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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.

On the back of exploring what’s on Episcopal priests‘ minds, I am crossing the Atlantic, returning to the UK, to explore what Anglican priests are thinking about.

I will continue both series.

The Revd Marcus Walker, serving in the Diocese of London, deplores the bewilderment and criticism surrounding the recent group photograph of Mike Pence and his coronavirus team in prayer.

Note that they are not praying in public, as detractors have said. Press photographers happened to be present for the meeting.

The 1662 Book of Common Prayer has such a prayer, which can be said during the Litany. Highly useful during the coronavirus scare:

In the time of any common plague or sicknes.

O Almighty God, who in thy wrath didst send a plague upon thine own people in the wildernes for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron, and also in the time of King David, didst slay with the plague of pestilence threescore and ten thousand, and yet remembring thy mercy didst save the rest: have pitie upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sicknes and mortality, that like as thou didst then accept of an atonement, and didst command the destroying Angell to cease from punishing: so it may now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sicknes, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Marcus Walker later located his ‘jumbo book of State Prayers’ and noted the following shift in emphasis in them from the 18th to the 19th centuries:

Turning to the opprobrium heaped upon the American vice president and his team, this is what Mr Walker and his readers tweeted:

Nor do I.

The Revd Giles Fraser, formerly a Canon at St Paul’s Cathedral and current Rector at the south London church of St Mary’s, Newington, told the readers of his online magazine Unherd how he has changed the Communion service during the coronavirus outbreak (emphases mine):

I have a cough. I have had it for weeks. A deep hacking affair that brings up nasty thick greenish goo. It’s not the virus — I haven’t got a high temperature or any other symptoms. But it is dramatic enough to clear the seats next to me on the tube.

In church on Sunday, too, I could feel the anxiety radiate out from my coughing away behind the altar into a twitchy congregation. We have suspended sharing the peace for the time being. Instead of shaking hands or kissing, we wave at each other. So, too, we have decided to take communion in one kind only — that is, we share the bread but not the common cup of wine. And in this context, the symbolic handwashing the priest performs before the Eucharist is no longer simply a ritual act. It feels like a necessity. Cleanliness is next to godliness.

As one of my posts explained last week, the Cup can be suspended during health emergencies under a) the Doctrine of Concomitance and b) the 1547 Sacrament Act.

The Doctrine of Concomitance says that Christ’s substance in the Eucharist cannot be divided. The bread and the wine are both the entire real presence of Christ.

Giles Fraser and one of his readers helpfully tweeted about both:

Someone responded — possibly an agnostic — taking to task Christians who are panicking over the coronavirus. He has a point:

It amazes me how those who pontificate so much about life thereafter being so wonderful succumb to panic at the thought of death. Just a pause for thought. The Lord’s supposed to be our protector but only if it means it protects us from death. Come on religious people! Get a grip.

I don’t understand it, either.

On that note, and from a Catholic perspective, Dr CC Pecknold, a professor who also writes for First Things, tweeted about the plague in Venice between 1630 and 1631:

Exactly. However, that is what stubborn secularists, such as those criticising Mike Pence and his coronavirus team, refuse to understand. Christians pray for guidance and relief during troubled times.

There was more to the conversation. Someone was disappointed that the Peace had been suspended in his diocese:

How true.

In closing, after the plague had left Venice, the citizens of that city built a magnificent church in thanksgiving:

Would this happen now were, heaven forfend, the coronavirus to become an epidemic? No. Not at all.

More’s the pity.

In Italy, churches are closing their doors for the next few weeks:

This church in Rome is open but has taken additional precautions:

Meanwhile, let’s continue to pray that we may be guided in the correct practical direction during this pandemic and ask the Lord for it to harm as few people as possible.

I do think these health disasters are ‘come to Jesus moments’. Is anyone out there listening, including some notional Christians? Or are we all going to panic?

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