A church in psychedelic chaos

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The Independent Online
The Church of England General Synod meets today feeling, I would guess, no more than embarrassed at the television interview given by Chris Brain on Sunday. Brain, who resigned as a vicar at the weekend, ran the orgiastic Nine O'Clock Service in Sheffield. On television he confessed to "improper sexual conduct"; various churchmen sort of apologised and a number of victims - some of the "Lycra lovelies" who tended to Brain - told their pathetic tales.

Some might think this is little more than a slightly younger, weirder version of the standard naughty vicar tale. The wild, rave context of Brain's exploitation of his lovelies made it unusual in giving it an apparent cultural significance that propelled it into the broadsheet press as well as the tabloids. But other than that, it might be the same old randy priest story.

Except that it isn't. The synod will be kidding itself if it thinks it can get over this one in a hurry. This is more important than women priests or gay clergy. For Brain and his raves ask the question that must be answered before any of those things can even be talked about. That question is: what in essence does the Church believe?

Brain enjoyed massive approval from the church hierarchy. Senior figures saw him as a prophet, an excitingly creative new religious force. His own diocese left him in no doubt that he was a valuable addition to their ministry, and he was rapidly elevated into the priesthood by a grateful Church.

But the approval was, all along, a symptom of desperation. The Nine O'Clock Service brought in the punters, hundreds of them in Sheffield alone. It offered the Church of England something that it had never expected to see again - growth. However established the Church remained, however well- housed in its Gothic glories, the loss of its congregation has appeared to be inevitable and terminal, its future a steady process of marginalisation until it became little more than a harmless, eccentric sect.

Brain appeared more or less safely Christian and, best of all, he was in touch with that mythic land of infinite possibility, youth. Inspire the young and the world is yours. Look at the massed, bobbing heads at an Oasis concert and imagine them in church on Sunday, fired not by the Gallagher brothers but by the Holy Spirit. Suddenly, being a bishop would mean something.

All of this was wrapped up with the generalised belief that the young are "looking for something". This is the bottom line of all ecclesiastical insight into youth culture. On earnest television and radio shows clerics appear, sagely nodding, to insist that the true subtext of Ecstasy, loud music, sex and fun is the search for spiritual certainty. So the vicars put on their jeans, creases ironed in, and go down the disco to tell the young that they don't really want drugs, they want Christ.

Well, maybe they do. But the point is that Christ cannot be assumed to be the same as sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. This was the assumption made by Brain; to him the church was out of touch with the young simply because it didn't do what the young did. Drunk on some addled, narcissistic cocktail of pantheism and psychobabble, he dreamt up a rave liturgy that looked, judging by the television pictures, like one of those psychedelic posters from the Sixties - all robes, candles, swirling clouds and upturned faces. Look, he was saying, religion is this nice, vague, touchy-feely thing that says all the right things about the environment and feeling good.

From there his inevitable trajectory led to the cultish glorification of his own personality, the Lycra lovelies, the inner household of initiates and so on. When one heard that he had bought the surplice worn by Robert de Niro in the movie The Mission for his own inauguration, the old, familiar picture fell into place. But for the prurient nosiness of our tabloid press, we would have had a full-blooded US-style cult on our hands. To watch Brain and his victims was to feel a sudden, sad sympathy for Nietzsche's belief that Christianity is "a religion of slaves".

The Church of England was vulnerable to this because of the open-ended sloppiness of its own position. So diffuse and diverse are its own criteria for membership that almost anything, as long as it has a vaguely spiritual dimension, can get in. And the church was especially vulnerable to Brain because, theologically, he seemed to make sense. The church where the Nine O'Clock Service started had a reputation for fundamentalist evangelism. This means solid, traditional, literal belief in the Christian story, combined with a determination to propagate that belief. But he then seemed to move across to a quite different, New Age position, involving an eclectic mix of ritual and doctrine taken from a wide variety of spiritual systems. This is the opposite of fundamentalism, in that it tends to make no special claim for the Christian view of the world. It appeals to the young because it often becomes a kind of narcissistic, ecological paganism - combining environmental passions with self-obsession and sensual satisfaction. What it does not demand is discipline or coherence, only a rough acceptance of spirituality.

Brain's actual beliefs are probably impossible to establish. But to the church, this obviously seemed a creative combination of opposed elements within its own membership. Brain was evangelical and New Age, he could absorb anything. This must be what God wanted. Until the unfortunate little matter of the lovelies.

The clear lesson for the church from this affair is that it cannot ride all these horses at once. Evangelism and New Ageism are quite different beliefs and both will always go too far for the bourgeois backwoodsmen, the old churchgoers always ready to be shocked by the headlines.

The backwoodsmen want predictability and certainty, they want a church that defines itself by, among other things, the fact that it is emphatically not about sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. Theologically they are fundamentalist, in that they adhere to the literal truth of the Christian story, but they dislike the fervour of fundamentalists and will certainly find the guitar- strumming and clapping of the evangelicals distasteful. They want a Church of England that is, quite simply, respectable.

The orgiasts, meanwhile, want a vague, all-inclusive spirituality that embraces both consumerism and the environment, feeling "good" in both senses of the word. And the evangelists want action.

You cannot join a church that rides all these horses for the simple reason that there is nothing to join. A club is its rule book and, in this club, there is clearly no such book.

The deeper lesson is that non-Catholic Christianity in the West is in chaos, embarked on a desperate, implosive free-for-all. Unable to focus on the certainties of its creed, it either embraces any fleeting "spiritual" manifestation in the hope that this might be the next stage in the unfolding of the narrative of salvation, or it adopts a narrow, dogmatic fundamentalism in the hope that the modern world will go away. The Church of England is just the worst symptom of this confusion; there are many others.

The General Synod plans no formal discussion of the affair. For them it is over. As if. Brain will find a niche somewhere - spiritual fun is a seller's market these days. And we'll all go back to baptisms, marriages and funerals as the last occasions when a little touch of familiar transcendence seems like the right thing. Not exactly glorious, not quite enough to hold up the Gothic nave. But then, what is?