Vicar 'demanded sex' from followers

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The Independent Online

Religious Affairs Correspondent

In one of the most bizarre sex scandals ever to afflict the Church of England, the leader of a radical Anglican group in Sheffield has admitted improper sexual relationships with a number of his female followers. No complaints have been made to the police, but the leader of the group is in a "safe house", being counselled and may take refuge in a monastery.

The Rev Chris Brain, 38, was one of the founders and leaders of the Nine O'Clock Service, a group of young people who for 10 years have been trying to assimilate the music and lights of dance culture with Christianity.

Mr Brain, who has a wife and daughter, admitted to diocesan officials that he "enjoyed sexual favours" from up to 20 of his followers over a period of years.

The matter only came to light last week, when complaints were made to the Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Rev David Lunn, about the leadership style of the group, which Mr Brain left 18 months ago. These, in turn, led to complaints about sexual favours being demanded in a climate of cult-like authoritarianism.

The Nine O'Clock Service was originally based around the church of St Thomas, at Crookes, but broke away after its style proved incompatible with even rather free-wheeling evangelicalism.

The services were noisy and intentionally disorientating. They demanded as much preparation as a rock concert: at least 100 hours of work to set each one up, and involving a community of 200-300 people. Some gave up their jobs and others most of their incomes.

The Archdeacon of Sheffield, the Ven Stephen Lowe, said yesterday: "There was a very wide range of people involved: doctors, nurses, social workers, even professors. They were drawn to it by a new approach to liturgy and the ecology."

The group was regarded as a successful evangelical experiment and much imitated. Mr Brain contributed a chapter to the Archbishop of Canterbury's book on youth evangelism. He formed links with Matthew Fox, a former Dominican who became an Anglican priest after the Vatican objected to his teaching "Creation spirituality", which involved, among other things, collaboration with a self-proclaimed witch.

The Nine-O'Clock Service had been planning to expand into America. It had performed at the Greenbelt Christian Arts festival two years ago, where the show involving bikini-topped dancers and amplified exhortations to "Eat God!" and enjoy "God in your face!" had not been greatly appreciated.

After Mr Brain left, the services became quieter, but no shorter, and this summer involved 20 minutes or more of silent meditation as well as the usual lights and dancing. Every second Sunday, they would celebrate an Anglican communion rite during the show. They were in the process of being legally incorporated into the Church of England as a sort of extra- parochial parish. But the future of the group is now in doubt. There was no service last Sunday.

"I would prefer not to use that word cult, but it is the word that does naturally spring to mind," said the diocesan spokesman, the Rev Roy Arnold. "There was cult-like control over people and over their lives, and in this instance involving sexuality."