The Nine o’clock Service

It is a strange and unsettling experience to walk into a newsagents shop and see ten years of your life laid out in tabloid headlines. Friends, people you have worked and worshipped with, stories of real pain translated into "My ordeal at hands of Reverend Brainwash".

Where do I start to tell the story of the Nine o’clock Service (NOS). A rough and ready chronology might help.

OK, here we go ...

Early 80's

- Chris and Winnie Brain move to Sheffield, form a band (Tense) and get involved with St Thomas Crookes, a large, evangelical Anglican church. Chris Brain appointed leader of a housegroup by Revd. Robert Warren.

- Chris Brain and about ten others form the Nairn Street Community, based on the bit in Acts about holding all things in common.

- Tense perform at the Greenbelt Christian Arts festival and get a reputation for being provocative, both theologically and sexually.

November 1985

- John Wimber leads a 'Signs and Wonders' conference at Sheffield City Hall. Robert Warren persuades a number of the Nairn Street group to attend. They do so reluctantly at first, but quickly become enthusiastic.

- The Vineyard team hold a follow up meeting at St Thomas Church. The place is packed, and a large number of Nairn Street people are 'zapped'. Robert Warren has a vison of 'several hundred young people being added to the church in a fairly short space of time'. He soon gives the go ahead for the Nairn street group to set up an experimental service for their own culture.

Around this time I was at Sheffield University, and I was known for picking intellectual fights with the University Christian Union group. On Feb 14th 1986 I was persuaded to go to a campus mission event, where I was zapped and ended up making a commitment. OK, so I was now a Christian, so I was supposed to go Church, so I went to the place round the corner which just happened to be St Thomas's. The normal services were all happy-clappy evangelical stuff which went way over my head leaving me feeling very uncomfortable, and out of place, but I found out that there was a new service starting up which I might find more appropriate.

So a couple of weeks later, I went to the first Nine O Clock service. The lights were dimmed, a series of slide projections were displayed around the walls of St Thomas's whitewashed interior, and above the altar where the ghastly tinsel cross that usually occupied pride of place had been take down. The service was introduced by Steve Williams, a former St Thomas Youth group leader, and Nairn Street member, and the worship started.

The music was choppy mid-eighties goth rock, unremarkable in places like the Leadmill and the Limit, but spine tingling in a church environment. The lyrics were projected at the front, letrasetted white on a black background, a world away from the marker pen and ohp of the normal services, and even further from the dusty hymnals that I remembered from my childhood.

'Tear down the walls'

In retrospect this doesn't seem all that radical, but it sure managed to simultaneously attract and repulse large numbers of people. Most people at St Thomas's were supportive, some were incredibly offensive. I was asked many times 'Why do you all wear black?', to which I could have replied 'Why do you all wear flowery skirts and sweaters?', but didn't. Two cultures sat warily in the same building. When the 6:30 service had finished, the NOS setup team would swarm in , in an exercise of military precision, taking out most of the chairs, setting up sound gear and visuals, and completly transforming the place in about 45 minutes.

Theologically speaking, NOS was initially quite conservative, with a strong emphasis on spiritual discipline, prayer, charismatic gifts and ministry. People were interviewed and counselled before being admitted into membership, and then assigned several ministries ranging from roadie type duties, through arts and media, to healing and intercessory prayer. This structure had benefits and disadvantages - people felt valued, and part of a team that was achieving things, and were also stretched in unfamiliar areas. The downside was that there was a *lot* of work to do, and a lot of pressure to get it done to deadlines, and key ministries could be granted or withdrawn at the fiat of the leadership team. You didn't volunteer for jobs - rather it was seen as a *privilege* to be allowed to do them, and it was very difficult to turn things down.

Through the late eighties NOS evolved in parallel with the culture of the time. Acid house music and style was adopted around the summer of 1988, and a greater emphasis was placed on dance, performance and multi-media in the services. The charismatic theology peaked with the influence of Mike Bickle and the Kansas City prophets, with a series of video lectures that suggested that if you weren't praying in tongues for two hours a day then you weren't doing it right. This just left people feeling guilty and confused, and reeling under the strain of ever more ministry work.

Two important landmarks around this time were the biggest ever confirmation service in the diocese and possibly the UK, with about a hundred people being confirmed by the bishop of Sheffield. The other important step was the development of the communion service, complete with incense, gregorian chants sung in latin and a meditative, ambient slant to the music.

Three things then happened which were to radically change the nature of the Nine O Clock Service. Firstly NOS outgrew St Thomas's and relocated to Ponds Forge. This had the effect of leaving NOS in a limbo state in the Church of England, not truely independant, but certainly not under the direct pastoral oversight of the bishop. Chris Brain started training for ordination, on a fast track approved by the bishop. Lastly, the theological base switched towards creation spirituality, and a global mission, and away from local, social action.

The Planetary Mass was certainly the most spiritually moving and joyous worship that I and a lot of other people had ever experienced, but the message seemed to slowly become colder, more intellectual, and less personal. Chris Brain 'resigned' from direct leadership, with the amorphus goal of setting up a service in America, although he retained control of the finances, and indirect control of the service. There are lot of ins and outs to the story at this point - suffice it to say that Chris Brain was involved in abusive relationships with a lot of very vulnerable people, and exercised his power and the hard work of a lot of people towards satisfying his own particular goals.

The story broke in August of 1995, and left everyone feeling dazed, confused and hurt. Had the last ten years work been for nothing? I don't think so - thousands of people had had the kind of spiritual experience normally denied to our culture. People were healed and lives were changed, and the gospel was preached. It will take years to come to terms with the hurt that has been caused, and for the aura of suspicion that now surrounds 'alternative' worship to fade.

Was the whole tragedy inevitable? Can something like NOS work without a charismatic guru like Chris Brain driving it, and people buying into the vision and colluding with it? I don't know - only time will tell.

How does this story end ...

A group of twenty or so survivors organised a ritual to draw a line under NOS. We arranged 6 tables around a central fire, each with a theme forming a meditative journey through our experiences in NOS. This allowed us to celebrate the good things (the worship, dance, and community), as well as the painful negative emotions. The fire served as a focus, symbolising energy as well as destruction. One of my meditations was to read through the membership list, calling to mind each person that I knew out of the several hundred listed, before burning the list. Somebody else had brought along a file, containing such things as instructions for the feeding of Chris Brain's dog! It was good to be able to laugh about such things.

We finished by joining hands around the fire, watching the embers fade, sharing stories, and reading a celtic blessing and an extract from Nelson Mandela's inaugural speech. The last act was to set off some rockets, to symbolize our reaching out to the cosmic otherness of God. The last one was a monster burst of stars, and one person's comment was 'and that's how you create a universe'.

I couldn't put it any better ...

Hope this explains things a bit

Peace and Blessings,

Neil Hopkins