The Archbishop Of Canterbury called for lessons to be learned from the sex abuse scandal of the Nine O'Clock Service. In this detailed report Tony Cummings looks at NOS and strives to unravel the spiritual lessons from the media hyperbole.
Sin has a habit of tainting and despoiling everything it touches. Nobody involved in the spiritual catastrophe that was the Nine O'Clock Service, not the Service itself, not the Church Of England, not the charismatic movement, not Greenbelt, not the media and certainly not the titillation-gorged public have remained untouched by the poisonous ripples revolving from the Sheffield epicentre. As the world now knows the sin found its host on which it could grow into its full malignancy in the life of one poor wretch called Chris Brain. But where there is sin there is hope of repentance and healing. The following overview is not written from the sensationalist exaggerations of the tabloids. Nor the wisdom-after-the-event glibness of shallow religious journalism. This report is a call to repent, repent of any part WE played in the NOS tragedy and a call that the Body Of Christ will truly learn lessons from its mistakes.
We must begin by profiling Chris Brain himself. This is no easy matter. Already the real man, the Christian called into the Anglican ministry, is all but lost in the 'Rev Rave' and 'evil priest' caricatures of the tabloid hyenas. What do we know of him? He grew up in Harrogate where he and his girlfriend Lynne Stopford Taylor attended the Harrogate Baptist Church. Apparently they slept together before they were married in 1977. In 1980 Chris and Lynne moved to Sheffield forming the band Present Tense. Chris' wife Lynne played keyboards. A loud, highly theatric team that fused Siouxsie And The Banshees aggression with classically tinged rock. Present Tense didn't make the big time save for Greenbelt where at the 1981 festival they were put on mainstage while their female lead singer, in strapless evening dress, was made the front cover story of Greenbelt publication Strait. But no record deal was forthcoming and the band disappeared from view.
Chris announced his intention to enter the Anglican ministry. During his theological training the highly intelligent Brain began to read widely from the whole of the religious traditions. Brain's theological eclecticism was to become notorious. Made a curate at St Thomas, Crookes, Sheffield, Chris Brain was for a while heavily influenced by the charismatic movement and particularly the work and ministry of new church pioneer John Wimber.
A new idea was formulating with Chris Brain - taking the rave and house music which by the mid 80s was emerging from Europe's musical underground and with its multi media visual sensations, to form the basis of a new form of Christian worship. The technology for such a venture wouldn't come cheap. But Chris discovered a powerful gift as a fundraiser for the pioneering work. Amongst the earliest gifts in late 1986 was one from John Wimber's Vineyard axis of churches. The Nine O'Clock Service was born in 1987.
NOS immediately caught the imagination of all within the Church who recognised that the two major modes of worship now prevalent -the hymnody dominant since the 17th century and the praise and worship choruses of charismatic evangelicalism, had for many become both stylised and irrelevant, failing to stimulate some Christians into a genuine worship experience and failing to mean anything to a musical generation who enjoyed thunderous kick drums and synth sequences rather then cathedral harmonies or acoustic guitar strums. In retrospect it has to be stated that John Wimber, a staunch defender of evangelical orthodoxy, showed naivetÚ in contributing to a project which even from its inception could not be identified as within the main flow of biblical belief. For although "charismatic", Chris Brain was on a dizzyingly theological journey, selecting bits and pieces from the vast cornucopia of religious experience and tradition - high church sacramentalism; Catholic mysticism, liberal speculation, creation spirituality and even elements from the New Age and Eastern Religion. Brain's 'pick 'n' mix' attitude towards religion and the Bible was not a new theological stance. Back in 1984 the great Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer had written in his book The Great Evangelical Disaster, "There is only one way to describe those who no longer hold to a full view of Scripture. Although many of these would like to retain the evangelical name for themselves, the only accurate way to describe this view is that of a form of neo-orthodox existential theology. The heart of neo-orthodox existential theology is that the Bible gives us a quarry out of which to have religious experience, but that the Bible contains mistakes when it touches that which is verifiable - namely history and science. But unhappily we must say that this concept now has come into some of that which is called evangelicalism."
