If you believe the capitalist press reports Chris Brain was an ‘evil hypnotic genius’ ‘megalomaniac, complex, secretive, manipulating, persuasive, with psychic powers’ who lived in luxury, surrounded by dozens of youngish women who waited on him and performed sexual favours in exchange for his approval. Carefully, he picked out the most easily manipulated for his ‘inner circle’.
Content warning: coercive behaviour, mental and physical abuse, gaslighting.
For the first time in print, Rebecca* gives her own account of life in the centre of the NOS cult phenomenon.
*to protect anonymity, the names of people have been changed - except that of Chris Brain, the cult leader and his wife.
I first came across the Nine O’clock Service (NOS) in 1986, but I didn’t join until 1989. Soon after, NOS had become my life. My father, previously a Baptist Minister, was very strict, and was also heavily involved in the House Church movement in Sheffield. The fear of God (and fear of my dad) was instilled in me from the earliest age I can remember.
From my early teens, I found myself living a double life. The whole family attended Church – it was an unspoken rule in our house – then I would go out and get pissed whenever I thought I could get away with it. Needless to say, I wasn’t happy and I didn’t relish going to the House Church.
One day, I bumped into a friend and she was full of excitement, telling me I ought to check out this new church with music services – "it’s amazing – I won’t tell you any more, just go", she said.
So my friend and me went along and we were blown away by it – I was 18 and here were these real people like me, having a good time – and they all believed in God like me. After that, I started going regularly – despite my dad’s disapproval – and soon after, one of the leaders asked us if we wanted to join.
He came round to my house, told us the rules, and asked us some questions. The rules included things like ‘no sex before marriage’ and ‘don’t do drugs’, and they didn’t seem odd to me, as I was used to these sorts of church rules. Nevertheless, it seemed so good a thing that I could live with the rules, and anyway, I had major guilt complexes about these things and, deep down, I believed they were ‘wrong’. He also asked us out of 10, how much we wanted to join. I scored high, but Sarah was much lower. She hadn’t had as strict an upbringing as me, so she wasn’t so happy with the rules. We didn’t join in the end.
About 3 years later, I was living with my boyfriend - he was nothing to do with NOS. I found myself unhappy and feeling guilty all the time, and one day, I bumped into a friend who told me she was joining NOS, so I went along to the communion. During the service, I suddenly decided I couldn’t take communion because I felt too guilty. It was a really emotional situation - I just cried. Someone prayed for me, then said "you know what you have to do, don’t you". I did. I went home and told my boyfriend I couldn’t live with him any more. I moved out, and joined NOS. After a while, he joined too, and about 9 months later we got married, the main reason being this was the only way we could get back to how we were before, which was what we wanted.
I found myself being brought rapidly into the centre of things at NOS. Winnie (Chris Brain’s wife) was pregnant. She was head of music and the keyboard player in the NOS band. As she left to have the baby, I was brought in because I was a keyboard player in the band I was in before NOS.
The first months were really exciting. Like being in a band really, except there were values which you picked up as you went along – everyone was helping each other out. People were in ‘groups’, and each week your group leader decided the topic for the evening meeting. People discussed, chatted, and prayed. The main emphasis was always on getting values from the Bible and making them relevant to people and life today. There was a mix of people; some were from stricter Christian backgrounds like me, some not, it was pretty interesting.
After a while, I got to know who Chris was. He was apparently very busy, and really mysterious, striking, charismatic and intelligent. He never had time for anything because he was so busy working for NOS. Everyone was in awe of him for having brought NOS into being and for giving us this great thing.
centre of intention
Then, quite suddenly, Chris decided he wanted to get to know me, and I found another side to him. In conversation, face to face, he showed lots of understanding, and could get into really deep subjects very quickly and sometimes, surprisingly abruptly. With my Christian background, I naturally saw him as a direct link to God and, as such, I felt amazed and privileged to be picked out by him.
