermons and Biblical exegesis with more happy-clappy practices such as speaking in tongues (where members pray in a “heavenly language”), and it includes a weekend retreat during which members are encouraged to fill themselves with the Holy Spirit.
Alpha in the Workplace (a scaled-back, quick-sandwich-at-lunchtime version of the main course) is the focus of Alpha’s operations in the City, and runs in a number of major firms, from Lovells to PWC, UBS to RBS. There are also traditional courses run in a number of City churches. Alpha’s success in the Square Mile has spawned a large number of similar evangelical organisations over the past decade – Christians in the City, Christianity Explored, the Banking Christian Fellowship, the City Prayer Breakfast and even a floating church moored at Canary Wharf. These groups share a number of characteristics: they are based around a shared meal, encourage open questioning of the Christian message, and are structured as a spiritual journey leading to a personal relationship with God.
In 2008, as the financial panic took hold, more and more evangelicals began to come out of the woodwork. It seemed as though the crash was causing City workers to flock to the nearest religious get-together, desperate to repent of their sub-prime sins. The truth, however, is a little different. The evangelical Christians had always been there, but the uncertainty of the crisis made them feel more comfortable about revealing their faith, according to Marcus Nodder, the chaplain of St Peter’s Barge, a church which bobs on the Thames’s tide in the shadow of the Canary Wharf skyscrapers. “We didn’t see any increase in numbers during the credit crunch,” he reveals. “If anything, numbers fell as people were fired and those who stayed felt less able to leave their desks given the pressure and focus upon them. What we did see was that the crisis gave Christians working in the City the opportunity to speak about the hope their faith gives them.”
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It would be really interesting for one to take the same look at the Nigerian financial sector. For instance, Erastus Akingbola, former head of Nigeria’s Intercontinental Bank, who was recently ordered by a UK High Court to repay the money he stole from his bank, is/was (not sure what the tense is) a pastor in a parish of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, one of Nigeria’s biggest churches.