Update: Wondering what a NOS-styled ‘Planetary Mass’ would look like in the US, minus the scandal? Check out Matthew Fox, Cosmic Mass
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Historians tracing the birth of self-consciously ’emerging’ forms of church – if they seek to trace such things – will quibble about where and when, as historians do. But my best case is that a modest Anglican church in a small northern England city visited by Vineyard leader John Wimber in 1985 is the genesis of all that emerges today: An eclectic band of cultural creatives serious about radical discipleship began to craft one of the most creative, aesthetically appealing, and theologically forward-looking congregations ever – for the 1980s/90s or today. The congregation called itself the Nine O’ Clock Service, and its leader was Chris Brain. Under Chris’s leadership, NOS (as it was known) became a model in the Church of England and beyond – a template for what later became Fresh Expressions, as well as the alternative worship movement, which eventually spread (in at least some respects) to American innovators in the Young Leaders Network, which eventually became Terra Nova and then Emergent Village.
With that said, NOS could never fully emerge out from under the ‘radical discipleship’ and ‘shepherding‘ movements that marked the charismatic church – UK and American – in the 1970s and 80s. From the beginning, something was quite…off.
What was it?
I got to visit the NOS incubating church, St Thom’s of Sheffield, in 2003 – less than a decade after NOS’s demise, and ask St Thom’s members what went down. It’s legacy – both helpful and hurtful – was still palpable in this church and this town. I received further, in-depth clues after reading (at Phyllis Tickle’s recommendation) The Rise and Fall of the Nine ‘O Clock Service. As she said,
This is everybody’s idea of the perfect cautionary tale. As such, it is also one of the saddest reads in the growing literature about Emergence Christianity; for the Nine O’Clock devolved into scandal instead of evolving into a fresh expression of church. Its story needs to be known, however, by anyone seriously interested in being part of shaping an Emergence community.
It was hastily-written and could have used a better editor, but it’s a treasure trove of relatively-even-handed information and reflection. But more recently, I discovered a documentary that aired in the UK just as the national scandal – yes, national scandal – involving the NOS broke. As much as I’d read, as much as I’d talked to St. Thom’s members, I was unprepared for actual video feed of both NOS’s stunning services and face-to-face interviews with the brilliant/delusional Chris Brain and his co-creators/victims.
If you consider yourself an ally of emergence or a nemesis – or a charismatic movement enthusiast, or antagonist, for that matter – you owe it to yourself to watch this documentary. Here it is:
My reflections? I feel ambivalent. I think it would be all-too-easy to dismiss Chris Brain, when in fact trying great, bold things often seizes hold of our darkest shadows, and leaves open the possibility to great, bold failure. But is it better to have tried nothing? If Brain erred on the side of authoritarianism and prompting anxiety in his co-congregants that was very against the grain of the grace, freedom, and exploration he proposed, well – I’ll just come out and say it: I think that many of today’s emergent leaders (and I count myself in this, sometimes) suffer from a failure of nerve. Because we don’t want to be a “sage on the stage” we become “a guide on the side,” muting our deepest wisdom and most provocative gifts. Because we don’t want to be a Falwell or a Hinn or a Piper or a Mohler, we’re often diminutive in our impact.
I’ll say this: If we had more leaders like Chris Brain today – hopefully who have done substantial shadow work, a la ManKind Project or Women Within, which do fantastic work helping people transform their personal banes into blessings – the Great Emergence that many of us feel is in fact arising right now during our time of cultural transition would be more self-evident to every follower of Jesus today, not to mention the culture at large – whether they ‘agree’ with it or not.
None of this excuses Brain’s excesses, of course, or our all-too-common desire to latch onto a cult of personality.
But who else has stepped up to take eco-spirituality seriously in the past 20 years in a high-impact, visible way?
Who else has stepped up to bring truly beautiful worship into our midst that incorporates the ancient with the postmodern?
The answer, of course, is “lots of us.” From Matthew Fox and Brian McLaren to Karen Ward to Jonny Baker, Kester Brewin to Lilly Lewin, there has been a much more distributed effort. But for those who call out for a “Steve Jobs of religion,” well, for one thing be careful what you wish for. But for another thing – we may have had it, in the 1980s and 1990s, in Chris Brain and his dedicated team of worship-crafters and experience-curators.
If anyone is reading this who used to be part of the Nine O’ Clock service at any level and would like to respond with a comment or even a proposed guest post, please let me know.
Bonus: Download a rare MP3 of a 1992 NOS Planetary Mass here.
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“I think that many of today’s emergent leaders (and I count myself in this, sometimes) suffer from a failure of nerve.” HELL YEAH.
This is an insightful post… and NOS always gets my blood going. I was born in Sheffield, and my dad was a vicar there, so knew all the protagonists – though we’d moved away just when it was starting. That said, much of what Vaux did was influenced by it. Chris Brain has changed his name to James, and now works as a digital designer in London…
I’d love to track him down and pick his brains, partly because what pisses me off most about what happened with NOS is that, having scaled to heights I don’t think any other group has even got near to reaching – they left no ropes or pins even for anyone else to follow. The routes appear lost… and that’s a great shame.
That said, the passion, the commitment to proper aesthetics, all of that should be natural and shouldn’t be too hard to do… but has been lost. And I think you’re right – I think people have become afraid of that. Which again is a real shame.
I just wonder what would have happened if what did happened hadn’t… I think it was always so high energy, so tightly bound, it was inevitable that there was some kind of nuclear release. It just would have been amazing to have seen that done with less fall out. But you’re right… next to NOS, everything else looks like total pussycats.
Kester, thanks for filling in whatever happened to Chris/James. I was thinking that someone should track him down and ask him to break his silence too…as well as some of the other leaders, if they’re so willing. It does seem as if something vital has been lost with their sudden implosion.
If you do end up tracking him down & interviewing him, let me know! I will certainly spread it around.
Just a quick response to this. I shall respond more fully later when I have time.
I was a student in Sheffield from 1983 through to 1987 and was president of the University CU. I visited NOS in 1984. It was very clear and very evident things were not right from the early days. It’s not a case of the style or flavour being wrong but rather the spirit behind it.