I was invited to a ‘Staff Team’ social event, where there were lots of heads of departments (NOS had a considerable bureaucracy). I was really nervous and didn’t say much. Chris was animated and loud, and I remember being struck by how different everyone became in his presence – everyone was full of reverence. At some point, the conversation turned to me, and Chris said I looked rebellious, and cynical about what he was saying. He said I had a problem with authority, which was understandable given my upbringing (my two sisters had joined by this time, so he had found out about our past). He said ‘you need to deal with this’. This sort of phrasing of Chris’ was adopted throughout NOS – ‘get it sorted’ and so on. Everyone had their ‘issues’ – things about themselves they had to work on to sort out. Anyway, he also asked me about my past there and then, and I told him my dad had told me I had got a gift of prophecy. He said I needed to get it back – and I should speak to one of the leaders. I did, and then I started having weekly sessions with this guy, much like counselling.
The main starting point was that, from about age 6, sometimes, when my dad really shouted at me for doing something ‘wrong’ I would pass out. Now, as an adult, whenever anyone started ranting or shouting, I would go really red, which was itself embarrassing and just made me feel worse. Another issue that came up was that I am generally inquisitive and have opinions, but I would not offer them (again, because my dad would come down on me for this). My ‘counsellor’ said I had to express a deliberate opinion at least 5 times every day, while I was in the recording studio. I did and, almost overnight, I felt myself changing and feeling better about myself.
Soon after, I started getting messages from Chris that he wanted to see me. Messages always came via people, which seemed normal as he was apparently so busy. Also, one of his secretaries (he had a lot of women always around him helping him out in various roles) told me ‘he likes it if you initiate things’, so I approached him after a Staff Team meeting and invited him to meet me – but this never happened because he was busy or something.
However, I did start to see more of Chris. He always seemed to be driving around in his car, and often, apparently by chance, he would drive past me and stop to pick me up and take me wherever I was going. The short in-car conversations were sometimes a bit bizarre. Out of the blue, he would ask what I desired, and things like that – he was very direct and had a penetrating style of conversation. Afterwards, I’d feel a bit strange, and try to work out what it was all about. One day, he suddenly referred to a previous conversation about ‘desire’ and said, "about what you were saying about fancying me, well, I fancy you too". This totally confused me, I hadn’t thought or said anything like this, yet I believed he knew what I was thinking, and equally, I knew he knew what was ‘right’. After a couple of troubled days, I decided he must be right.
He was often quite unsettling to be with – his conversation style was so direct, and he repeatedly said things like "relax, be yourself" and "what’s going on with you?"
We went for a meal. At one point, he said "I sense something about your past – you’ve been abandoned. What are you thinking?" I had quickly realised the latter question was a classic of his - he often asked it and you had to tell the truth, otherwise he would know. I said I was thinking about passing out as a child. He said, "I knew you were". He had a way of getting right through to you – he could easily churn up all your feelings and "find out how unhappy you have been". Anyway, I was soon really crying, really upset, and full of anger. I realised my dad was not infallible. Chris had opened my eyes – and I think in retrospect that was when I really started transferring my father-God-icon to Chris.
After the meal, we went back to the office, and he gave me a massage. I felt really uncomfortable – after all, I was married, so this couldn’t be right, could it? I told myself that Chris knew best. I also reasoned that he was really getting through to me, so overall, it was worth it if I could sort my ‘issues’ out. His typical line whenever my doubts about our ‘special relationship’ came up, was "it’s up to you – only you and God know what to do and what is right". This made me feel like it was me that was instigating it, and me that was doing it. So, since I couldn’t tell my husband what was going on, I was back to being a teenager and leading a double life again!
A couple of weeks after the massage, I got a message to go and see the pastor. She asked, "how is it going with you and Chris? Because you know Rebecca, the sort of relationship you are having, you can’t really talk to a lot of people about it, can you?" She finished the meeting by saying "so, if you ever have to talk about it, come and see me". After that, I started to believe that, being in a ‘special relationship’, I was really, well, special. Chris was really busy – we were all there to support him and help him in any way.
The next real shock was when Chris scolded me the first time. We were at a summer garden party with ‘key people’ and, during the conversation, I pointed out to this bloke how gorgeous some flowers were in the border. As I turned back to the group, I saw Chris, slowly shaking his head and staring right through me. He told me to come with him, and took me round to the front garden (the party was at the back). As I recall, the conversation went basically as follows.
(him) "What do you think you are doing?"
(me – incredulous and confused) "What?"
"Flirting like that."
"You took his attention away from the conversation to yourself, by turning away and pointing to those flowers."
