THE Church of England is facing possible compensation claims from former members of a rave-culture style Evangelical movement that collapsed in the 1990s amid claims of sexual and mental abuse.
At the time, the Nine O’Clock Service (NOS), based on a 1980s lights-and-music nightclub theme, attracted hundreds of young people to its meetings in Sheffield and was seen by church leaders as a revolutionary way to reach a new generation of worshippers. Spin-off projects were launched in other big cities, but it all ended when the founder, the Revd Chris Brain, then 37, was accused of abuse and exploitation.
This week, in a statement, the Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, said: “We can confirm that 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, and there is of course a limit to what we can say while that process continues. Support is being offered, and the Church is working closely with the statutory authorities.
“Anyone who feels affected by this news and has information to provide can talk to someone independently by calling the Safe Spaces helpline, on 0300 303 1056, or email firstname.lastname@example.org; for contact directly with the Church, please email email@example.com.
“We utterly deplore the abuse which occurred in this diocese at that time, and remain committed both to working with survivors to address their needs, and to ensuring that the diocese of Sheffield is a safe place for all.”
One told The Times: “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.”
Another, in a YouTube interview, said: “I am very angry about what he has done to all my friends. It is abominable, it is unspeakable. The pain that people are experiencing is unspeakable, it won’t ever be able to be spoken — the depths of it — ever.”
Richard Scorer, a specialist abuse lawyer acting for former NOS members, said that 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. It also needs to learn the right lessons and ensure that those in religious authority are held fully accountable.”
In the 1980s, Mr Brain was the front man of an electro-pop band, Present Tense. He persuaded the Church in Sheffield, where he lived, to let him use St Thomas’s, a large Evangelical church in the district of Crookes, for a new style of worship: a radical mix of rave culture, social and environmental campaigning, and religion. It took its name from the only time-slot that the church had available. Hundreds of followers, dressed in trademark black, attended its gatherings.
In 1990, the Archbishop of Canterbury-elect, Dr George Carey, met Mr Brain to discuss his methods. Brain was fast-tracked for ordination in 1992, and the Church and NOS members provided substantial amounts of cash to support it. At the time, the Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Revd David Lunn, said that NOS had a “permanent significance”, and was a “new development in the way we understand the Christian religion”.
In 1995, however, a scandal broke when three whistleblowers came forward with allegations of cult-like manipulation, including cutting followers off from their families, and reports that Mr Brain’s entourage included a group of “postmodern nuns”, who wore black Lycra miniskirts and whose tasks ranged from housekeeping duties to “putting him to bed” at night.
Later that year, in a BBC interview, he admitted that he had been “involved in improper sexual conduct with a number of women”. One member told the programme: “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.” Now aged 63, Mr Brain uses James as his first name, and runs a design consultancy in Manchester.
In a Sunday newspaper interview in 1995, he said that the sexual contact that he had with women followers was “heavy petting” but “non-penetrative”. His “Homebase Team” had been created to help his wife at home because he was busy with his work. He said: “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.”