Friday, 18 December 2009

Different takes

On opposite pages of The Guardian ’s obituary section yesterday (17 December) were Oral Roberts and Sir Richard O’Brien – US evangelist faces the author of the Faith in the City report. You couldn’t get two more different takes on Christianity or on a particular verse of the Bible.

Oral Roberts was not tripped up by sex, like several other high profile tele-evangelists, thus saving the world from some unseemly jokes. The obituarist remarked that instead he ‘always devoted himself to money – and, occasionally, God’. Apparently his Bible fell open at 3 John verse 2. Of course if Roberts had anything other than the King James Version which uses the word ‘prospering’, he would have read about things being ‘well with you’ – that’s what the original Greek means and, to be fair, probably what the KJV writers had in mind.

But he took prospering to be strictly in the financial sense and had a lucrative line in equating faith in God (= donations to his organisation) as bringing its monetary rewards in the life of the believer. Roberts (not to be called Dr Roberts, according to the strict obituarist, ‘only having honorary degrees’) was described as treating religion ‘the way that Tulsans went into oil: to make money’. The obituarist did not point up any redeeming features. Tragically Roberts’ family suffered early deaths and financial scandals.

The sub-title of O’Brien’s obituary was ‘Industrial relations expert at odds with Margaret Thatcher’. O’Brien was in many ways an establishment figure – distinguished war service, involved with the Confederation of British Industry, adviser to the Department of Economic Affairs, Chairman of the Manpower Services Commission. He argued for greater worker participation in management and a better equipped, qualified and motivated workforce. He suggested that an ‘imbalance of status and privilege’ between boardroom and employees was the root cause of many problems (British Airways and banks might take notice). Margaret Thatcher not surprisingly sacked him from the Manpower Services Commission.

What really put him, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, on her list of enemies though was the Faith in the City report in 1985, produced by a working group he chaired. This had the nerve to suggest that much of the blame for growing spiritual and economic poverty in British inner cities was the result of Thatcherite policies. If ever the Church of England could be said to have attempted to speak a prophetic word for the people of the country, this was it. Things being ‘well with you’ for the whole of society, not just the elite, and in a total, not just financial, sense.