"I wasn’t flirting."
"You were competing with Jane and trying to get his attention. You were doing it and you know it, and if you can’t see that now, then I really don’t think we should be having our special relationship… You need to talk to Tracy and sort it out. Get it sorted."
By this point, I was crying like mad, and felt extremely frightened and confused. I was apparently doing something really wrong and I didn’t even know I was doing it. Nagging at me was the feeling that I might lose everything – if I lost the special relationship, I would be lost forever. Was I really flirting? Why was I only allowed to flirt with Chris?
Tracy was a key NOS person, in partnership with Chris. She advised me, "this is a common problem with people near to Chris – you have to be really careful what signs you are giving off to people". I was still thinking, ‘what is flirting anyway?’ She said, "it is safe to do it with Chris, but not others, because they aren’t as discipled" (‘discipled’ was a NOS word, meaning ‘sorted out’ – there was a whole NOS ‘language’). Later, whenever it came up, Chris used to justify his ‘inappropriate’ sexual behaviour by talk of "redefining the boundaries between sex and affection" and "creating post-modern relationships".
When I first started ‘seeing’ Chris, I was in the design team for Greenbelt (a big Christian festival), and he said I was very supportive. We were working all hours on writing music, putting links together, writing monologues and spoken word sections, then more music. One meeting, Chris said, "right, just have a think, what images and words we can use to describe Jesus as he would be today". We all had a think, and I thought of the well-known passage ‘come to me, all you who are heavily burdened…’ I looked across at what Chris was jotting down, and it was the same passage! When I said this, he grinned and said "that’s good isn’t it, because you are often cynical about these sorts of things". Basically, I took this as a message from God… We used the quote in the set and it really worked well.
After Greenbelt, he started backing off and saying he didn’t trust my motives – and I really had to ‘sort my power issue’. It was now common knowledge among the central clique that one of my biggest ‘issues’ was power. In fact, most women in my status, and especially in and around the stage shows, had a ‘power issue’. We were told it came from being in key positions – there was temptation to take and enjoy power. I was in overall charge of the music-based communion service. Chris’ advice was that, to be a powerful person, you have to give power away - then I would have more power to resist the power urge (this type of logic was really common in NOS analysis). I was told I had to be really careful and continuously examine my motives. Chris was constantly pointing out things I was apparently doing to get power over people. Since lots of us had a ‘power issue’, we all got this.
A pattern became established around this time – one I didn’t really work out until later. Seesawing between being in favour the next, inevitable put down, I became increasingly frightened, until I was constantly on edge. I was becoming the frightened little girl my dad made me into again, terrified to say what I felt, because it would be taken that I was guilty of something. I felt stuck and abandoned. I was a terrible, bad person, who couldn’t be trusted not to exert power over people and I just couldn’t get away from myself or change myself. Lots of people started ‘dropping’ me (stopping talking or associating with me).
We had ‘ministries’ (set roles) in NOS, so everything was unpaid, and I spent all week writing, preparing and rehearsing the set for the next week’s communion – I was often up until the early hours. We were expected to devote our lives to ‘our calling’. I had to prepare a new set for a one and a half-hour service each week. When we moved to Ponds Forge (the major Leisure Centre in Sheffield), it got bigger and we had more equipment, lighting, sound, as well as the creative side to work on. We all really believed we were doing our best to bring heaven to earth. We wanted to replace original sin with original blessing.
Trust was crucial in NOS. Chris controlled everything, and he would spend ages shouting really loudly at people, then other times, he would seem like a very vulnerable, lost little boy. Even now, contemplating whether he was ‘knowingly’ devious or genuinely unaware of his abusive behaviour, on balance, I would tend towards the latter . He must have really believed he was genuine, because so many other intelligent, successful people thought he was too. Could he have got away with it unless he ‘believed’?
Things were getting pretty big in Sheffield, and Chris started to look into setting up NOS in San Francisco, starting with a big launch event. By this time, I was beginning to crack under the strain of Chris constantly telling me I had power problems and to ‘get sorted’. I was effectively demoted – I ended up as tape operator backstage in San Francisco.
