Linda Woodhead offers further reflections on the Church of England and the Nine O’clock Service

I FEEL INCREASINGLY Trollopian in my attitude to the Church of England. Like Trollope I love this church, my church, and believe that at its best it is as fine a context for the living of a Christian life as any God has provided. If by their fruits we are to know the churches, then the number of outstanding Christian lives which have been nurtured by Anglicanism, and the number of outstanding men and women who are still to be found in its congregations should encourage us. Like Trollope too, I begin to look with a more indulgent eye on some of those features of the Church of England eyed with suspicion by more modern reforming types: its gentle worldliness, its emotional reticence, its apparent lack of zeal, its clinging aura of the unfashionable.

Even with his vivid imagination, Trollope could hardly have conceived of the Sheffield Nine O’clock Service. Had he been able to do so, he would no doubt have been shaken to the core. He would, quite rightly, have seen it as the absolute antithesis of everything he understood to be Anglican. As Roland Howard’s book indicates so well, the Nine O’clock Service was fashionable in its very essence. Its leaders held the Anglican church in contempt: Chris Brain saw his organisation as a ‘bomb in the back pocket’ of the Anglican church and he spoke of himself as a Moses leading his people out of the Egypt of Anglicanism into the Promised Land of club culture reclaimed for God. NOS preached a new doctrine, one which contradicted the ‘historic formularies’ of the Church of England at nearly every point. It retained merely the outward husk of traditional Christian ‘symbols’, injecting them what were believed to be newer and more relevant meanings. And NOS flouted nearly every custom, practice and rule in the Anglican book: this book documents how many of all the usual procedures for training and monitoring clergy were suspended in Chris Brain’s case, and how normal forms of church discipline and order seem to have been abandoned. In establishing NOS as the Church of England’s first ‘Extra Parochial Place’ the Bishop and Archdeacon of Sheffield implicitly accepted Brain’s own view that Anglicanism and the Anglican parochial system is now a hindrance to the growth of Christianity.

Reflecting again on the Nine O’clock service in the light of this book, it is this willingness of some of our senior churchmen to abandon all that has historically made Anglicanism what it is which still stands out as one of the most shocking features of the whole NOS affair. Having read this book, I feel more alarmed than ever those who have so much responsibility for our church’s direction seem to have so little love and respect for its traditions. But Howard’s research also highlights another very disturbing feature of the whole NOS affair, a feature which becomes clearer as a result of his research. I will refer to it here as the ‘wise monkey syndrome’.

The three wise monkeys heard no evil, saw no evil, and spoke no evil. They have often been presented as a model of good behaviour. Judging from Howard’s book some senior clergy in the Sheffield Diocese seem to have internalised the ideal. For what emerges from his research is that a small but significant number of people tried to tell their church leaders that there was something rotten in the Nine O’clock Service only to be ignored or dismissed as trouble makers. In a letter to the Church Times attacking my earlier critical comments on the Service, the Archdeacon of Sheffield said that he was not to blame for ignoring one woman who came to warn him about the service in 1992 since she was suffering from mental illness. This book reveals that the leadership of NOS fed that information to the Archdeacon in order to discredit the woman’s (true) allegations. It also reveals that at least one other female member of NOS tried to warn the Bishop of what was going on in April 1995, and that the Revd Mark Stibbe had written to the Bishop in 1994 after attending a Planetary Mass to point out the gnostic and neo-pagan nature of the worship and its manipulative aspects. No action was taken. Mrs. Shirley Stopford-Taylor, Brain’s mother-in-law, had also become suspicious of NOS, but she was asked by the Archdeacon to write a letter of apology to her daughter and son-in-law for the hurt that her allegations might have caused and the incident was handled as a ‘relationship problem’.

If the wise monkey syndrome was merely confined to the Sheffield Diocese we might not need to feel unduly alarmed. But sadly the contagion seems to have spread more widely in our church (and it seems from recent revelations about the handling of abuse cases that it is rife in the Roman Catholic church as well). When I was an undergraduate one of my fellow-students was unfortunate enough to be allocated a supervisor who believed that since she was female, northern and working class she was a suitable target for disdainful and sarcastic bullying. In confusion and distress she turned to her Director of Studies who happened to be the College Chaplain, well known as a saintly and good man. He, after listening to her story, told her that he was sure it was nothing which couldn’t be sorted out if she and her supervisor would just sit down and have a good chat. This story has always haunted me, and it came to mind again as I read Howards’ book. It illustrates perfectly the sort of wise monkeying I am talking about; it is the same attitude which refuses to believe that a clergyman could abuse a child, or that women who were raped weren’t ‘asking for it’. It is a refusal to see, hear, or speak of evil. It masquerades as a sort of saintliness and innocence which only thinks the best of others and has no ‘problem with authority’. But it is the devil’s best friend, for it allows evil to flourish unchecked.