I’ve not visited St Thoms, but am in London doing PhD research on emerging church issues, and am pretty familiar with the NOS story. It’s interesting on a number of fronts. For one thing, it provides a tangible, definitive link between the Jesus Movement of the 70s/80s and the emerging church movement via John Wimber’s visit to St. Thoms.
The alt worship/emerging church movement has both benefitted and suffered from the lack of official, personality-oriented leadership. But don’t make the mistake of thinking too much of Chris Brain’s role in sparking the movement. While he may have been the first, others in the UK, New Zealand, and Australia started alternative worship gatherings shortly thereafter, without the destructive impulses Brain displayed . . . and some of those groups are still together. Visions in York is over 20 years old now, and Grace in London is 18 years old.
There’s a lot to say on this, but I’ll let others (especially those who have participated in the UK) have the floor.
Very true, Steve. There are many. Though as Kester says above, few have had the impact of NOS. “Why” is an interesting – and debatable – question.
NOS and, more particularly, the Late, Late Service in Glasgow, Scotland, with Andy Thornton and Doug Gay were absolutely inspirational to me! They still are! Creative, courageous, easily maligned and misunderstood by more contemporary or mainstream churches they were deeply and profoundly articulate theologically and ecclesiologically in ways that are all to uncommon. The new interactive, multisensory styles of worship gave bucket loads of permission for the rest of us to experiment with in our own local settings, with Greenbelt offering such a variety of developments all over the UK. The positives ripples still are impacting where I am right now and I, for one, will forever be grateful.
Thanks for bringing up the Late Late Service, Scott!
Any idea where one could get those worship albums they released?
Mike – not sure about original Late Late music, but my home church in Seattle, Church of the Apostles did a Late Late tribute album, which is available online: http://www.apostleschurch.org/community/cota-music/buy-music/
There are a lot more steams out of which emerging stuff grew. For example relational youth ministry was the backdrop for many like me. That introduced the lens of cross cultural mission to thinking about working with young people outside church through the influence of Pete Ward‘s early writing. Youth church was an ongoing discussion as the logical outcome. Greenbelt was a hub. There was an early discussion forum postmodern Christian – can’t remember when. The Late Late service in Glasgow was also key especially for introducing to a wider audience because they published music and did stuff at Greenbelt. Then there was also a whole stream of people exploring things from a Church planting trajectory.
Yes indeed, Jonny. Thank you for this wide-view perspective. Indeed, the community you serve, Grace, is a shining example of these streams.
ANOTHER horrific hurricane of religious vigor that produced thousands of alienated, violated children of God…God please save us from one another…and save us from becoming victims of those who claim your name – and claim to be “called” to do your work. Empower us to learn to love, wherever we find ourselves – and to pray – truly pray – for ALL the victims of this terrible tragedy. Prepare us to serve those wrecked and wounded by the next one…one
Bill, this was in the mid-90s, so I can only hope that those hurt have since moved on…indeed, they held a healing service to that effect.
Still, this does not diminish the import of your prayer…indeed, it reminds me of a song from that other 80s/90s alt.worship expression, the Late Late Service – God is with the Walking Wounded:
“If we had more leaders […] the Great Emergence […] would be more self-evident […]”
This may explain why I fail to see the movement.
Perhaps, Kevin! There are exceptions, but not too many.
I meant, I’m not a leader in the movement. I’m not involved in the movement. Or should the movement be visible to people on the outside of it?
I admire your courage and intellect in surfacing this issue. For someone from the Jesus People era who has personally traveled thru most of these phases it is in many ways just another version of the same old problem. After thinking about this for over 40 years my little brain has come to this conclusion; until followers of Jesus grasp the centrality of giving power away as a mark of our lifestyle these situations will repeat and are in fact repeating themselves as we speak.
I am well aware of the period that this tragedy took place. “Healing” from wounds inflicted in scenarios like this ruin lives and lifetimes – thet are not “healed” by a “service” held in the aftermath. This chapter in “church history” is another in a long line of human tragedy by virtue of those cloaked in a sacred cloth, almost uniquely male perpetrators, hierarchical organizational structure, and the use of dogma to manipulate others. Walt Disney created enterta iIining productions that attracted and mesmerized the masses…without creating the casualties this kind of mayhem has…again, I am praying for the victims…and grateful for Walt Disney and his storytelling … that has added so much good to so many lives.
Hi Bill…I hear you. As someone who’s had three out of five of his church experiences end in manipulation and betrayal of trust (ranging from the ‘merely’ hurtful to things that legal action could have been pursued on), please don’t hear me as being cavalier toward those who were betrayed by Chris Brain. I feel for them, in a place marked by substantial personal experience. Nor do I think a healing service will have erased all wounds…I’m sure some of these folks are atheists these days, others disillusioned, all with feeling of shame and second-guessing as to how they could have invested so much in such a shaky paradigm. I will also say that ritual acts of acknowledging and dispersing pain can be quite powerful, in a different way than therapy…I wish I would have discovered this sooner.
All this is to say: While I feel for the manipulated co-congregagants (I hesitate to call them “victims,” for in these situations we always hold a measure of power, and co-creation of the scenario we participate in, positive and negative – some of the women who sexually experimented with Brain even acknowledge this), I think the precisely wrong lesson we can draw from this is “See? Strong, passionate leadership is inherently dangerous.” As an anarchist-leaning, decentralized/organic/house-church advocate, I’d like to suggest that this is the wrong lesson to draw – and yet the precise lesson we seem to have drawn, both spiritually and politically, in alternative/counter-culture movements.
I agree with you (and others) that healthy systems need to be in place – that it’s not just about “good leaders” (as though Brain was somehow inherently “bad,” which I refuse to believe) – but strong leaders and strong ideas happen. They need to flow through healthy women and men, people who have looked their demons square in the eye. This is why I’m grateful to have discovered the personal work facilitation of the ManKind Project in the past year – it’s a rather decentralized group of men helping other men find and own our power, cleanly and maturely. We need this because – as you say – men in particular have been complicit in abuses of power.
mike, thanks for this. as someone who’s had a few horrible church experiences – as a teenager in a crazy-ass charismatic cult, as an adult in two mainline churches with serious authority-accountability-personality-power dysfunctions, and now as a pastor in the emerging church world, i was very moved by this documentary and this story. on the one hand i am so grateful for and respectful of what the NOS did for all of us in the years that have followed re worship. and on the other hand i’m just bummed and pissed. ya know? not only at the pastor but at the system that dug his success and let him run with it. and i’m not a perfect pastor and i’ve made mistakes and done stupid things – but this guy was a predator. yeesh.
and, i TOTALLY agree with you re the need for women and men to do their soul / shadow / gold / mission work with accountability and depth; i did my ManKind weekend five and half years ago and i surround myself with women and men who are strong and will call me on my shit. i’m not great at it but i am working to be vulnerable and real and open. and it’s hard.
we got to get healthier to do this work for god; or else it’s just the same bullshit; which it often is; which sucks.
