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In 1995, a Church of England scandal made national news.

Reading an update on it this week reminded me of the Corinthians, whom St Paul reproved for becoming debauched. Their carnal attitude permeated their church services: babbling nonsense ecstatically ‘in tongues’, which was part of pagan worship, and drunken Communion services.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, something similar happened to a church in Sheffield. Unfortunately, there were no senior Church of England clergy to censure the vicar. As it happened, they encouraged a programme about which they knew little.

This week, The Times recapped what happened at St Thomas’s Church in Sheffield at what was called the Nine O’Clock Service, or NOS.

The NOS was held every Sunday.

A young Christian rock musician — and ex-nightclubber — Chris Brain, led the NOS, which The Times describes as:

a radical mix of rave culture, social and environmental campaigning and religion that drew queues of black-clad young followers for its weekly gatherings.

Instead of reminding Chris Brain of pertinent chapters of 1 Corinthians, the clergy wanted to extend the NOS throughout the United Kingdom (emphases mine):

The hierarchy was buzzing at the prospect of a vibrant model of service that might be copied around the country to attract new congregations.

Chris Brain, the charismatic young Christian rock musician who had emerged as leader of the NOS, met Dr George Carey, who was soon to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, and later recalled: “He said to me, ‘I’d be very happy to see an NOS in every town and city in the UK’.”

Carey, who met Brain in 1990, was interested in getting more converts, and rightly so. As the Archbishop of Canterbury, he declared the 1990s to be the Decade of Evangelism. He is best remembered for propagating the Alpha Course nationwide. Alpha started at Holy Trinity Brompton Church in London. It has been an international phenomenon for many years.

Returning to the NOS, in 1989, the Bishop of Sheffield, the Right Rev David Lunn, had confirmed 100 people — nearly all NOS attendees — at St Thomas’s. That is an extraordinary number of confirmands for any church at any one time:

It was a moment of great excitement for the church hierarchy because they were almost all young people, usually thought of as being out of reach.

As a result, Brain became a diocesan star of sorts, seen as being ideal for the priesthood:

Brain was fast-tracked for ordination and invited to contribute to the archbishop’s collection of essays on evangelism. Lunn told the BBC that the NOS had a “permanent significance” and was a “new development in the way we understand the Christian religion”.

The church authorities were either unaware of, or happy to turn a blind eye to some more disturbing aspects of the movement.

Brain’s ordination in 1992 was rather extraordinary:

When Brain was ordained in 1992, the NOS borrowed at considerable expense the robes worn by Robert de Niro in the film The Mission for the service.

He became St Thomas’s vicar.

Behind the scenes, however, carnality prevailed with Brain and some NOS adherents, particularly women. It was turning into a cult:

There were allegations of controlling behaviour and followers handing over thousands of pounds while cutting themselves off from their friends and families. Young women were enlisted as “postmodern nuns” in Brain’s Homebase Team. Some allegedly gave massages and engaged in sexual activity when putting him to bed.

Brain rationalised their behaviour, as one woman later recalled:

One member of the group, interviewed by the BBC, said: “He would talk about how we were discovering a postmodern definition of sexuality in the church. It’s just language — language covering up the fact of what was really going on: one bloke getting his rocks off.”

Things started getting out of hand in 1992:

There had been consternation in 1992 when an NOS service at a Christian festival included a troupe of dancers in black Lycra bikinis cavorting in front of 15,000 people.

A few laypersons and clergy complained to church authorities, but nothing was done until 1995:

Church leaders finally listened in August 1995 after disclosures by three whistleblowers:

One woman claimed that there was bullying and people were “blurring boundaries sexually”. She worried about how money was spent. The NOS charity, the Nine O’Clock Trust, recorded an income of £272,000 in 1994.

That amount of money is something an average Anglican church can only dream of.

