The Nine O'Clock Service was a youth-oriented alternative Christian worship service conceived in the wake of a 1985 John Wimber Signs and Wonders conference in Sheffield, in 1986. At St Thomas' Church in Crookes, Sheffield, United Kingdom a group of Christian musicians and artists wanted to "do something different," and experimented with light, sound and projections to ambient music. The service, and the group associated with it, grew to national prominence, but was shut down in 1995 following allegations of running a cult within the established church and sexual and emotional abuse. How could a respectable and established institution like the Church of England, have become embroiled in a sex scandal, a destructive cult and virtually invent what we would today call, "The Emergent Church?"
Beginning as a simple alternative format service under the leadership of Chris Brain, the group responsible for it developed a leadership structure that was endorsed by St Thomas' church leadership. The average age of the members was 24 for much of NOS's life. The membership was significantly from non-church backgrounds.
Starting with about 10 people who worked on designing and creating the services, the congregation grew to almost 600 members while resident at St Thomas' Church. Main themes included care for the planet and concern about its abuse, simple lifestyle and development of relationships with non-churched people.
By 1988 the Bishop of Sheffield sanctioned the moving of the Nine O'Clock Service to a new site at Ponds Forge Rotunda in the centre of Sheffield. At the same time Chris Brain underwent training to become a Church of England priest. The Planetary Mass at Pond's Forge was marked by both bold liturgical experimentation and naive hopefulness. The suspended Roman Catholic priest and American Dominican theologian Matthew Fox was consulted. Fox visited the NOS team and was so impressed, that he took many of these ideas back to the States, where he further developed them in the mid 1990s.
The number of community members stopped growing and service attendance plateaued at about 300. A significant practical weakness in terms of duty of care was the lack of accountability for NOS and its absence from diocesan accountability. This was allowed because of its perceived international significance, which in the end came to nothing. Plans for communities elsewhere were in talks.
In 1995 a number of complaints began to surface of sexual abuse by Chris Brain on women in the group. After an investigation by the Diocese of Sheffield the group was shut down in August 1995. The Bishop of Sheffield demanded Brain's resignation after he confessed to having sexual relationships with young women in the congregation. There were also calls from former members of the congregation that he be defrocked. The Archbishop of York banned Brain from acting as an ordained priest. Initially refusing to step down, Brain eventually resigned in November 1995, the week before a documentary on the abuse scandal was aired. He then checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. The Diocese of Sheffield, through a seconded pastoral team led by Rachel Ross, the Reverend Andrew Teal and the Reverend Peter Craig-Wild, attempted to manage the pastoral care both of Brain and members of the community wounded by the scandal. A remnant of the community continued to meet, under different leadership, for some years afterwards in Sheffield.
What lessons can be learned from such a disaster? Primarily, for any church leadership, it should be that simply filling church buildings, regardless of the methodology we use, is a very dangerous route to take. Embracing modern culture and recklessly abandoning Biblical means for evangelism may fill a church building, but at what cost?