The central thesis and key differentiator of Freidmans model of leadership development in A Failure of Nerve (the only book on leadership you’ll ever need except for Nouwens on Jesus) is that role of emotions are rarely addressed when it comes to choosing and developing leaders. Instead we in the church look for strategic skills, “character”, gifts, oratory and theology. Our substitute for emotional maturity is “charisma”. If you have that and can hold a crowd you are on your way to being a “pastor”.
Chris Brain was a narcissist. Why does the church require narcissists to lead large groups? As long as we need entertainers to grow a church we will attract men like Chris. They need us and we need them. Im an entertainer as well. We do a good job of attracting a crowd we dont have a clue as to how to manage one.
Im not sure what the answer is per designing a narcissist free leadership zone but it would help if we took Friedmans instructions to heart and stopped separating our spiritual and emotional life in the language we use. It would help if our leaders were less emotionally reactive and stopped being threatened by “difference”. It would help if they modeled a life of kindness more than life of “being right”
Most of the bad choices we make as people and as leaders are simply a reflection that we are emotionally insecure. Jesus hasn’t reached where we really live. We opt for religion instead. Thats all Ive got on this one.
More Chris are in the pipeline and some of us are excusing their behaviors and choices right now. We’d rather err on the side of slanderous silence than call BS on someone who is pulling a Chris Brain right in front of us.
Amen and amen, Jim. Preach on, brother!
Mike – forgive me – I am speaking toward issues – certainly NOT you. Want to make that perfectly clear!!!
My oh my….how much MORE we have to learn!learn
Jonny Baker is pointing us to your blog, so expect more Brits to come your way!
I lived in the next city to Sheffield and attended NOS whenever I could, although I was never a member. Just like many of the members of NOS, I was involved in the emergence of a white dance scene from the alternative music scene in the mid-80s, and the combination of a powerful charismatic spirituality with genuinely innovative music resulted in many of the ‘mountain top’ experiences of my life! The experience has driven my life and sense of mission ever since.
A few reflections:
Many people today talk about ‘neo-monasticism,’ which tends to mean an appropriation of some contemplative practices and (possibly) a bit of community living. Members of NOS gave up everything (including burning their old clothes) and had to commit for a minimum of five years. It was certainly cult-like in some respects, but traditional religious orders show that this need not be so. As you mention, most people within creative church movements are generally resistant to this kind of commitment, and are quite protective of their freedom.
The amount of human and financial resource pouring into NOS was – like a medieval monastery – enormous. It set a very high bar and dazzled us so we didn’t see anything beyond the service. In the end, most of the communities that did similar things (In the late 1980s I was involved in setting up Joy in Oxford with Pete Ward and others) just about managed to put on a multi-media service, but didn’t have the insight or energy to do the discipleship stuff as well.
I interviewed Chris Brain for a student magazine (sadly the tape is lost), buy my main memory was his magnetic personality (and his appropriation of Black Theology for Goth culture!). I literally fell in love with him (which has only happened a couple of times in my life – I’m not easy!). I am good friends with a childhood friend of Chris’s who has confirmed the story in the NOS book about his ‘word of knowledge’ at Harrogate Baptist Church. Based on this anecdotal evidence, and a few other stories, it may be that Chris had a ‘gift’ of understanding people that tempted him to use his personal power to manipulate them. Unfortunately in these circumstances the weakness of the Anglican leadership structure is exposed as those who had concerns had no power to act.
Chris was training for ordination at the same time that I was studying theology at university. He was training on a non-residential part-time course that was renowned among evangelicals for its ‘liberal bias’ (for all I know, it might seem terribly tame to me nowadays). Chris’s sermons quickly turned into opportunities to share his new learning. Nothing wrong with that, but my own judgement was that many of these talks felt like gushing adolescent love-letters to the emerging post-modern theology, and love can be blind. Fox’s nature theology may make perfect sense in northern California, but in streets of terraced houses with no gardens? It didn’t work for me and it still doesn’t. Chris’s sermons in those days sounded like a combination of a middling undergraduate essay (minus any critical reflection) and a teen love poem to Gaia.
Many of these weaknesses are easy to spot in hindsight, and it’s worth remembering that NOS genuinely felt like a new Pentecost, as if a whole new church was being born, so criticism was not easily given, nor was it easily received.
In some ways I think that those of us within the ’emerging’ church (Lord, I wish it would hurry up and emerge!) are still overshadowed by NOS, but we are even more overshadowed by the power structures of both Anglican and evangelical churches from which we were birthed. It sometimes seems that we agree with those churches that Christian leadership can only operate as a ‘pyramid of power,’ so we therefore reject all leadership.
The Bible represents many different models of leadership, and even regularly undermines the monarchy (fatally, in my own view). I think a mature movement would feel more comfortable with leadership, but approach it in new (and yet biblical) ways.
Fascinating. Thanks for sharing your story and your unique first-hand perspective, Simon!
NOS was massively influential on me. I experienced it on their first appearance at Greenbelt. They were in a small big-top tent and once you stepped through the flap you were enveloped in the music and visuals and beating heart of the service. It was the first time i ever raised my hands in a worship service. The use of media wasn’t new, we’d been abusing OHP’s and music in our “youth” services for years, it was the scale and ambition of it that was inspiring. At that time there was no spotlight, no lit stage and they were at pains to point away from themselves to Jesus – they even did a sarcastic skit about once you have dancing girls and jazzy music then you don’t need Jesus. Funnily enough when they returned a few years later to the main stage what did they have? Dancing girls!
