(This story was first published in the February 1967 issue of the Canadian Churchman.)
“A trip without acid.”
That was the advance billing given the controversial “psychedelic” service in Vancouver late last year.
In the jargon, “trip” describes the experiences of a person using LSD. “Acid” is slang for the drug.
Struck by the “conversion-like” language used to describe LSD trips, Rev. Jim McKibbon, of St. Anselm’s, Vancouver, and Rev. Harold MacKay, of University Hill United, Vancouver, decided to try to simulate an LSD experience in worship.
The original idea was Mr. MacKay’s. Both men discussed the possibilities and the chance came when bandleader Bobby Taylor, whose group was then playing at the Shanghai Junk cabaret, visited a discussion gathering and offered to take part in a service the following Sunday.
After watching the show at the cabaret, and conferring with Mr. Taylor, the two clergymen prepared a script.
Because the architecture of the United Church lent itself more readily to use of swirling lights projected on the wall to induce mood, it was decided to hold the service there.
Poetry readings from T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Albert Camus, Thomas Wolf, and Lawrence Ferlingetti, San Francisco “beat” poet, backed up by interpretive band music, formed the core of the service. The script tried to express human life through themes of birth, life, death, and rebirth or resurrection. It ended with readings from St. John’s Gospel, and the Epistles, chosen to give a strong, positive “upbeat” finish. A “go-go-girl” who came with the band danced during parts of the service to express “joy.”
Opinions varied on whether or not the service was a successful experiment. Clive Cocking, education writer for the Vancouver Sun, said “It is doubtful that most of the people in the congregation experienced anything other than entertainment, certainly nothing deeply religious.”
Dr. Hugh Dempster, a mathematician at the University of British Columbia commented: “The key question – on which, of course, opinions differ – is whether or not these readings succeeded in communicating to the listener a true picture and a Christian interpretation of human life…My own immediate reaction…was that the overall effect did not convey such a picture.”
Mr. McKibbon said: “We chose the wrong name. It was neither worship nor psychedelic. It was an experiment in communication. The simulated ‘trip’ was not totally successful.”
In an interview with Canadian Churchman, Rt. Rev. Godfrey Gower of New Westminster expressed concern that young people, feeling cheated that they received no “kick” from a simulated psychedelic service, might decide to try the real thing.
“This would be a phony experience,” he declared. “The key to true Christian experience is possession of all one’s faculties. If these are dulled by drugs, it can’t be the real thing.”
Mr. MacKay commented: “Some people in the congregation were highly upset, but the majority gave us A for effort in trying something new.
“I don’t agree the experiment failed, and I believe for some it was an effective form of worship. I feel good can come from it. It is worth trying again, with the proper guidelines and backing.”
The material that appeared on the CBC program Sunday was filmed at a dress rehearsal on the Friday night.
Mr. MacKay’s reaction to the television treatment of the service was uncompromising: “Distorted, dishonest and out of proportion.”
Mr. McKibbon said: “With all the children (CBC had requested a congregation for the filming, so a group of high school students was brought in) the cameras, and the lights, much of the symbolism was lost. The CBC lost the rest when it cut the film to pieces. They picked out some sensational elements, but this was understandable and not necessarily to be deplored.” Later, in a television interview, he said: “I thought Sunday did a good job. Visually it was an exciting little segment. But you can’t judge what we did by five minutes.”
Unfortunately, that is precisely what more than 2,000,000 viewers had to do.
THAT “PSYCHEDELIC SERVICE”: B.C. COMMUNICATIONS EXPERIMENT ENDS IN ROW
Control over experimental changes in the Church worship was the central issue of a six-week controversy which erupted in Vancouver following a telecast of a so-called “psychedelic service.”
The dispute gained prominence when the issue became a question of whether or not clergy were being inhibited in their public statements.
Key figures were Rt. Rev. Godfrey Gower, Bishop of New Westminster, and Rev. Jim McKibbon, rector of St. Anselm’s, Vancouver.
The service which set off the controversy was an attempt to simulate the experience of a person using LSD, an hallucinogenic drug without actual use of the chemical.
A five-minute segment of the CBC program “Sunday” showed parts of the service.
Guidelines for experimental worship in New Westminster diocese require that prior permission be obtained from the Bishop, and that there be careful preparation on the part of both priest and people. Permission for the “psychedelic service” was not asked; preparation began the Monday before the Sunday on which the service was presented.
Unbalanced accounts of the dispute appeared because Mr. McKibbon was readily available to comment for reporters, while Bishop Gower refused to make any statements.
“A bishop cannot enter into public controversy with other clergy or laypeople,” he told Canadian Churchman. “If he does so, he destroys the confidential relationship a bishop must have with all his people.”
Mr. McKibbon, who had charged that he had not been given opportunity to speak with at a meeting of St. Anselm’s congregation called by the Bishop to discuss the issue, or at a meeting of the clergy, later admitted that he could have spoken on both occasions had he wished. He said he refrained because of the highly-charged atmosphere at both meetings.
Bishop Gower has emphasized that liturgical experimentation is not only permitted in the diocese of New Westminster; it is encouraged.
Former secretary of the Student Christian Movement at the University of Western Ontario, Mr. McKibbon has been at St. Anselm’s six months.
