Linda Woodhead considers the hidden implications of a scandal which rocked the Church of England
we live in a society which has forgotten the power of religion. Religion is no longer viewed as a potent force, but as a harmless pursuit with which some people choose to occupy their leisure hours. Consequently, the particular religion to which one adheres is thought to be a matter of little consequence – don’t they all teach the same thing, and aren’t they all equally valid life-style options? The Nine O’clock Service in Sheffield, and the tragic events which led to its closure, should serve us as a timely reminder of just how wrong such a way of thinking really is. Religion has the potential to be the most powerful of all the forces which shape the life of individuals and societies – for good or for ill.
There is no doubting that the religion offered by the Nine O’clock Service was a powerful force. and there is no doubting – especially after the Everyman programme’s expose – that it was a powerful force for ill. It turned some people into tyrants and monsters, and others into broken and battered victims. In both cases, it destroyed faith. We must not shy away from these stark observations, but must have the strength to look at them steadily in order to remind ourselves of the power of religion and of the ways in which it can turn into a corrupting force. The Nine O’clock Service has important lessons for the contemporary Church.
To my mind, one of the most important of these lessons is the importance of true doctrine. It is significant that today even that term has a somewhat archaic ring to it, so unfashionable a notion has it become. One of the main foundations stones on which the intellectual edifice of modernity is raised is the belief that it is ethics which matters, not doctrine. What matters is right conduct, not right belief. A person’s beliefs are a private matter, of no concern to anyone but themselves. By contrast, their behaviour is a matter of public and social concern. The latter can and must be regulated, whilst the former must not be subject to any interference. These ideas have entered the bloodstream of the church as well as modern society, and are powerfully evident in the Church of England today.
They are evident, for example, in the way in which the doctrinal beliefs of the clergy are not considered to be a matter of great concern. I know this from my own experience teaching in an Anglican theological college. No-one was ever refused ordination because they could not say the creed in good faith – only bad behaviour led to such a refusal. The same is true in the parishes. Clergy can believe anything they like without fear of dismissal. But a failed marriage or worse, a re-marriage, may well lead to their departure. This exaltation of ethical over doctrinal matters is evident not just in the liberal wing of the church, but also in the evangelical. It is very evident at the moment, for example, in the way that the issue of homosexuality is being turned into the touchstone of orthodoxy.
To forget the importance of true doctrine and to focus only on good conduct is a heresy. It is the heresy which Luther identified with the term “works-righteousness”. It is a heresy because it assumes that it is by my actions that I will be saved – or damned. And to assume this is to deny the saving and atoning work of God in Christ. We are justified not by works but by faith. This is the great truth which Paul taught the church and of which the Reformers reminded it. It is true doctrine which saves us, not good conduct. It is belief in Christ and in the saving mercy of God shown forth in Christ which matters. The creeds matter because they state and proclaim the faith – the faith which saves.
The Nine O’clock Service seems to have begun to go wrong when it departed from true doctrine. Though it had evangelical roots, its leader, Chris Brain, became increasingly enamoured of the Creation Spirituality of the American theologian, Matthew Fox. He was planning to travel to America to work with Matthew Fox and he began a “Planetary Mass”. Significantly, neither the Bishop of Sheffield nor those of his representatives familiar with the Nine O’clock Service saw any cause for concern in this. Their failure to do so is symptomatic of the deep lack of concern for true doctrine in the Church of England today. To anyone who cares for true doctrine, the rise of Creation Spirituality in the Church is a deeply worrying development. Whilst it claims to be orthodox, Creation Spirituality is in fact nothing of the sort. It contradicts and undermines true Christian belief at almost every point. I once wrote a Creation Spirituality Creed to illustrate this, modelling it upon the Apostles’ Creed. It differs from the latter at every major point.
I experience Spirit whom I image as Goddess and Gaia, infusing the whole universe. Jesus of Nazareth was one of the wise seers who taught us how to achieve oneness with this Spirit. Jesus proclaimed eternal life – a life lived to the full here and now. I believe in the Spirit which flows through all that is and which is my own deep Self. Realising connectedness, the universe can at last embrace the Other, raise up the powerless, and unite in a New Age of freedom and empowerment that will never end.
Where Christianity believes in a transcendent and personal God, Creation Spirituality affirms an impersonal “spirit” of limited transcendence. Where Christianity believes in God as Trinity, Creation Spirituality identifies all things with the divine, denying the uniqueness of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Where Christianity believes in the Church as the Body of Christ on earth, Creation Spirituality looks to an amorphous world-wide spiritual communion. And where Christianity believes in resurrection, Creation Spirituality believes only in an enhanced spiritual life in the here and now or in reincarnation.
True doctrine is more important than good conduct. Yet this is not because good conduct does not matter, but because it can only flow from true belief. False doctrine leads to false lives: “by their fruits ye shall know them”. Nowhere is this more powerfully illustrated than in the Nine O’clock Service. It was not a coincidence that Chris Brain began to abuse some of his female followers, turning them into slaves to his needs and desires. He did this because he believed in what Matthew Fox had long preached: original blessing and original righteousness. He believed in the basic goodness, innocence and even divinity of every human being. Believing that he was a god, it was natural that Chris Brain should seek power over the lives of others and lack any suspicion about his motives. Believing that he was a god, it was also natural that his followers should go along with what was happening, completely defenceless. Belief in the one true God before whom all human beings have worth would have immunised them from such dangerous folly; it is not for nothing that true doctrine is sometimes described as the armour which a Christian must put on.
Because the Nine O’clock Service illustrates so clearly the power of religion it should thus serve to remind us of the importance of true doctrine and the dangerous consequences of its neglect. For the same reason it should also serve to remind us of the power of the institutional church, of its worship, and of its ordained representatives. Like doctrine, all of these need to be carefully controlled and regulated. It is precisely because they are so powerful that they must be. Thankfully, the Anglican church has tried and tested means of controlling them. Liturgy is laid down by canon, and must not be tampered with by individuals. And priests are licensed by a bishop who should be able to identify and stop any abuses perpetrated by his clergy. We often think of these mechanisms of control and supervision as restrictive and outmoded. The Nine O’clock Service should remind us why they are important, and why they must be taken more seriously than they were in Sheffield.
As Christians, we believe that the reason religion is such a powerful force is that God is Power. God is not an illusion nor an impotent spirit. God is the creator and sustainer of all that is and to worship him is to receive his power. Likewise, to turn from him and to worship other gods is to give oneself over to forces of delusion and destruction. But precisely because God is a God of power, it is unnecessary to make institutional Christianity a religion of power. That was the mistake which was made in Sheffield. there the most powerful techniques of persuasion were employed: slick multi-media presentations, charismatic leadership, organised enthusiasm. It is always a temptation for a weak church to adopt such techniques. But to do so is to forget that the God of Power is able to win human hearts and minds himself. And it is to forget that though our God is a God of Power, he refuses to coerce people and comes to us in Jesus Christ in the form of a servant. The Gospel is itself powerful enough to convert those who have ears to hear. It does not need augmentation, but needs only to be taken seriously and to be preached and taught with conviction, imagination and faithfulness. We must regain the conviction that our religion is powerful enough to attract the world on its own terms. it does not need to conform itself to the world’s ways and to the world’s use of power. As our Lord reminds his disciples: “It shall not be so amongst you”.
Linda Woodhead is Lecturer in Christian Studies in Lancaster University