I feel though it’s a mistake to look at it and wish we could have more of the kind of dynamic leadership that made it possible. I think NOS pointed to something important and has enabled much of what came after but it was embedded in modernity – it was trying to emerge but it hadn’t got there yet. I believe that we shouldn’t be trying to emulate the leadership ambition of modernity – we have lost something in letting it go, but that’s a positive thing. We don’t need superstar churches or superstar leaders – that’s one of the reasons people get disillusioned with evangelical church. Emerging church should be under the radar, should be held by all comers, brought by all comers, not dished out by the chosen, visible few. Strong ideas can grow in groups of people, in communities, it may just take longer – don’t be in such a hurry to be seen to be successful 🙂
Brilliant. Great thoughts, Robin!
My other thought is that these days i’m not really looking for a “style” or creating a method or form of worship like NOS did, rather each service i’m involved in is unique, or at least has unique elements. That’s another good thing about having a wide base of involvement rather than it centred around a single leader – it will evolve and change as the contributors change – if that makes sense. The down side being you don’t have a marketable, tangible, worship product – but again, that’s a good thing 🙂
🙂 I’m guessing Pete Ward would say that not having a ‘worship product’ in today’s society would be like trying to worship without language – possible, but not exactly accessible. For the record, NOS never sold any of their music (until very near the end). Nonetheless, I can still sing whole sections of songs like ‘Fill me, devour me’ as if I only sang them yesterday…
I’m pretty sure they never saw themselves as self-consciously ‘doing a style’ – they shared their theological roots with Pete in the early contextual theology of books like ‘The Gospel in Solentiname’ and sought only to express faith authentically. NOS was an expression of club culture, and touched me (as a clubbing young adult) like nothing before or since, whereas most contemporary creative worship takes its cues from the art gallery, which is a more detached, analytic and less animalistic (I can’t think of a better word) culture. For all NOS’s faults, I never once felt that I was buying a product – what I felt was that God completely inhabited my world. In 1987 the Christian duo Phil and John were still touring a song with the lyrics ‘Saturday night or Sunday morning/you’ve gotta choose between.’ NOS blew that out of the water for me forever.
Believe me, i scoured the whole of the festival looking for a cassette (!) recording of the service – none existed. That service was like in ’88 or ’89 or something and so it’s been nearly 25 years since i’ve heard their music – but i can also remember some words from that one service i went to… something like
“Love come fill me
I’m screaming for this place to be
Love come take
With all your power set me free”
Listening to it now (thanks for that mp3 link – i’ve searched for that over the years only ever finding empty links) i’m struck by how similar it is to a service i was involved in before christmas in Norwich Cathedral – perhaps it was a bit more dub-step but otherwise we were ticking lots of similar stylistic boxes – NOS’s influence is always present for me in really positive ways.
“Animalistic” that’s a thought provoking term and i see where you’re coming from when you mention “art gallery” – in fact the current buzz word for worship leader is “curator”….. At the time Greenbelt was about performance – it was an arts festival – there weren’t any expressions of worship other than the Sunday service (at least as far as i could see) and NOS just blew my mind. Very different now.
I didn’t mean that NOS was consciously creating a product – in fact it’s really cool that they had nothing to sell although i was desperate to share with other people what i had found and so a tape would have been useful. My comments were really about the original post talking about how we don’t have any strong styles coming through. We have the opposite problem now with superstars like Rob Bell not allowing Greenbelt to sell his talks because he’s reserving them for a future product DVD release – that does my head in.
Phil&John – wow, at the time i was completely into the acoustic music movement, The River tent and Wobegones, Iona, Sublime. But that’s part of the change – music culture has changed. Early 90’s clubbers were into clubbing music almost exclusively (generalising of course) – same for grunge and rockers and indie kids – very tribal. Whereas now since the ipod and “shuffle play everything in the world” people’s music consumption is much broader, taking in all sorts of diverse genres – so when you put together a service that reflects the culture of the participants that diversity comes through. That’s why for me contemporary christian music is often bland and frustrating because it plays in the nice and easy middle of taste and doesn’t challenge or push boundaries – it risks nothing musically or culturally – NOS certainly did that.
Animalistic – that’s really interesting. I’m currently conceiving a service for Greenbelt this year and that word is going to take us off into places we hadn’t thought of before – nice one 🙂
I know what you mean about how pop culture has become kind of glocalised – acts like Adele (and I hear One Direction have got to number one in the US – Lord, take me now), and then tiny little internet-based phenomena like our very own Steve Lawson. I think that’s probably where the church is heading in the UK once the parish system breaks down completely: mega church and micro church. If that’s the case, NOS is not going to be a helpful model, except in a really big city like London.
I’m still thinking about my use of the word animalistic too! I think spiritual experience and aesthetic experience overlap, but I think there is a whole other world too, which mystics and pentecostalists plug into, but not alt worship. NOS in those early years (I think it was 1988 they were at Greenbelt) was most definitely a charismatic community that used music and image in a self-consciously ‘shamanic’ way. Somehow the fact that we all knew what we were doing made it OK.
I’m in the unusual position of being a charismatic involved in alt worship, so i get the whole spiritual angle and my interest is in how that and more sacramental worship inform on one another. But your words remind me to keep “fleshy” to keep rooted in humanity and the earth and the realities around us – the animal, guttural responses – rather than just intellectual or purely spiritual. Creating a spirituality of life i guess that remains in the dirt… or something…
I dunno, i’m making it up as i go 🙂
Woah, last thing I expected this evening a NOS post and links to the documentary. I’v enot seen that in a while. NOt sure I have the confidence to do so. I joined NOS just over a year before the scandle. I’d been going for a bit before that. Compared to some I got of lightly, but whatever else God was in that room under that sports centre. The feeling of being part of something extraordinary. The expression of culture of faith of joy and dance on Sunday night. The most extra-ordinry Christmas services I’ve ever been to. The loss hurts, the damage hurts, but something lingers without a focus but still there.
Sorry, bit of stream of conciosness there. Maybe I didn’t really understand the hurt that happened to some but the hurt of betrayal and loss was strong enough. THere was a beauty to NOS which was more than Chris Brain.
Oh FYI my copy of the CD of that Planetary Mass notes it was recorded 31 October 1993. Blimey I was 24.
Thanks for joining the conversation. So many people felt a massive break of trust and hope, so what it must have been like to be there I can only imagine.