Church authorities suspended Brain’s ministry. A month later, he tried to downplay the extracurricular activities of the NOS:

In a September 1995 interview with a Sunday newspaper he said that the sexual contact he had with women followers was “heavy petting” but “non-penetrative”. The Homebase Team had been created to help his wife at home because he was so busy with his work. “It was like any other vicarage, you always get ladies helping the vicar’s wife. They set up a rota but the idea of handmaidens is ridiculous,” he said.

Brain added: “These were relationships which began 10 or 12 years ago when I was part of the nightclub scene. When I became a priest, I should have done something about them . . . I didn’t and that was wrong.”

He said that his ordination never should have happened:

He claimed that it was “utterly ridiculous that I was made a priest . . . I was the breakthrough for the church but it changed everything for me. Everyone became dependent on me.”

Yes, congregants depend a great deal on their vicars. They expect spiritual leadership and guidance. He is their shepherd.

The Times is revisiting this story because, after 25 years, former NOS members are now seeking compensation:

Former members of the Nine O’Clock Service, which was known as the NOS and drew hundreds of young people to nightclub-style evangelical services in Sheffield in the 1980s and 1990s, have approached the church alleging that they endured abuse and exploitation.

The current Bishop of Sheffield, the Right Rev Pete Wilcox, said that:

the survivors had given “harrowing testimonies” about their experiences, and their concerns were being taken “very seriously”.

More ex-members could be coming forward:

to allege sexual exploitation and psychological abuse.

One member explained that the reason for waiting a quarter of a century to come forward was because the Church of England advised them to stay silent:

One former member of the group said: “People have been silent for a long time and it has caused them huge distress and trauma. The church told them at the time that they should keep silent, don’t talk about it, the press will destroy you. I think after the MeToo movement people felt ‘enough is enough’ and they made a decision to come forward.”

Some of those seeking help are considering legal action for damages because church leaders had overtly supported the NOS, believing that it would attract younger congregations.

The article says that the hierarchy even gave the NOS financial backing.

The ‘postmodern nuns’ wore unusual habits and had unorthodox duties:

Brain resigned his ministry in 1995 as the scandal unfolded. It emerged that his entourage included a group of “postmodern nuns” who wore black miniskirts and whose tasks ranged from housekeeping duties to “putting him to bed” at night.

He told a BBC documentary in 1995 that he had been “involved in improper sexual conduct with a number of women”.

Fast forwarding to the present, Brain is now 63. The article says that he has changed his first name from Chris to James. He is currently:

co-director of a “transformation design” consultancy based in Manchester.

The Times reported that he did not respond to their attempts to contact him.

The NOS, The Times says, had between 300 to 500 members. A number of them forsook family and friends for the movement, filling its coffers with large sums of money.

At the time the scandal broke, the then-Bishop of Sheffield, Bishop Lunn, said that:

the hierarchy was not responsible for any wrongdoing.

The current incumbent, Bishop Wilcox, is taking a much different stance:

Wilcox said: “We can confirm a group of survivors of the appalling conduct at the Nine O’Clock Service in the Diocese of Sheffield, which originally surfaced in the 1990s, have contacted the Church of England. Their concerns and harrowing testimonies are being taken very seriously. Support is being offered and the church is working closely with the statutory authorities.”

A large law firm, Slater & Gordon, is representing the former members. One of their solicitors (attorneys), Richard Scorer, said:

The Church of England has a moral and legal responsibility to those harmed by abuse in the Nine O’Clock Service and it must honour that and ensure that the appalling harm suffered by victims is properly acknowledged.

I remember when the story broke. It was in the papers for several weeks. Even the atheists I knew at the time expressed their shock and said that priests should not act like that.

The Times has done an admirable job of returning this harrowing story to the spotlight.

I hope that settlements can be reached and that the Church of England learns an important lesson from this.

However, I have a few old bookmarks on the Nine O’Clock Service, which say that Chris Brain’s departure did not end the movement. Furthermore, The Independent reported at the time that Bishop Lunn was quick to demand that Brain resign as vicar and that the Archbishop of York had already banned him from performing priestly duties.

More to come on Monday.

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