In pursuit of Mr Brain's handmaidens Truths which will embarrass the church

Faith & Reason Andrew Brown finds that one of the most frightening revelations in the Nine O'Clock Service scandal is of a section of the Church with no idea of what a cultural tradition might be.
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The Independent Online
Well, and here we go again. The story of the Rev Chris Brain, who laid on hands where he didn't ought to, has caught the imagination of the respectable half of the nation: it interests middle-market papers far more than the tabloids. The Daily Mail carried three pages including the front page on the second day of the scandal. The Sun carried nothing. This is partly a tribute to the authorities in the diocese of Sheffield. They have concealed none of the important facts; only the interesting ones.

If we are to have laws on privacy, then they should be framed bearing in mind the way the Church in Sheffield has so well distinguished between truths which will embarrass the Church, and which have been freely available, and the truths which might shame the victims of the scandal and which have been successfully concealed.

There were at least 20 print journalists in Sheffield last week, all hunting for one of Mr Brain's handmaidens, and no one would talk to the press. The women most affected were guarded by security guards with dogs in a large private house. This would not have stopped them talking to the press had they wanted to, but it let them avoid it when they did not want to. And in the absence of any juicy details about exactly who did what, with which, and to whom, there was nothing for the tabloids to get their teeth into so they went off to chew other victims, notably Mr and Mrs Barrymore.

The same difficulties did not deter the middle-market and the broadsheet papers from carrying the scandal at length. But their readers are more likely to go to church. Their readers, in fact, are often the sort of people who might have been members of the Nine O'Clock Service. So far as I can tell, the Nine O'Clock Service was not actually composed of working- class people or even potential recruits to the Jesus Army. They ignored it as they tended to ignore the rest of the Church of England. Rather, it was made up of people like me, and perhaps like you: middle-class types with bohemian leanings. It may have been made up of people who had never gone to church before, nor known anyone who had, but if the purpose of the whole vast enterprise was to reach out to young urban working-class males, it seems to have failed pretty dismally.

Indeed, one question arising from the fiasco is why the church should bother with that sort of youth work at all. At a time when resources are limited, it seems extraordinary for the Church of England to put any effort into recruiting young men between 15 and 25 who are the group least likely to respond to its efforts. I did put this question to Pete Ward, the Archbishop of Canterbury's Adviser on youth evangelism, and one of the supporters of NOS. I found his reply illuminating in its impenetrability.

"One way of viewing popular culture is that it is a series of messages and symbols and signs and that those move between various groups of people," he said, "and that what's important is for the church to be sending and receiving messages. We're good at communicating. Think of popular culture as Windows 95" "Yes", I said, "We don't need it, and it demands a huge hardware upgrade." But he loved this comeback. He wants Windows 95. He wants the whole church continually upgraded. "If you think of the church building or people, or training, or investment in education as hardware, that's the issue we have to address," he said.

Actually, any sensible computer user asks themselves not whether they have the best possible hardware or software, but whether what they have is not too irritatingly inadequate. And surely the Church of England's present "hardware" is more or less all right.

The really frightening implication of the Sheffield scandal is that these structures might in fact be inadequate. For suppose for a moment that the group did not represent some strange urban subculture, but was actually more or less in the mainstream of modern middle-class life. The problem is not, then, their taste in lights or music: they found the Eagles inadequate to express their conception of God, but many people have done that without drifting into heresy.

Nor is the problem that they found a diet of pure charismatic excitement unfulfilling after a while, and set out to connect to the tradition of the wider church. The problem is that they had no idea of what a cultural tradition might be. It is not something you can build by will-power, any more than you can cook Caribbean food in London. The fresh ingredients just aren't here. If you don't belong in an intellectual or cultural tradition you may have brilliant ideas. What you will lack, though, is common sense. If you have grown up in a wholly secular society you may well find God; what you will lack is a sense of the ridiculous.