Thanks for the comment. NOS was a place where I felt I was working out my faith and a place in the world and in Christ in a way that made some sense to me. Coming into the community at that late stage I wasn’t aware of a the manipulation of people that was going on, I just saw and expereinced the presnce of God and of the spirit, A place for my generation to worship and work in the world.
My experience after the scandal was much diferent to people who had been around NOS much longer.
The diocese offered a support service which ran at the local church army centre on a Sunday over the end of summer and the autumn. I thinkabout 20-40 people turned out. People who hadn’t been so hurt ny CB/NOS by were lost & betrayed by its ending. We developed a quiet meditative worship, inclusive of language and quite beautiful. Far from the produced NOS by close to God and full of Spirit. Very soon we wanted to go out take what we had built and be something new. But there was a whole NOS meeting to discuss what next. Many people who hadn’t been to these services and didn’t know us by name outnumbered us and made choices that excluded us and for the second time in a year my church was ripped from me.
I’ve trusted two ordained ministers since and that after many years. and nothing has given me the sense of God and of purpose that I had then in those sfew short months with the memory of what was gone, but the hope of what was to come. I’ve never made sense of that loss.
Thanks for dropping by my blog. You mention “my copy of the CD of that Planetary Mass” – do you have recordings of multiple masses/services/gatherings? If so, would you be willing to share them with me, and/or possibly a wider online community? I think that there are many of us interested in hosting worship gatherings with very much the NOS feel – minus, of course, the hurtful aspects. These recordings could go very far in inspiring us. I could send you an invite to the online file-sharing service Dropbox if you’re interested.
Thanks for this post Mike. I guess I became a Christian around the time NOS was ending and had never heard of it until watching this documentary. In my first 8 or so years of being a Christian I saw similar things happen with a congregation i was a part of as well as with some ministers that I really looked up to. Sadly, I am seeing the same phenomenon with certain folks these days who are extremely gifted and charismatic. I do not doubt the gifts but I just wonder if the church is ever going to learn not to give folks a platform simply because they are gifted and charismatic. It took me years to get over some of the bad experiences I had early on in my journey. Thankfully I have experienced healing which has had a profound effect on my vocation as a pastor. I’m not nearly as impressed by giftings as I once was. I am impressed when I see people who are obviously not in it for their own personal gain, folks who give ministry away and find joy in equipping and releasing others. I am currently the pastor of a Vineyard church. And while I never got to hear John Wimber in person, he definitely had a reputation for equipping and releasing. Those are very rare qualities for someone who got as much exposure as he did. I pray for more like him to come along.
here he is:
This is a short feature on the Nine o’clock Service. The first few minutes don’t mention NOS but are totally relevant to the story.
I haven’t thought about NOS for a long time but the kids had the radio on in the kitchen playing some early 90s dance music and it took me back, so I Googled the Nine o’Clock service and read your interesting blog post about it.
I was part of NOS from 1988 to 1992, I struggled a bit with the controlling ‘heavy shepherding’ aspects of the community, but at the same time found enormous satisfaction in the sense of community and involvement. My diary from the time was full of meetings, formal and informal, which, because of the enforced openness of relationship (boy, was that hard!) were open, rich and deep. The sense of the presence of God in the services was truly awesome, the depth of my own spiritual life richer than at any other time in my life so far.
After it all fell apart I was sure I would never be anywhere else where I was so aware of the presence of God and his working in the place where I was.
I got married and we moved to Surrey and joined our local Anglican church, with a congregation of very diverse churchmanship and a wonderful vicar who drew all the strands together into something that worked really well. And amid the Anglican liturgy, the hymns and Sunday morning family services, I found God working in amazing ways, building community, growing individuals and forming His body. There were no great Charismatic experiences, no amazing events, just the steady drip of grace.
So I discovered there was nothing whizzy about rave music and looping visuals, that if God is doing something, He can do it just as well among the hymns and pews as anywhere else. That’s not to say that there’s not place for developing contemporary worship styles, but the thing that made the difference was the closeness of relationships and the commitment to a common goal, which seems to be very lacking in many current church settings.
Occasionally I come across people from my time in NOS. Some are in church, often deeply committed and cutting edge, some are alienated and don’t want to engage with God at all.
I’m researching NOS and would love to chat a little more. I know this is a little while ago but please get in touch if you want to chat. firstname.lastname@example.org
The following text appears in ‘Theopathy: Selected Writings from Cross of Light Temple 2010’ (Cross of Light Temple, 2011):
THE NINE O’CLOCK SERVICE
An Exercise in Power and Control
The Nine O’Clock Service (NOS) flourished from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s. It commenced activities at the parish church of St. Thomas, Crookes before moving elsewhere in Sheffield. NOS was hailed by Church of England authorities as a model for rejuvenating a staid organisation and bringing young people to the Christian faith. Articles appeared in the national press commending the group on its innovative, rave style acts of worship. It collapsed after being engulfed by a sex scandal involving the abuse of at least 40 women by its leader, and was later accused of promoting hedonistic paganism on hallowed ground.
The failings of NOS are commonly attributed to its leader Chris Brain. In reality, NOS could not have prospered without the support of established church authorities and the vital contributions of its lesser leaders, general membership and enthusiastic congregation. The group also benefited from its willingness to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the environment in which it was located.
Chris Brain, the universally acknowledged leader of NOS, was born in 1957. Although he attended Harrogate Grammar School, he was not academically gifted. During his period of study for the priesthood, which commenced in 1990, other NOS members wrote his essays. Brain occupied positions of leadership in various denominations of the Christian church from the age of 17 or 18.
Brain was focused and organised. He was active, driven and idealistic, well read, quick thinking and articulate. In many respects, he demonstrated the mentality of a businessman artist. His self-confidence and missionary fervour eventually degenerated into a messianic martyr complex. He was hypersensitive, paranoid and aggressive. His will to power was served by his happiness to tell lies, his deployment of secrecy and his ability to employ fear as a means of control.
Brain maintained his dominance by remaining distant from the NOS congregation. His grasp of timing and intuition served his exploitation of the vulnerabilities of others. He was a sexual predator who presented his contact with women as an aid to developing their wholeness through expression of sexuality (and other leaders within the organisation took a similar approach).
