It is now some sixteen years since the disaster that was `The Nine
O'Clock Service.' This was the name given to an Anglican church in
Sheffield which had started as a signs and wonders gig, gone Anglican,
morphed into an odd fusion of Anglo-Catholicism and ecological mysticism
and finally gone bust amidst allegations that the vicar, Chris Brain,
had been having sexual relations with women in the church. In the
process, the church grew from 10 to over 600 mainly young people. Its
sacramental life centered on the memorably entitled and utterly mad
`Planetary Mass' which Brain celebrated wearing the actual robe Robert
DeNiro used in the film The Mission. He also formed a personal
bodyguard of young, attractive women. You could instantly recognize
them: they were the ones wearing the black catsuits. They were also the
ones he was sexually enjoying on a regular basis.
What was so
stunning when it all went horribly wrong was how so many people in
positions of power and responsibility had watched the whole thing
develop and had uttered not a syllable of concern. Not when Brain
started talking gibberish about the Planetary Mass; not when he bought
the DeNiro robe; and not when he recruited the catsuited stunners to
meet his every need. And when it all blew up, all these people of
influence - from the bishop down - shuffled away muttering `Nothing to
do with me, guvnor' to anybody who asked why they had allowed this to
There is a lesson there: fill the church, especially with
hip youngsters and young professionals, and you can get away with
anything, even dressing like DeNiro and having an all-female catsuit
bodyguard. Well, you can for a while, at least.
This all takes
me back to a question I have raised before: in a world where success is
the ultimate sacrament of absolution, who is there with the credibility
to call the successful to account? Not the man in the small church.
Suspicion that he is motivated by envy will always undermine his
authority in such a context. And, if we are honest, envy will likely
always be a part of the motivation for such criticism. I preach total
depravity, after all, and it is also the one example where I can
honestly say I consistently practice what I preach. What pastor of a
church of fifty does not want to be pastor of a church of five hundred?
The church I serve has ca. 90 on a Sunday. Yes, I would love a few
hundred more. If we ever got to four hundred, I hope we would plant a
church, as long as I did not have to drink zinfandel and grow a soul
patch. But yes, I would be lying if I said I did not have a twinge of
envy at those whose ministries are - well, you know, successful. I
guess that is the word.
What about the pundit? Can he find a
hearing? If reactions to my comments about the impact of celebrity
culture on American reformed evangelicalism are a safe guide, then
probably not. That American reformed evangelicalism is increasingly
shaped by such celebrity culture seems to me a point so self-evident
that I am still amazed that anybody thinks it worth disputing. Clearly,
the critics of the celebrity aesthetic are as implausible to those
enamoured of the big, the bold and the beautiful as is the man in the
small church. Not because of their envy but, apparently, because of
their hypocrisy. The logic of `I have never met Trueman but I have heard
of him, therefore he must be a celebrity; thus he is a hypocrite in
criticizing celebrity culture and can simply be ignored' is both silly,
in its conflation of "being known" and "being a celebrity", and
illogical in rejecting an argument simply on the grounds of the alleged
moral failing of the one articulating it. He may be a hypocrite; but
if the man tells you that two plus two equals four, then you might want
to listen to him.
So what about the successful? Will they point
out the problematic excesses of the self-promotional culture which seems
to pervade much of the modern conservative evangelical church? One can
only hope so; but history gives little cause for optimism on that
score. Nobody wants to bash the successful, for our culture assumes
that that would be to identify with failure and mediocrity.
psychology of success is fascinating: those who are successful often
start as well-intentioned people; but increasing success almost always
seems to bring in its wake an increasingly relaxed attitude to the
rules, a fuzzier conception of right and wrong and an odd sense of
entitlement whereby the successful come to think that, for them, the
normal criteria of behaviour do not apply. This incremental
exceptionalism is reinforced by the failure of those who should check
them from actually doing so. It is almost as if, for all of us, success
(and in church we typically mean numerical size and growth) is the
ultimate criterion of truth and that therefore as long as it seems to be
working, as long as it is popular, it must be true. You can ape the
Hollywood aesthetic; you can be increasingly vague on the hard
teachings; but as long as the machine keeps working as it should,
everybody is happy -- or at least comfortable in their silence.
Nine O'Clock Service debacle seems to indicate that as long as you pull
in the punters, especially the young ones, as long as your name on the
conference flier helps to sell tickets, and as long as your preaching is
popular with the rising generation, those with the standing to state
the obvious and do something about the excesses will generally not do so
for fear of spoiling something which seems to be working as it should.
Indeed, you will enjoy the benefits of a powerful and heady perfume
which gives the successful a high and hides the hollow reality from
outsiders: the sweet smell of success. You just can't beat it.
when it all blows up, you can be confident it will be nothing to do
with anyone. "Seriously, guv, I never even knew the man....."