Reviewed by Tony Cummings
Mr Howard, a Sunday Times journalist of no clear Christian belief, told a Greenbelt press conference that his motive for writing the book was because he was "a bastard who wanted to make a lot of money." Presumably, this was a crude attempt at irony as The Rise And Fall Of The Nine O'clock Service is, thankfully, far from being a sensationalist quickie written in the Randy Vicar And The Sex Slaves prose of the tabloids but an exhaustive, and at times exhausting, documentation of the facts of Britain's most notorious post war religious scandal. The journalist is to be congratulated for digging as deep as he has and interviewing dozens ex-NOS members, including a large number of followers from Chris Brain's inner circle. With these interviews as its core the book builds up a chilling picture of abuse and manipulation by a machiavellian church leader who apparently possessed a quite staggering ability to pummel people into doing his will. It is the carefully drawn accounts of Brain's verbal abuse, emotional manipulation and rampant megalomania rather than his rather sad and tawdry sexual misconduct and misuse of church money which make the most stomach-churning reading. It is full of never-before-revealed details - Brain's work in America with Matthew Fox, a prophecy delivered to Brain by one of the Kansas City prophets seeing hornets of sin around the churchman's head - and though many of the interviews with ex-NOS members are kept anonymous, the reader gets a strong feeling we're getting a fairly accurate picture of what went on in a notoriously secretive church-turned-cult. The book's first-hand research makes it essential reading for those involved in the alternative worship movement, those attempting to combat abuse and manipulation of the cults, and those within the Church Of England seeking to learn lessons from the NOS debacle. The book's failings are in the final chapter. Church, Culture, Cult, a confused mish mash which begins (unfairly) with a report on a Jesus Fellowship meeting, moves on to a rag bag of quotes from academics about sects and cults (apparently, Roy Wallis, Professor of Sociology at Queen's University, Belfast, considers house churches "world accommodating sects"!) and concludes with some quotes from Dave Tomlinson which appear woefully misleading. Maybe it was the fact that NOS' post modernist church vision unpacked by Brain in several passages appears perilously close to the post-evangelical convictions of Tomlinson that led the Holy Joe's leader to suggest that NOS problems were caused by the "fundamentalist, dogmatic approach to their aims" rather than the extreme liberal theology and shamanism which in later years permeated Brain's doctrine. Perhaps it is too much to expect insightful overview from an author who isn't a Christian and who was, he now admits, completely taken in at an interview he conducted with Brain before the scandal broke when the churchman showed obvious signs of megalomania. But whatever Roland Howard's failings as a Christian commentator able to discern that the root of Brain's problem was deviance from faith in Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture, Howard's ability to give a factual account of manipulation and malpractice is exemplary.
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