Around the time that Brain planned to transport NOS to San Francisco, he started to promote the virtues of mystical lunar experience. It comes as no surprise to learn of his fascination with David Koresh and Charles Manson.
Fundamentally, and collectively, the other leaders of the group were willing collaborators in the experiment and they should take responsibility for their support of NOS. They were more than averagely intelligent and possessed considerable technical ability and attention to detail, and yet they were happy to act as agents of their leader. They were seekers of reflected glory, associates of success, puffed up by pride at belonging to what they believed was a superior group. It was their search for meaning that persuaded them to give up their old lives and their deferential attitudes that enabled them to believe that Brain was a prophet. They were trusting and committed and Brain made them aware of their personal faults and weaknesses. They were cruel and calculating servants. Some of the leaders complained about having responsibility without power, although they took advantage of opportunities to inspire fear amongst the members and congregation by their strict imposition of group standards. Many of the leaders were old friends of Brain, some of whom he knew before moving to Crookes in 1978, when his wife Winnie came to the University of Sheffield to study music. Several of the leaders were quite wealthy and donated large sums of money to the cause.
The members of NOS responded to its generalised appeal to dissatisfaction. Typically, they were young and searching, easily controlled and concerned with transcendence as a key to belonging. They were generally middle class, educated, young professionals or disillusioned evangelicals. They liked the uniform. They were uncritical. They demonstrated active commitment to the group.
Prospective members were selected by recruiting agents who filtered the people who attended NOS services. Selected individuals were invited to fill in a visitor’s form, which was scrutinised to see if the visitor was worth a visit from the group’s welcome pastors, who established a relationship to determine whether the visitor was a worthy candidate for membership.
Once a member had been accepted, they were placed in a discipleship group of 12 members under the authority of a group leader. Pastoral leaders were in charge of several discipleship groups and they were responsible to the head of the pastoral department, a close associate of Brain. The head of the pastoral department and the pastoral leaders took instructions from Brain; discipleship group leaders took instruction from pastoral leaders; and discipleship group members took instruction from their leaders.
Although Brain formally stood down as leader of NOS in 1994, he continued to control the organisation despite the appointment of a new figurehead. The nominal leader appointed in 1994 can be seen as an addition to the hierarchy, adding to the power and mystique of the ever more rarefied Brain. The collective leadership of NOS referred to itself as the 12, and the broader membership was known as the 72, thereby reinforcing its identity with the missionary apostles of Christ.
NOS was insular, close knit and defensive. It operated in accordance with a rigid, dogmatic structure characterised by unequal power relationships, secrecy and privilege. The Nairn Street Community, which morphed into NOS, stated explicitly: “There should be genuine submission to the authority of the leaders.” The strict bureaucracy of NOS contributed to undermining personality and reinforcing group dependence. It divided people into us and them, the saved and unsaved, with NOS as the legion of the saved on a holy mission from God. The intensive socialisation process within NOS was based on constant reinforcement through group activity, designed to result in intense out of the ordinary experiences. Commitment to the group was also reinforced by the requirement that NOS members should make substantial financial donations in support of the organisation’s mission.
The public image of the group was carefully controlled by its leaders. The uniform black clothing and deliberate engagement with cutting edge subculture is reminiscent of tactics employed by The Process Church of the Final Judgment. Internally, Chris Brain – the priest – was presented as the ideal man and the mysterious Lori Camm, the unofficial priestess, was presented as the ideal woman, and by and large the lesser leaders, members and congregation were happy to aspire to these ideals.
The Homebase Team
The Homebase Team was formed in 1990. Initially, it consisted of six young women who were recruited to help with chores in the Brain household and told they were to be post-modern nuns. They were encouraged to sever outside ties and instructed to remain secretive, even with other NOS members. Although they were treated as servants, there was strong competition between individual members, and the Homebase Team was regarded as the highest status ministry in NOS. It is instructive that the special character of the ministry was sexual involvement with Brain.
The fully developed NOS ritual consisted of dance music, samples and rapping and the execution of gestures that could be described as a form of Christianised yoga. There was an emphasis on style and design and the primary slogan of the group was ‘The posse is the priest’ (note the alliterative similarity between this and TOPY’s ‘Thee Process is Thee Product’). The Planetary Mass was the pinnacle of the group’s achievement. It was conducted by a ‘Techno Shaman’ rather than a vicar and to some people it seemed that the ritual was a form of Gnosticism rather than orthodox Christian worship. Charges of neo-paganism were brushed aside, allowing the group to perform the Planetary Mass to great acclaim in San Francisco in November 1994. Doubtlessly the group would have gone on to exploit this fertile territory had it not been torn apart by the scandal that finally came to light the following year courtesy of a media concerned with the picturesque as the simplest way of peddling copy.
The support of the Church of England establishment was vital in enabling NOS to flourish. Church authorities, desperate to engage with youth and to be seen as relevant, began to take notice when NOS became successful in attracting an ever increasing number of young people to its services. The parish church of St. Thomas, Crookes supported the NOS experiment and the Sheffield Diocese actively engaged in finding alternative premises when NOS outgrew St. Thomas’s in 1993. NOS became the first Extra Parochial Place in the Anglican communion, which could not have happened without official sanction at the highest levels of the church; Brain was invited to contribute to ‘Treasures of the Field’, the Church of England’s book for its Decade of Evangelism; senior clergy and theologians strongly approved of the Planetary Mass (despite its controversial nature); and eventually the NOS vision was embraced by Anglicans in America. Brain was ordained six months early in 1992 and the normal procedure of serving as curate under an experienced vicar was waived in his case.
More disturbingly, Church of England authorities ignored complaints about the abuse of power in NOS dating from 1992 and took no action in response to reports of sexual impropriety within the group that were made in 1994 and 1995. Even after the scandal broke, the church refuted allegations that the group was a cult as part of a media strategy of minimising the significance of what had happened in NOS. The Church of England demonstrated loyalty to NOS every step of the way; it’s interesting to note that the Diocese refused to meet the costs of counselling and other support for ‘the victims’ of NOS by pleading poverty.
