How movement took root in a Sheffield bedsit

Andrew Brown looks at the origins of a 'cult' that fell into dishonour
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The Independent Online
The roots of the Nine O'Clock Service can be traced back to the late Seventies in the bedsit area of Crookes in Sheffield, where a group of urban scruffs started to explore evangelical charismatic Christianity. They were, in the words of one observer, Young Ones for Jesus. They lived semi-communally; anxious to discover how Christians should best behave in a largely post-Christian world.

Dr Graham Cray, now the principal of a Cambridge theological college, but then at a charismatic church in York, said: "What they were doing, long before the NOS began, was honourable. They had a good reputation with the social services. They supported certain people financially to work in certain voluntary projects.

"The community had a commitment to serving the poor and people in need, and a strong commitment to the arts. It had a rock band which played the Sheffield clubs on the strength of its playing, and not in youth clubs on the strength of its Christian credentials. Chris Brain was the bass player, and a very good one, too."

They worshipped then as part of the congregation in the church of St Thomas, Crookes, which was pioneering ways to evangelise in a post-Christian community, and which has been immensely influential: the former team rector, Canon Robert Warren, is now the Church of England's northern officer for evangelism, and was one of the first priests deliberately to try and attract different congregations to services at different times.

In the Eighties, St Thomas's became closely associated with the American evangelist John Wimber, a former drummer with the Righteous Brothers with whom the singer Bob Dylan studied Christianity after his conversion. Mr Wimber's speciality was miracles, or at least sensations. At his rallies, physical healing was confidently expected, and speech in tongues and ecstatic fainting, known as being "slain in the spirit", was commonplace. This might have seemed very American, but Mr Wimber's modesty and affability made him enormously popular among English charismatics, and his Vineyard Ministries still has great prestige.

The NOS group loved his theology but had a serious problem with his style. "It's unfair to say the group was basically working class, because some have degrees, but it had not bought into culturally suburban Christianity. If you are playing with bands on the sort of cutting edge of the underground in Sheffield, then Gospel music put to choruses from the Eagles will not appeal to you," Dr Cray said. "They could not bear the music of Wimber . . . They were in a sense trying to produce an act of worship for themselves and if that had integrity for them, then they knew it was going to reach people like them."

So they combined left-wing politics, a Wimberite emphasis on miracles and hard-core electronic music. This was allowed as an experimental service in St Thomas's, hence the name Nine O'Clock Service. They were a sensation. Unlike other groups, who simply played old tunes with new beats, the NOS "took it further into engaging the five senses with the incense and the theatricality. They were very open about what they were doing," Dave Roberts, editor of the influential charismatic magazine Alpha, said.

Alpha is conservative doctrinally, but Mr Roberts is sure that there was real value in what the group attempted.

"In 1988, when they first appeared at the Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival [held in the Midlands], they were doing things - praying for people, and people were falling down, slain in the spirit, the whole bang shoot. They swept them off their artistic feet, and then hit them with fairly orthodox charismatic spirituality. They definitely had it together for three or four years. Then they lost their rag with St Thomas, Crookes."

The details of the move out of St Thomas's in 1991 are obscure, but there were tensions between the four congregations. In retrospect there seems to have been a separation between Chris Brain and the rest of the Church of England, although strenuous efforts were made on both sides to keep touch. Mr Brain was accepted for training as a priest and ordained in 1992.

Around this time, Mr Brain became interested in the ecological and spiritual teachings of the American Matthew Fox, a former Dominican who was expelled from his order and became an Anglican priest in San Francisco.

The group's next appearance at Greenbelt, in 1992, was a sort of watershed. The performance, involving bikini-clad dancers in front of a huge sound- system upset sophisticated evangelicals by being pretentious and simpler ones by coming too close to New Age ideas.

But the styles of worship pioneered by the group have been copied by many others who will survive the scandal. "Power can be abused in any setting; and to damn all experiments to integrate modern electronic culture with the gospel must be wrong," Dr Cray said.

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