The Peniel Pentecostal Church in Brentwood, Essex, has also provoked controversy by "taking over" its local Conservative party.
Most of worshippers of the Peniel Church use McArtney and Dowie, a pounds 1.5m insurancebroking empire, to buy their mortgage, pension, life assurance, savings and health insurance. The FSA has visited McArtney and Dowie's offices and is investigating suggestions that members of the Peniel congregation may have been subjected to coercive selling.
The company is owned by Bishop Michael Reid, and his partner, Dr Peter Linnecar, 46, the senior pastor, who, with his wife, Carolyn, 46, head an intricately linked network of church, business and charitable organisations.
Dr Linnecar and his wife are trustees of the Peniel Church, a registered charity whose latest accounts show an annual income of pounds 2m. Its 800-odd members are encouraged to live nearby and to give 10 per cent of their income to the church. Many send their children to the church school, the Peniel Academy, which has just moved into a pounds 1.3m listed mansion set in 74 acres in Brizes Park, Essex.
Dr Linnecar and the bishop live in large detached houses next to the church. In the bishop's drive are a top-of-the-range Mercedes, registration B2 PPC (Bishop to Peniel Pentecostal Church) and a Rover - B3 PPC. Dr Linnecar drives a Lexus.
When The Independent attended a "Bible lesson" at the church last week the bishop, 55, dressed in a stripy blazer, began and ended his sermon by encouraging worshippers to buy videos and books from Alive UK Ltd. Alive is one of seven directorships he holds in companies jointly owned with Dr Linnecar.
Julia Roworth, who has left the church, was a volunteer in the video editing department. "We did sell quite a lot of videos, especially when we had conferences. We filmed the conference then edited out anything controversial, which is most of it sometimes. Talking about Prince Charles's ears or lefty pinkoes or whatever," she said.
The bishop's lessons are often expressed in colourful language. A Muslim who refused to renounce her faith was "a blithering woman", while visiting a topless beach was akin to "doing a dump outside your own back door".
Peniel Pentecostal Church is a member of the Evangelical Alliance, which refuses to talk about the church. It is also a member of the International Communion of Charismatic Churches (ICCC), formed in 1983 by the late Nigerian Archbishop Benson Idahosa, a Nigerian. It was the archbishop who gave Mr Reid his bishopric.
Bishop Reid holds several positions in this group, including Bishop of Europe. Links to other evangelical groups include courses run by the Peniel College of Higher Education, which sells degree courses supplied by the Oral Roberts University. Oral Roberts, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, recently locked himself in a tower and threatened that God would "call him home" unless $4.5m was donated before a self-imposed deadline.
Robin Ware, a former Peniel member whose ex-wife took some of the courses, is sceptical: "He is offering people degrees and diplomas off the back of what are no better than GCSE courses," he said.
In January last year about 120 Peniel members joined the Conservative Party, though members of the area's new Independent Conservative group, who claim 200 members themselves, say the figure is as high as 500 today.
Dr Tony Gilbraith, Independent Conservative councillor for Shenfield ward of Brentwood, believes the links with religious groups in the southern US are significant: "It's quite common for churches to get involved in politics there. I think he's trying to do the same thing here."
Caroline Kean, a solicitor representing Bishop Reid, said last night that his house was owned by the church and that he had sold his own house, giving the proceeds to the school and church. She said church finances were not run by the bishop but by the trustees.
The car number plates, she said, were a gift and because Bishop Reid is tall he could not drive a much smaller vehicle. The price paid, she added, "was less than for a Ford Granada".Reuse content