The name now emerging for this movement is "post-evangelicalism". Codified in the recently published book The Post-Evangelical by evangelical-turned-charismatic-turned-post-evangelical Dave Tomlinson, the movement of professing Christians who refuse to accept the label liberal yet who deviate from biblical orthodoxy on any subject they choose - Biblical inerrancy, homosexuality, universalism etc - has for many years found a sympathetic home at the Greenbelt Festival. So it was not surprising that the Greenbelt Festival should give an enthusiastic platform to the Nine O'Clock Service. In 1988 the Service played the festival. Their worship events in a large tent made a huge impact. Remembers Cross Rhythms' Chris Cole, "Their approach to worship was invigorating, innovative and very exciting. As one who finds it difficult to jump around to Graham Kendrick (no offence Graham), I was thrilled by the music, while the liturgy was brilliant. They looked at some deep issues like martyrdom. Only on the prayer side was I uneasy. I sensed that in the prayers they weren't seeing the people. The charismatic movement that's impersonal is very, very dangerous. There was something impersonal about the prayers at the services. I perceived a spiritual immaturity."
Articles began to appear in magazines like Renewal praising the Nine O'Clock Service's pioneering approach and St Thomas, Crookes, became a required place of pilgrimage for all those seeking to push back the boundaries of how to worship God. Unintentionally birthing a whole "alternative worship" movement (or "rave praise" as it was sometimes called in its early years) similar church groups, like the Late Late Service in Glasgow and the Hap Club in Birmingham sprang up utilising many of the NOS elements. In July 1990, James Attlee wrote in Cross Rhythms about how moved he was by NOS' use of sacramental and traditional imagery. "I was deeply impressed with the variety of sources from which the worship team have drawn in seeking to glorify God."
Tragically for NOS, the adopting of elements of genuine Christian spirituality ignored by contemporary evangelicalism (like the truth represented in religious art and ritual, or the validity in reaching for a contemplative spirituality) weren't the only elements being gathered in by post-evangelical Brain. He began to quote in NOS publications the writings of speculative theologian Don Cuppitt who advocates a synthesis of Christianity and Eastern religion and the work of Matthew Fox, an influential lecturer expelled from the Roman Catholic church for heresy who's creation spirituality is perceived by orthodox Christian teachers as a thinly veiled form of animism. Brain also seemed to be taking on board an old pagan idea, prevalent in ancient pre-Christian religions and which has made a reappearance in the New Age which tries to equate human sexual experience as a spiritual experience and the orgasm as some mystical revelation of the Godhead.
As Chris Brain's theology became more and more a blurred fusion of truth and error so Brain's private life deteriorated. Thrilled by the success with NOS and the crowds flocking to the services his leadership style became more and more authoritarian taking on many of the qualities of the oppressive 'heavy shepherding' tendency which had plagued the house churches in the 70s. With NOS now being funded with an every growing list of the rich and powerful, Chris began to develop expensive tastes in clothes and lifestyle. In 1992 Greenbelt announced that the Nine O'Clock Service was to conduct a NOS worship service from the mainstage. The news was, ironically, initially greeted with enthusiasm by evangelicals and charismatics worried by what it saw as the eroding liberalism of the festival. "It was the news there was to be worship from mainstage which made me decide to go to Greenbelt," one house church leader told me. "And the fact it was this new thing, alternative worship, with house music and projected images and lighting effects, meant, I thought, there'd be a lot of fresh ideas to bring back to my church who were finding the Graham Kendrick style of worship increasingly formulaic. My high expectations weren't so much dashed as utterly demolished."