Environment and Timing
NOS liked to present itself as a meaningful response to urban poverty, in both a material and a spiritual sense, but in reality it came to prominence in a suburb of Sheffield that was (and remains) notable for its high concentration of university students and would be bohemians. The group benefited from the ample leisure time enjoyed by students and prospered because not only is Sheffield a generally peaceful place but also the suburb of Crookes, where the urban meets the rural, is more liberal, friendly and accepting than the rougher parts of the city.
Financially, NOS benefited from the inheritances of close associates of Brain in the late 1970s, before the formal appearance of the group. NOS also exploited opportunities created by the success of a number of adventurous Sheffield bands in the early 1980s (Brain’s group Tense supported Cabaret Voltaire at Sheffield’s premier alternative venue The Limit in 1981) and the growth of the rave scene, which emerged a few years later and was particularly strong in the city. NOS was a contemporary of TOPY and was similarly, although less creatively, associated with developments in the field of performance art throughout the 1980s. Brain and the wider NOS leadership were also influenced by exposure to ‘signs and wonders’ Christianity and the later emergence of Creation Spirituality (viewed by many people as a form of neo-paganism).
Extract from ‘TOPY vs. NOS’ by Patrick Wood (FLA Press, 2006)
Guided by a dream, I placed an advertisement in [name of publication deleted] asking for people who had been involved with NOS to contact me. Following tortuous negotiations, I managed to secure an interview with a nervous former acolyte. Bee is a woman in her mid to late thirties. She is the mother of two children. She lives in a council flat a mile or two from Crookes. She has an interest in Irish traditional music. She is not in paid employment. The interview took place on neutral ground in a room of a private house in Crookes, notable for its large mirror and the spray of hawthorn blossom placed on the mantelpiece upon which the mirror rested.
“I moved to Sheffield from Wolverhampton to take a teacher training course at the Poly. I was living in a shared student house in Crookes. I didn’t really get on with the other people in the house. I used to spend a lot of time on my own in the pubs around the place I lived in. I was in the Grindstone one Sunday evening when I noticed a group of young people come in. They looked really happy and together. One of the girls in the group smiled at me and eventually we got chatting.
I used to meet up with this girl quite a lot. She was a student as well and we seemed to have a lot in common. She was really nice. She started to talk about NOS and encouraged me to come along to the services. I put it off for quite a long time. I wasn’t really interested in religion but this girl was so nice that I began to think there might be something in it.
The services were amazing, nothing like I was expecting. There was a lot of music, not happy clappy stuff, more like dance music, really. The light show was fantastic. A lot of time and effort had been put in and the experience was really uplifting. The people at the church were lovely. I remember meeting a lad who told me that he’d been sniffing glue. As he was walking up the road, he felt drawn to go in to St. Thomas’s. As soon as he entered the church, the effects of the glue sniffing left him and he felt the Spirit enter. He never touched glue again.
After a while I moved out of the house I was living in and moved into a house that was owned by one of the main NOS people and his wife. It was a really nice place, just off Barber Road. It was great to live in such a supportive environment. We used to do a lot of Bible study together and there were lots of people coming and going.
NOS was about making the Church relevant to young people. We were really keen on trying to understand the real meaning of the Bible and living as Christians in an imperfect world. I felt a real sense of belonging. I was encouraged to produce some art for the group and I was really pleased to see it displayed during services.
After a year or two, I started to see more and more of Chris. I was really involved in NOS by then. Most of my time was taken up with work on the services, painting banners and rehearsing music in the church hall and other stuff like that. Chris wasn’t really good looking but he was very charismatic. I felt flattered by his attention.
I used to go to Chris’s house on Parkers Road a lot. We became really close. Chris started to talk about the need for people to express themselves sexually. He said that sexuality was a gift from God and that it was wrong to deny it. The Bible forbids adultery but it didn’t say anything against touching. Physical embraces were an expression of God’s love. We never slept together but we did other stuff and it felt really good. It wasn’t like being with my other boyfriends.
It was really awful when the stories about NOS started to appear in the papers. Chris must have known what was going to happen because he went to America before the stories came out. A lot of NOS people were saying that the stories weren’t true but I started talking to other girls and I was amazed at how many of them had been intimate with Chris. He used to talk about what we did as some kind of private communion so we didn’t really talk about it in the wider group.
The fallout from NOS was really hard to deal with. I felt betrayed and depressed. I had to go for counselling to begin dealing with my feelings. The friendships I made in the group didn’t last. I’ve had a lot of trouble with relationships since then. I lived with the father of my children for three years but we split up when my daughter was little. I don’t have anything to do with religion these days. I don’t even read the Bible any more.”
* * *
No charges were brought against anyone involved in NOS and Chris Brain resigned from the priesthood before the church authorities cared to move against him. Somewhat amusingly, he left England to become a rave promoter in San Francisco in 1996 and nothing has been heard of him since.
It’s interesting to speculate on how the group might have developed had it not been brought to a premature end. The signs are that NOS would have prospered in America and that Brain would have moved closer to integrating with the archetype of the mysterious hidden prophet. It’s interesting to think about the form of practice that the new NOS might have invented; evidence suggests it would have been spectacular, neo-pagan and cosmic, constituting a radical new conception of Christ at least, and perhaps even a new world religion.
Thanks for this, Helgi. I’m curious – were you part of NOS?
I was not part of NOS. I knew people who regularly attended NOS services. They spoke highly of the organisation and were awestruck by its leaders. I encountered and observed the actions of NOS members and leaders in the local community and treated them with disdain that did not seem to register.
Still scarred – still struggling with my faith 20 years on and still unmarried due to serious trust issues with Christian Men. Working as a missionary in a developing country as I can only deal with hands on practical Christianity now – no emotional nonsense thank you.
I hear you. thank you for weighing in.
I was a young youth worker in the 80s, living and working in York. One Sunday, I accompanied Rev Graham Cray to the NOS on a recce, as he was interested in potentially developing something similar at St Michael-le-Belfrey. We met Chris Brain and his team in the afternoon and attended the service in the evening. While the service was undoubtedly visually impressive, I was being bemused by the adulation that surrounded Chris Brain. I really didn’t get it and found his ego a bit of a worry.
I was in NOS for 10 years, pretty much beginning to end
There was without doubt a move of God going one early on. There was a specific time when it all started coming apart, i can remember some specific warnings that were ignored.
When it ended in some ways it was a relief, there was a lot of rubbish going around by then.