As I said in my earlier comments on the Nine O’clock Service in New Directions, the Church of England does not seem to be a particularly corrupt church – at least not in an active and obvious sort of a way. It does appear to spawn too many corrupt priests or wilful abusers of power. But though it may not be particularly prone to sins of commission, its besetting sin seems to be this wise monkey sin of omission: the sin of ignoring the reality of sin. The Church of England, like the world, has become embarrassed by sin. It doesn’t like to talk about it (unless it is speaking of some vague abstraction like ‘capitalism’). And it especially doesn’t like to admit the existence of sin and evil within its own ranks. One reason for this seems to be the church’s current obsession with respectability, that key axiom of a bourgeois morality. If there is one thing the church hates, it is not sin but scandal, especially sexual scandal. As one NOS member perceptively says in this book,

“The Church of England doesn’t close churches down if you complain that your leader seems power-crazed and psychologically abuses people. That makes me so angry. The Church would never have reacted if we’d gone to complain that NOS was a cult and Chris was a cult leader (people had complained for years, and been ignored). Of course if it’s sex, then they react in 24 hours.”

A further reason why the Church seems so reluctant to speak of sin is that it has become confused about the nature of Christian love. Agape has been confused with a ‘pastoral’ attitude. When I criticised the Bishop and Archdeacon of Sheffield I was accused by a couple of people of failing to be ‘loving’ and ‘pastoral’. What this suggests is that we now understand Christian love as wearing rose-tinted spectacles and always being affirming. And this, I think, shows the influence of counselling in the church; the ethos of counselling seems in danger of triumphing over the spirit of Christ in some quarters.

Respectability is not a Christian virtue. Truthfulness is. To be a Christian is not to be respectable: it is to be set free to see things as they really are – including sin and evil. To be a Christian is not to adopt a pastoral attitude or to be converted to general niceness, but to be delivered into truth. To be a Christian is to be able to acknowledge sin in ourselves and others because we see this in the wider context of our redemption by Jesus Christ. Our knowledge of our redemption by Christ means we are no longer paralysed by fear of our sin, for we no longer believe our salvation depends upon our own achievements. So we Christians should be more clear-sighted about sin than other people, not less. Jesus certainly was, and so were so many of our forebears in the faith – just think of Paul upbraiding his churches or Augustine revealing his childhood sins and sexual misdemeanours. Or, to take a distinguished theologian today, Stanley Hauerwas in his most recent book reflects upon his early life as an academic and concludes ‘What a shit I was!’.

It seems to have become inconceivable that our church leaders today should ever speak in such ways to fellow-Christians or admit to any evil in the church, and it is very striking that in their interviews with Howard not one of the churchmen in Sheffield with responsibility for the Nine O’clock Service accepts any blame. Indeed, in a report on NOS from the Sheffield Diocese to the Archbishop, one of the main recommendations is that future priests be personality profiled, and that bishops and archdeacons be given more control over priests! Again, the blame is being shifted: those who had power in the NOS affair and failed to exercise it now claim that if they had had more power things would have been different. But since Brain was presumably licensed by the Bishop of Sheffield and did not have freehold, it is hard to know how the Bishop and Archdeacon could have had more power.

In our reluctance to admit that a Christian is a forgiven sinner rather than a thoroughly respectable wise monkey we show how far we have strayed from scripture. Nearly all the great figures of the Bible sinned, and sinned boldly; but they fulfilled God’s purposes none the less. Must we really go on pretending that we are so much better than David, Solomon, Peter, and Mary Magdalene? I do not, of course, mean that we should go about judging our fellow Christians in the manner of a Mr. Slope or a Mrs. Proudie or ‘The Jupiter’. But I do mean that we should be able to see sin for what it is and to admit its existence in our own souls and in our church. To be loving does not mean overlooking sin; it means that we see evil for what it is, admit our corporate responsibility for it, do everything we can to help those who suffer under its weight, never overlook the plank in our own eye, and view no-one as beyond our forgiveness or outside the sphere of God’s redemptive love. To speak the truth in love should be our aim and Trollope may serve us as a rather better model of what this might mean than the three wise monkeys.

Linda Woodhead is Lecturer in Christian Studies at the University of Lancaster

These further reflections on the Church of England and the Nine O’clock service were occasioned by the publication of Roland Howard’s The Rise and Fall of the Nine O’clock Service: a cult within the church? London: Mowbray, 1996. pp.159.