So Chris handed over Sheffield leadership to Nigel about 10 months before the big finale in August 1995. Nigel didn’t have the charisma or the person-control skills Chris had, and numbers started dwindling. People in the ‘lower ministries’, who often had full-time jobs and spent the rest of their waking hours lugging gear for NOS, started leaving, while others started asking more questions.
One day, Clare (Nigel’s wife) suddenly started telling me all sorts of personal stuff (I remember thinking, ‘why is she telling me, I’m power-crazy and can’t be trusted’). She was having a relationship with a male pastor, and she had been told she couldn’t carry on. At the same time (we later discovered), Nigel was sleeping with another woman unopposed. By this time, especially in the ‘inner circle’, there was increasing sleeping around going on – it was often pretty much encouraged, and loads of problems happened as a result. Anyway, then Clare dropped Chris into the conversation, saying, "about Chris – did you ever feel abused? Chris was making us compete with each other." It turned out Clare was one of the first NOS people and one of the first to be abused by him.
It was like I had suddenly woken up, or come out of a trance or something. Lucidity hit. Clare’s silence had allowed him to carry on – he knew he could use Clare to help him because she couldn’t bring herself to tell anyone. The spell was broken. Next day, we talked again. Clare was reserved, saying, "we need to take this carefully", but I was fuming by now. I was angry and bold, but above all, I felt free. Above all, I’d been treated like shit and I couldn’t believe I’d fallen for it.
Next day, I told my boyfriend - he was concerned but supportive and we decided to talk to someone else who had left NOS, who’d gone to the Bishop of Sheffield about it but had got nowhere because he had demanded evidence. We got there and told her, and she burst out crying, saying she knew all this had been going on.
Some of the NOS leadership team got together to decide what to do. I thought, ‘it’s NOS management that got us into this’ and I started phoning around people and telling them, to get it out in the open. NOS management then held a big meeting and tried to say they had initiated an inquiry – but they were just trying to control the situation after it blew up on them.
The whole thing imploded. For my husband and I, it was suddenly like the honeymoon we never had - I had been so tied up with NOS that I hadn’t given him any attention for months at a time, now we were free to be there for each other again. Eventually, last year, we split up amicably and we are still good friends, but it’s only about now that I am beginning to feel free of the whole religion thing.
I still feel I am on a journey of discovering who I really am – what I would call a spiritual quest. But I have no interest in the church or God.
Interview with "Rebecca"
Describe key features of a Nine O'clock Service event — what made it a success?
Rebecca; The phrase used to describe the style was 'post-modem'. There were lots of lighting effects, music and links between spoken word sections and so on. People danced, got really into it. We kept up with the latest trends, so the events were always on the edge and current.
What else did NOS do?
NOS was basically only about services - it was only a message, no actual practical action. The message was based around music, liturgy and art.
What sort of people did NOS attract?
Most people were young -about 30 average - and a mix of religions, and different sorts, backgrounds and so on. Generally, people who were already vulnerable because of religious guilt.
How did NOS work, how did it attract you?
Initially, I suppose it worked because I really wanted to find out why we are here and I really believed in the idea of creating a better world here, now.
What were die ley things at the core of NOS' mission?
To 'modernise' and make the Christian message current, to help bring heaven to earth.
What were the messages to the congregation?
There was a different topic for service each week. Underlying it always was rejecting consumerism for peaceful environnmental co-existences,
Was NOS an oppressive cult?
What is a cult?
A group of people in a community where you are drawn in so you lose a sense of who you are and what you feel - you only know what you are told to feel. You lose friends and you lose yourself, and you disappear into the cult identity.
Was Chris really a power-crazed, devious megalomaniac who sexually and psychologically abused dozens of women?
He was very manipulative and he did abuse a lot of people. He knew exactly how far he could take people and what he could get away with. His real power came from the fact that we allowed him to do things, and we followed everything he said.
Why didn't people just leave?
A lot of people did. But when you joined, you were told "this is your family now" and you automatically cut off your ties with friends and family, since they weren't committed. Everything centred around NOS. There was nothing to go back to. Also, if you left, you would lose all the comradeship within NOS, because everyone would cut you off and not speak to you any more. The fear of what I would lose if I left was greater than what I was unhappy about if I stayed.
How did you leave?
At some point I realised I had become like everyone else. The next stage was, I realised I had lost who I was and I had to be me again - then the spell was broken.