I could say a lot more if you would like – let me know
P — I would be interested in hearing more if you’re still watching the page. The NOS was a very interesting movement in several ways, not least sociological.
I know this is a little while ago but, I’m researching NOS and would like to know more about your experience. My e-mail is email@example.com
Is there anywhere else I can see the documentary on the NOS? Im a little late to the party here and he posts have been removed.
Hi, I’d love to see and hear more. are their any more links out there to services?
The NOS documentary has been re-uploaded here
I think it shows the weakness in parts of the Anglican church. It should have been recognised from the start. There must have been a dearth somewhere for this to happen. It seems almost like a theatre rather than a church. This is the trouble with platform ministry in what should be the time that everyone had the opportunity to bring. I cannot understand why people have still not seen it. It seems all geared to the senses.
Since the Garden of Eden, cynicism has been deadly. Lots of people were confused by NOS, and what confused them frightened them, and what frightened them tempted them to attribute their fear to the cynical idea that NOS was evil.
Certain ones of us who were in the strategic leadership of NOS were gripped by a passion to find the path to wholeness for a culture lost in a wilderness of unfulfillable fantasies of romance crisscrossed with paths of meaningless sexual promiscuity. As risky as it was to break the cultural rules of the dominant culture, we felt that we had no choice but to forge a way of being friends and a way of being sexual beings in relationship that looked like wholeness–not like guilt-ridden self-repression pending the arrival of a fantasy perfect person to complete us, not like the do-what-you-like-damn-the-wreckage libertinism of the club culture, but like safe, mutually respectful, faithful, God-filled friendship.
We broke the sacred rules of repressed society. We proved, in our lives and relationships, that wholeness is safer than self-repression and fear. We proved that you can express your love to another person, owning your sexual feelings, and not fall into an abyss of temptation and sexual addiction. We set boundaries, we respected boundaries, we kept boundaries. And we loved each other without fear. That was our unforgivable sin. People were convinced we were having wild, promiscuous sex behind closed doors.
Nothing is so infuriating, to those who have denied themselves freedom by convincing themselves that it does not and cannot exist, as seeing people experiencing genuine freedom. And nothing is so devilish looking, to people who have contented themselves with rules and social conformity, as people who are genuinely passionate about God.
Chris Brain was thrown, at age 29, into the role of trying to lead a group out of an explosive revival and into a national and international movement. Along the way, amidst the often excruciating stresses of his role, he had explosions of insecurity, and sometimes lost his rag and ranted and screamed at his co-workers. In his quest to be radical, he stepped over the line of prudence, with terrible consequences for him and for the community, but especially for some women with whom he conducted intimate friendships. I wonder how many Christian leaders whose ministries crashed down around their ears because of sexual scandal could say that they never engaged in coital sexual relations with anyone but their own spouse, never tried to persuade or manipulate anyone to do anything that made their conscience uneasy or made them feel that they were going beyond their safe boundaries, but always cherished, and tried their hardest to protect, the boundaries of those with whom they were in relationship, even and especially if the friend lost sight of them in a moment of strong feeling. Everything I know from interviewing multiple women with whom Chris had conducted intimate friendships makes me think he could truthfully affirm all of these. His intention was always to strengthen and shore up people’s boundaries, not to figure out how to tear them down or skirt them. Intention, as I’ve learned since, is not enough. It’s possible to fall down despite the best intentions. Unequal power dynamics skew everything, and despite the fact that he and his friends did their utmost to stare that fact in the face with brutal honesty, he (and they) had failures of wisdom and prudence. God is his judge, not me, and not any of those who got cynical delight out of his (and our) downfall.
I’ll say this to conclude. As God is my witness, our motivation was not to carve out room for license but to make and model and prove shalom in relationships: wholeness with self-discipline and safety. Some of those with the most painful and crippling injury out of this whole thing will be those who were forced, by a tidal wave of lies, to conclude that relationships that their innermost self knows to be wholesome and good and real and God-filled, were instead false, cynical, and counterfeit. Cynicism is a murderer from the beginning. May God give back to those whose hearts have been crushed the years that the flood of lies has made desolate.
1. What is here called ‘cynicism’ is a corrective to the self-interested claims made by organisations that do not care to examine the real underlying causes for their actions or how these might impact people within and outside them. More than being confused and frightened by NOS, people were disdainful of its hypocrisy. Rather than seeing NOS as evil, they saw it as inauthentic, ridiculous and damaging.
2. Is the leadership of a discredited organisation best placed to define what its aims were, or will it merely resort to self-justification?
3. Fantasies of romance indicate a longing for connection. Sexual promiscuity is not meaningless but an enactment of this longing. This condemnation of the lifestyles of others is based on fantasy itself and serves to illustrate one of the real and fundamental problems with NOS, namely its antichristian elitism. NOS presented itself as being concerned with love; if it was concerned with love at all, it was concerned with love in the context of a self-selected in-group and hatred for the other, meaning anyone outside this group who did not subscribe to its ideas.
4. NOS was not a romantic group of freedom fighters but a sub-group of a dogmatic and conservative institution, which achieved notice and recognition through engagement with the established structures of this institution.
5. It’s interesting that James characterises NOS as a therapeutic movement and it would be good to learn how people might have benefited from this. However, any rules that NOS broke were the ‘rules’ of the institution that it was a part of.
6. The freedom that NOS promoted was the freedom to submit to the leadership of NOS, which is obviously not freedom at all. The Church of England is one of the pillars upholding social conformity. The degree to which individuals are passionate about their own ideas of God is irrelevant when it comes to determining the significance of their actions.
7. Chris Brain was not thrown into anything. He was not the victim of external oppression. He promoted himself with missionary fervour. The faults of others do not excuse one’s own failings. Individuals are responsible for what they do and what they fail to do. To abdicate responsibility does not mean that you are not responsible.
8. Who are the liars, the cynics, the murderers? The people from NOS who reported their experiences of the group and the damage they had suffered from their relationships within it? The people who reported the facts of the case? The people outside the group who formed opinions based on what they heard or saw with their own eyes? Or the leadership of NOS, which resorts to Biblical-tinged fantasy to excuse its lamentable failings, and the agents of the church to which it belonged, who deliberately turned the other way, despite what they knew, or were told?