Bishop 'failed to control cult'

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Religious Affairs Correspondent

The post-mortem on the Sheffield cult scandal took a bitter turn yesterday when a former priest at the church where the Nine O'Clock Service got its start blamed the Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Rev David Lunn, and the Rev Stephen Lowe, the Archdeacon of Sheffield, for letting the cult get out of control.

In an article for the Church Times, Dr Mark Stibbe, who was curate at St Thomas's in Crookes, Sheffield, from 1990 to 1993, said: "It is clear now that the authorities failed to see that something alarmingly 'cult- like' was growing in their midst. Clearly these weaknesses require confrontation in the Sheffield diocese and in the Church of England ... there is a call to sincere confession and a call to holiness..."

However, Canon Robert Warren, who was Dr Stibbe's vicar at St Thomas's, yesterday denounced his former curate's intervention. "It seems to me to be continuing the trial by media," he said. "The bishop and the archdeacon don't really have a right of reply."

Dr Stibbe's article does not claim that the group was under very tight control in its time at St Thomas's. "It would be fair to say that accountability was not the first characteristic of the NOS leadership. In spite of strenuous efforts by Canon Robert Warren, we never succeeded in bringing the NOS leaders into line with the wishes of the overall leadership of St Thomas's. Success had bred pride, and pride had bred unaccountable individualism ... The seeds of spiritual decay had already been sown at St Thomas's," says Dr Stibbe.

But he claims things grew much worse when the group discovered the "Creation Spirituality" of Matthew Fox, a former Dominican, now an Anglican priest famous for blending New Age ideas into Christianity. It was the Rev Fox who conducted the private funeral of Jerry Garcia, guitarist with the Grateful Dead, two weeks ago.

Canon Warren, who is now one of the Archbishop of Canterbury's officers for evangelism, said that the NOS scandal had not been properly analysed yet. "What people are doing is picking the bit that they don't like and saying this is what it was all about. Obviously the heart of the problem, I would say, was the abuse of power, the controlling."