In the 1992 Greenbelt programme Brain announced his intention of exploring human sexuality in the context of a worship service. "You don't have to enter NOS and leave your bollocks outside," he wrote. Even so forewarned the mass who congregated frontstage of Greenbelt they thought for a time of Christian worship, were stunned at what was put before them. Two bikini-clad dancers doing provocative bumps and grinds, Yin and Yang symbols flashed onto giant screens, illusions to the New Age, left the crowd stunned. The next day at a hurriedly arranged press conference Brain sought to defend the NOS presentation. He spoke about Yin and Yang ("To me personally they speak about harmony"), about New Age symbolism ("If we gave up all the symbols that the New Age used I don't think that we'd have any left"), about the sexual content ("It was not intended to be in any way sexual directly - it was dealing with the whole language of desire") but the press present remained unimpressed. So did the public. "Obvious heresy", "the NOS debacle", "the New Age has sneaked into the Church" and "at best confused, at worst pagan" were comments contained in the massive NOS mailbag Cross Rhythms received after the '92 Greenbelt. In the period following the event, two organisations were completely silent about the Nine O'Clock Service - Greenbelt and the Church Of England. Gavin Drake, a newspaper journalist who covered both NOS's 1992 Festival appearance and the 1995 media exposÚs thinks that the silence was in character. "Neither Greenbelt nor the Church Of England had the machinery to deal with people like Chris Brain overstepping the mark. The writing was on the wall in 1992 that things were seriously wrong with NOS. But Greenbelt were incapable of disassociating themselves with something they'd given a platform to. So there was no press statements and no indication that they didn't still support NOS. I suppose it was understandable. No one likes to admit a mistake. And Chris Brain had all the things -a post evangelical theology, cultural relevancy, the ability to offend the religiously pompous - that Greenbelt finds so attractive. But, it's not enough for Dave Tomlinson and Garth Hewitt in 1995 to talk to the newspapers about the cultic tendencies and arrogance shown by Chris Brain at his '92 press conference. A Greenbelt statement disassociating themselves with NOS should have been made THEN."
Gavin Drake is equally critical of the Church Of England. "Whatever the Roman Catholic's theological deficiencies, and I speak as a member of the Anglican Communion, at least the Catholic church has the machinery in place to expel the heretic. They quite rightly threw out Matthew Fox for his false teachings. In the Church Of England all kinds of loopy theology is tolerated. This broad church mentality is a massive problem. You can't disconnect bad theology from bad lifestyle. I'm sure ideas and attitudes imbibed during the Rev Brain's dalliance with the New Age, Don Cuppitt and all, played some part in Chris' disastrous personal lifestyle."
It was of course Chris Brain's personal life, and specifically his numerous approaches to young girls at the Nine O'Clock Service for sex during one-to-one counselling sessions, which was to bring him into the merciless gaze of the mass media. Right up until Chris Brain's exposure NOS, since 1994 housed at Sheffield's Pondsforge International Sports Centre, continued to function effectively. In CR24 Karl Allison wrote praising the welcome he'd received and recommended that people check it out for themselves. But Karl still confessed disquiet. "Whilst it may be difficult to attack themes of global redemption and seeing the community (or Kingdom) of God in the broadest possible terms, I'm left wondering how much of it is ultimately concerned with self-discovery rather than approaching God."
When the story of Chris Brain's fall broke a week before the Greenbelt Festival I was momentarily startled by the sheer intensity of the mass media interest. It was only after a telephone call with a researcher that the penny dropped. Here was a dream story for a prurient media - sex, cult and rave all in one story: sex - their perennial number one best selling subject; cult - a topic to instantly intrigue a mass audience playing on the fears of brainwashing and manipulation; and rave - the ravers being the Samaritans of the 90s, young sub-humans who'd abandoned all in their E-induced revelries and whom all could scorn with impunity.
The media came and did their thing. It ranged from accurate reportage (the Independent) to wildly inaccurate (Today, clearly mixing up Toronto Blessing coverage with NOS to claim that at NOS' 1988 Greenbelt Festival appearance "many fainted - slain by the Holy Spirit" - they didn't of course) to the downright fictitious (the News Of The World, "Evil Rev asked God to bless groupies groping in the aisles"). The worst of the stories, with their blatant disregard for the lives and feelings of the young girls so cruelly let down by their supposed spiritual mentor, showed the inherent moral schizophrenia of the tabloid press. Christian apologist Ravi Zacharius has pointed out how the world delights in critiquing the Church with a logic it doesn't apply to itself. So in the same newspapers that ran sensationalist denouncements of "evil priest" Chris Brain, you find stories applauding Michael Barrymore's decision to come out of the closet and declare himself gay (the Mirror), tests to prove whether you have psychic powers (Daily Mail) or a story where a topless model spoke graphically of her sex session with Kevin Costner (News Of The World). There was some valid reporting about NOS too. The Mail ran a revealing story showing that church staff working the telephone helpline to aid victims of the scandal were guiding them away from the police with misinformation that only rape was a matter for the police and sexual interference wasn't.
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