and ANDREW BROWN
As many as 150 former members of the radical Anglican group, the Nine O'Clock Service, still in Sheffield are receiving counselling following the group's suspension by the Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Rev David Lunn.
The priest at the centre of the scandal, the Rev Chris Brain, had attracted 400 followers to the Nine O'Clock Service since 1986. The mostly young following came from all walks of life and gave up time, money and, in some cases, their jobs to help further the movement.
But last week the Bishop of Sheffield received complaints about the group's leadership methods. The priest is alleged to have told members how to run their lives and influenced their choice of friends.
Mr Brain, 38, who has a wife and five-year-old daughter, has admitted to church officials that he "enjoyed sexual favours" from as many as 20 of his female followers. He is now receiving counselling at a "safe house" provided by the Sheffield church hierarchy.
The Rev Paddy Mallon, a former colleague, said: "Many members have left the Sheffield area because they were so traumatised by the whole situation. As many as 150 are now receiving counselling elsewhere as far as I know.
"Those who didn't know about the abuse are completely gobsmacked by the whole situation and can't believe they've been let down. We are talking about people who had chucked in their careers to be part of this movement."
The services that the group produced were often surprisingly reflective, according to the Rev John David, a former curate at St Thomas's.
"You might have thought you were going into a Roman Catholic Mass, or a Greek Orthodox service," he said. "They would use Greek Orthodox chants and over that the ambient music of the modern era.
"Then you would notice you were in a whole new world of visual aids and television screens. These would show images: perhaps a crucifix disappearing into the distance, or simply clouds passing.
"We would use the Rite A Communion service of the Church of England, but instead of books, the words would be projected on the ceiling." However, Mr Davis said that the twice-monthly "teaching services" held by the group were very much noisier and more chaotic; and that the group changed after it left St Thomas's to set up in Ponds Forge Recreation Centre in the city centre and began to stage"planetary masses".
He added: "They were doing things that would never have been allowed in St Thomas's."
Mr Mallon, whose Baptist congregation shares St Thomas's with the Anglican congregation, was more impressed. "They started off with something like 40 people and in the first 21 months there were 150 converts, mostly from a non-church background which is impressive," he said. "I suspect, though, that like all guru-type figures Chris began to believe the publicity around him."
The Rev Mike Breen, 38, team rector of St Thomas's, said yesterday: "The service probably became more radicalised as time went on and it distanced itself more from what we would describe as biblical orthodox Christianity."
Mr Davis remains optimistic about the experiment. "It was something which I am sure was of God, even if something has gone wrong in the middle. I am sure that it helped a lot of urban youth in Sheffield to get some glimpse of God; and then it all went wrong in a personality cult," he said.
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