At least he's made us trendy

Young members of alternative worship groups defend disgraced vicar Chris Brain, reports Mary Braid
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The Independent Online
AS THEY grooved to live bands and hung out in the sun at Europe's largest Christian music festival this weekend, even the severest critics of disgraced cult priest Chris Brain were grateful to him for one thing.

"You have to hand it to the guy," said a 19-year-old girl with braided blond hair and a nose ring. "He may have manipulated and sexually abused women in his group, but he knows how to take the anorak and trainspotter out of Young Christian."

The flippant line made her friends laugh, but it got to the heart of their image problem. Ignore all that tosh in the papers. The knee-length, A-line, Crimplene skirts and sensible haircuts have - with a few stubborn and hellish exceptions - surrendered to trendy, and even sexy, gear, and an abundance of dreadlocks, but it's not yet hip to be young and with Jesus.

"It's still like you've got two heads," said Angela Entwisle, 18, from Lewes, Sussex, to vigorous nods from her friends.

It is three years since Mr Brain and his cutting-edge Nine O'Clock Service - pioneer and darling of the alternative worship movement - last made an appearance at the annual Greenbelt Festival near Corby. Then NOS's bikini-clad girls, dancing against a backdrop of pagan video images and the words "Eat God, swallow God" caused a major controversy.

Last week Mr Brain, who attracted hundreds of youngsters to weekly dance services in the basement of a Sheffield sports centre, was stripped of his Church of England office and scores of women from his group are in counselling, alleging he sexually abused them during healing sessions.

Just exactly how the Brain scandal has affected the lot of the young God Squad and the future of alternative worship dominated conversation at the festival.

Comments from the Church of England's old guard have stung members of Holy Disorder, an alternative worship group from Gloucester linked by the media this week with NOS. Joe, 14, one of Disorder's 50-strong contingent, said sadly: "There are people in the Church who would like to shut down anything that is different."

"Even the Guardian linked us with NOS this week," said helper Chris Jones. Holy Disorder insists its links are with its local diocese and that members worship through a wholesome but contemporary combination of music, drama and prayer. Its preoccupation is with the effect the scandal will have on parents, many of whom are less than delighted when their offspring find God.

Those who do use the raves and Nineties dance scene for worship turn shy about talking on the record, but anonymity made them blunt. Their enemies, they say, are making a meal of exceptional circumstances.

"Traditionalists ought to be ashamed," said one teenage boy. "They seem to be saying this is what happens when you let them start changing the words and music to the old hymns - you end up with a sex cult in Sheffield. It's absolutely ludicrous."

The Late, Late Service in Glasgow is brave enough to admit it was inspired by NOS and admired its work. It released a short statement confirming its commitment to innovative use of media, but emphasised its links with local churches and its democratic structure and accountability.

It found an ally in Garth Hewitt, Greenbelt organiser, who lampooned those who see Sheffield as the inevitable conclusion of freedom in the Church. When Catholic priests get into trouble for doing naughty things, he said, it does not lead to calls for the abolition of the Mass.

Dave Tomlinson, founder of Holy Joe's, a Christian group that meets in a south London pub, agrees alternative worship survived a scandal. But he thinks the scandal offers crucial lessons about the relationship between experimental groups and the established church.

He first met Mr Brain 12 years ago when he was the manager of a rock band. He remembers NOS at Greenbelt in the late Eighties and the notorious appearance in 1992. "I think they were doing something intended to be worshipful," he said. "But it was too performance-orientated and pretentious."

By then, he says, the group was guilty of "arrogant insularity". "They told Greenbelt they were coming on their terms only. In the press conference later I remember Chris Brain refusing to answer questions. There was a cult-figure feeling even then. However, what he achieved in Sheffield was awesome."

Mr Tomlinson pinpoints the breaking of NOS's links with its local parish church in the early Nineties as crucial. It appears it was only after links were re-established - NOS became the first non-geographical parish of the Church of England this year - and Mr Brain weakened ties with the group that members came forward with concerns.

Mr Tomlinson argues that the established Church and the innovators need each other. If it is to survive, the Church of England must tap into the "spiritual hunger" evident in New Age and other current movements. That view was confirmed by many festival attenders. "There is much more to Christianity than church," said Frances Parry, 17, who was angry that the scandal had sparked wholesale condemnation of everything new.

Adrienne Burton, 17, said: "The Church doesn't give young people a chance to express the way they feel about God. It needs to reach out." Miss Entwisle said Greenbelt offered Christianity without pressure: "It is laid back. You don't have to do anything you don't want to and you don't have to hide away in a Christian union."

Today 20,000 young people will take communion together at Greenbelt. Most hope this year's festival is remembered for more than scandal. Shera, a member of Holy Disorder, said: "This was a personality cult. Any Christian who puts their whole faith in another human being is making a big mistake."