With their use of original, house - style dance music in praise and worship, NOS have been pioneers. But now criticism and controversy threatens to overwhelm the Sheffield radicals. Tony Cummings reports.
NOS' (also known as the Nine O'clock Service) celebration of 'radical worship' from the main-stage of the 1992 Greenbelt Festival wasn't just controversial. NOS - and Greenbelt - came in for a totally unprecedented torrent of criticism. "Obvious heresy", "the NOS debacle", "the New Age has sneaked into the Church", and "at best confused, at worst pagan" were just some of the phrases used in Cross Rhythms post-NOS / Greenbelt mailbag.
The mass exodus of people from the Mainstage area during NOS's Friday night celebration; the throng in the Greenbelt Information Tent registering complaints; and letters of protest in the Christian media; all show that whatever their intention to push back the barriers of praise and worship, NOS have not so much challenged evangelical sensibilities as trampled them underfoot. But what is the truth behind the furore? Are NOS pioneering radicals misunderstood by a blinkered and culturally illiterate Church?
Or are NOS indeed theological wolves in sheep's clothing bringing the New Age and unbiblical liberal teaching to a gullible youth culture? In an effort to discover the answer Cross Rhythms spoke to Chris Braine, the mastermind behind the phenomenon that is NOS. The Nine O'clock Service - based at St Thomas' in Crookes, a suburb of Sheffield - has long been a cause celebre, both within the religious community and in the mass media. NOS use loud, house-orientated dance music coupled with projected visual images and a bank of videos in its worship celebrations.
NOS is a pioneering work, being the undoubted prototype for what is today a tiny yet growing 'rave praise' movement within Britain's churches. NOS/St Thomas', Crookes, titillated the mass media. "The acid house church" was one infamous newspaper reference to it. Undergirding NOS's radical approach to music and hi-tech visuals was a deep-seated ecumenicalism. When Cross Rhythms' James Attlee attended St Thomas', Crookes (for a communion service, not a NOS rave) in May 1990 he wrote, "Here in the Anglican / Baptist church we have a worship service drawing on many traditions: the liturgy of the Anglicans; the candles, incense and Latin chants of the Catholics; the extempore prayers of the Non-Conformists; and the direct experience of God the Holy Spirit of the Pentecostalists and Charismatics - all combined with elements of avant-garde art and rock culture."
Yet now, some are claiming the theologically eclectic NOS have absorbed not only Christian but liberal neo-Christian and New Age teachings into their beliefs and practices. Certainly the NOS leaflet distributed at the Greenbelt meeting quoting notorious ultra-liberal theologian Don Cupitt with his exhortations of what Christians could learn from Eastern religion made many hackles rise.
Also, NOS founder Chris Braine's comment in the Greenbelt programme that NOS had "been influenced by New Cosmology, Creation Spirituality, De-Constructionism and Post-Feminism and Mysticism left many evangelicals both bemused and reaching for their dictionaries.
At the heart of the accusation against NOS, expressed openly and forcefully by bemused media people at a Greenbelt Press Conference, was that NOS were pantheistic (pantheism being the teaching that identifies God with the universe and is usually expressed as a synthesis of all religions).
At the press conference Chris Braine sought to explain his beliefs. "There are problems in being a total non-pantheist which is seeing God removed from creation as there is a problem in saying God IS creation which is the pantheistic world view. But I do not believe, and I can't hold any longer that God is removed from creation, that is dangerous theology that finally theologians have worked through." Is Chris Braine affirming the personality of God as evangelicals would?
"I can't . . . The whole theme of the service was that in all that chaos the Spirit of God, in the world and in the universe, was still creating. There was the incarnation of Christ coming into the worlds of many. God as man is our way of understanding in ultimate form God." So does Chris Braine regard the Father as a personal God or a pantheistic force?
"Our understanding of God the Father and Holy Spirit, as I understand, is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So if we want to see part of God the Father we have to look at the person of Christ. Christ, as we know, talked to our Father in personal terms. I do not think that is exclusively the God that we see."
Among the most widely criticised elements of NOS' Greenbelt celebration were the visual images flashed onto the giant screen on mainstage. Accusations of New Age and Masonic imagery abounded.
"There was no Masonic imagery there at all as far as I'm aware...," responded Chris Braine.
"The strobing images are all from the book of Christian symbols, either images of the Trinity or the Spirit."
But why did NOS use symbols - like the Yin and Yang (from Chinese thought, Yin being the passive female principle of the universe and Yang the active male) for instance? Why use such symbols?