Since going to St. Anselm’s, serving a residential area populated mainly by business, professional and university people, Mr. McKibbon has tried to extend the parish ministry to students on the University of British Columbia campus, often in co-operation with Rev. Harold MacKay of neighbouring University Hill United Church.
Last fall, Mr. McKibbon organized a series of Sunday evening gatherings called “Talk Back,” attended mainly by students, when controversial issues came under free-wheeling discussion. Bishop Gower said he liked this approach. “I wish more clergy would hold this sort of dialogue with their people.”
Speaker [sic] at one session was Rev. Alan Jackson, who recently resigned as Anglican Chaplain at UBC after controversy over his espousal of the “God is dead” theology.
The psychedelic service which created the controversy was an extension of the Talk Back programs. Both Mr. MacKay and Mr. McKibbon had been intrigued by similarity of terms used by takers of LSD to describe their drug-induced experiences, and language used by people who have experienced religious conversion.
They decided to try to reproduce some of the sensations without use of the drug, in a service involving pop music, poetry, coloured lights, and dancing. A segment of the service was shown on CBC television giving what was described as a distorted picture.
Interest in – or concern about – drug taking runs high in Vancouver. Whether it be glue-sniffing, smoking pot or trying LSD, there’s plenty of it going on, and officials are worried. The community is acutely sensitive about drugs.
Bishop Gower, who had listened to a tape recording of the television sound track, but had not seen a script of the whole service, issued a pastoral letter to be read the following Sunday:
“I take such a serious view of recent television programs in which a priest of our church has taken part that I feel I must send this word of comfort and assurance to all our faithful members as well as to those whose high regard we cherish in Christian fellowship.
“These public appearances were planned and carried out with no reference to any authority within the Church and without my permission.
“These are days of change and the church must find new expression for the eternal truths enshrined in her life and her doctrines. It is the way of foolishness, however, to pander to the fashion of the world and to think that a sex-drenched, drug-filled, libertarian way of life can be any substitute for the beauty and strength of the truly Christian ideal.
“What we are witnessing is a return to primitive orgy and sensual lust exploited by perversions of science. To try and persuade the coming generation that this is the way to grow up is to deny all the moral virtue and excellence of character possible in every one of us.”
The Vancouver-Burrard Presbytery of the United Church issued a news release which expressed regret that the minister had not consulted with the session of his church before embarking on the experiment. The release expressed “complete confidence in Rev. H.H. MacKay in his efforts to communicate the Gospel to people outside the Church. He is also encouraged to communicate through new media.”
A meeting of the canonical committee of St. Anselm’s Dec. 4 unanimously confirmed Mr. McKibbon in his ministry.
A copy of the resolution was forwarded to the Bishop, who then asked the wardens to arrange a full congregational meeting to discuss the resolution.
On Dec. 20, parishioners were told by the Bishop that, no matter what their action on the resolution reaffirming Mr. McKibbon’s ministry, all clergy would still be required to follow guidelines regarding experimental worship.
Later, the Bishop issued a directive to the clergy which first reiterated the necessity of getting official approval for liturgical projects.
“All proposed radio and television broadcasts and all public statements in the press or on public platforms made in the name of the Church must have the approval of the Bishop.”
This was qualified by a final point, which recognized that “The Church stands for freedom of conscience and freedom of speech [and] no priest will be denied these rights or be inhibited in the exercise of them.
“As, however, he is a member or the body corporate, the Church, and has taken solemn oaths to uphold its doctrine and of loyalty to its appointed officers, it must be clearly understood that he is at all times under the rule of canonical obedience and must be ready to give an account of himself before the properly constituted authority in the diocese in which he serves.”
The directive was discussed at a clergy meeting on Jan. 3 after which Mr. McKibbon and some others claimed that a “gag” was being placed on the clergy.
First test of the directive came later in the week, when Rev. William Mundy – who had earlier threatened to resign if clergy were muzzled – accepted, with the bishop’s approval, an invitation to appear on a local TV program. After stating that he and the Bishop had not discussed the content of the interview, Mr. Mundy said: “You have to speak as a professional – as a person who is responsible in himself. We’re moving from an old, somewhat feudal model of the Church, to a new model, where an individual is a professional person and responsible for what he says in himself, based on his training, experience, and his concern for the people whom he serves. I think the Bishop’s desire not to speak publicly about these things has been because of his concern as a professional, for his clergy.”
Asked if he thought the Bishop had the backing of the clergy, Mr. Mundy declared: “This issue was shown as a confrontation, which it shouldn’t have been. This anxiety in not speaking to the press has been for the confidential relationship he has with the clergy.”
Mr. McKibbon dropped plans to state his position at a public meeting at UBC at the urging of his churchwardens. The parish later arranged for him and his wife to take a few days away from Vancouver to relax after the tensions of the past weeks.
Both wardens, Russel Twining, a lawyer, and Hugh Smith, an accountant, feel that the parish remains loyal to Mr. McKibbon. While admitting that there is some division in the parish, they do not view it as a serious threat to his carrying on an effective ministry at St. Anselm’s. They recognize that with Mr. McKibbon as rector, things will never be “too quiet,” but feel that he does and can contribute effectively to parish life. “He’s a good man, worth working with and for.”
And about those guidelines, reiterated by Bishop Gower in his directive? Mr. McKibbon, who has strong views about reform in the Church, says “Properly interpreted, they’re eminently sensible.”