Acid Care for Anglicans
Dr Frank Lake, LSD and Pastoral Counselling
One of the most important papers in kickstarting today’s psychedelic renaissance was not primarily concerned with either therapy or brain-modelling, but with mysticism. ‘When administered under supportive conditions,’ wrote Roland Griffith et al. in 2006, ‘psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences.’
The Johns Hopkins research team behind the paper were re-instigating a research question that animated scientific and cultural readings of psychedelics in the mid-20th century: namely, to what extent can a psychedelic drug occasion a religious experience in the user? This question took its in part cue from the ideas of American psychologist and philosopher William James.
In The Varieties of the Religious Experience (1902), James claimed that no account of the universe could disregard forms of drug-induced consciousness, arguing that they are psychologically and philosophically useful objects of study. Furthermore, he associated them with ‘primary religious experience,’ and suggested they might be useful to study as states of consciousness analogous to mystical ones.
This reading was very influential in North America. The most famous example is the ‘Good Friday Experiment’, conducted by Walter Panhke at Harvard in the early Sixties. Panhke also used psilocybin, analyzing its subjective effects on divinity students during a religious service—many of whom reported corollaries to mystical experience. Indeed, the later Johns Hopkins study supported some of its findings.
Moreover, as psychedelics burst onto the popular scene and into prohibition, these insights took a cultural turn. Alongside the constitutional freedoms guaranteed to religion in the United States, which some trippers attempted to leverage, a spate of so called ‘acid churches’ emerged—at the heart of which was a sacred reading of the LSD experience as a profound form of chemical mysticism.
‘Experimental mysticism’ therefore was a key aspect of psychedelia in North America. However, as religious scholar Huston Smith noted in 1964, while ‘Drugs appear able to induce religious experiences; it is less evident that they can produce religious lives.’ Here, Smith more or less points out that the role of psychedelics in regard to what James called ‘secondary religious experience’ was less apparent.
What are these secondary experiences though? According to James, they are ‘second hand’, and essentially those built upon a foundation of individual, mystical experience, i.e. the ecclesiastical and theological. They manifest as the communal, group-orientated aspects of religiosity, which entail particular social codes which govern group values, and thus the rituals and methods for maintaining them.
In the US, for example, Timothy Leary’s psychedelic guide books, such as The Psychedelic Experience (1964) and Psychedelic Prayers (1966) fulfilled this secondary function. They were built around the experimental mysticism thesis of LSD, and established a liturgy of sorts to inform acid churches and individual practitioners. In other words, secondary aspects were geared wholly around facilitating primary religious experience.
In Britain, conversely, the opposite approach initially took place in the 1950s. Several critics, such as RC Zaehner and Richard Heron Ward, categorically denied that the substances facilitated mysticism. Zaehner, for instance, believed that only by living a religious life could a chemical experience even begin to have spiritual meaning, let alone the grace of a full-blown mystical experience itself. Religious emphasis was thus placed on secondary aspects.
This is of course not an absolute distinction but, as noted, one of emphasis. The Good Friday Experiment, for instance, certainly employed the secondary ritual set-up, but it was used to facilitate a fleeting psychological state for the purpose of study. In the context of Britain, our earlier question might be usefully reframed as: to what extent can a psychedelic drug facilitate a religious life in the user? This question rests of course on understanding what a religious life meant in 1950s Britain, and this in turn raises questions about the ethical and social codes that then governed it.
Anglican Christianity in Britain was going through rapid changes during the mid-20th century. The young were increasingly turning away from its traditional rites of passage and looking to alternative forms of spirituality. Moreover, many of the Church’s previous functions were being secularized. This is no more obvious than in the growth of Pastoral Counselling—a process by which traditional pastoral care duties were medicalized.
One of the leading figures in this process was the Christian psychiatrist Dr Frank Lake. His clinical research, which widely employed LSD in a religious-medical context, reveals much about this transformative period in the Anglican Church, along with the concurrent shifts in acceptable morality in contemporary Britain.
Frank Lake medically trained at Edinburgh University during the 1930s where he also joined the Church Missionary Society (CMS). This dual commitment to medicine and Christianity animated his career thereafter. After spending over a decade as a medical missionary in Vellore, India, where he helped Dr Florence Nichols set up a psychiatric unit, the CMS suggested Lake retrain, so he enrolled at the University of Leeds for a Diploma in Psychological Medicine.
Inspired by Dr Ronald Sandison’s work, Lake began utilising LSD as an abreactive agent in 1955 to recover subconscious psychic content in patients. He followed the work of Austrian psychotherapist Otto Rank, and believed that abreactions were rooted in birth and early life trauma. Crucially, however, his experiments with LSD were simultaneously geared around religiously-orientated outcomes. As a Christian and psychiatrist, he later wrote, ‘I have always considered my task was to proclaim the Cross of Christ, the Son of God.’
One might have expected Lake to take an interest in experimental mysticism, but when he did consider mystical-type claims, he argued that they instead signified the accuracy of his abreaction theory, i.e. that a beatific LSD experience was in fact an abreaction to early life:
The recall of experiences of babyhood under LSD shows that the sense of beatitude is strongest in these early months of sheer maternal benevolence and care. Nothing in the whole universe subsequently gives the human being such spontaneous ground for praising God for what He has ‘ordained for babes and sucklings’.
Lake himself claimed to have had precisely this type of experience on his first occasion of trying LSD, noting, ‘This is life by identification with the sources of life itself, without boundaries to the ego, without limitation or frustration’. His concern therefore, just like Zaehner, was ultimately with facilitating the religious life of individuals through Christian values—LSD, and his psychiatric method, was a tool for achieving this.
Using his clinical insights from LSD research, Lake developed a seminar series titled ‘Clinical Theology’ (CT) in 1958, which over the following decade attracted well over 5000 people, both clergy and Christian laity. The series involved a three hour seminar, every three weeks, for two years, and those who successfully completed it then became tutors in their own localities. As a result of its success, the Clinical Theology Association (CTA) was founded in 1962, which provided resources for numerous dioceses and colleges, aided by Lake’s magnum opus Clinical Theology (1966).
Clinical Theology is a sprawling work of over 1000 pages that contains Lake’s idiosyncratic pastoral counselling system. It divides conditions into three basic types or patterns: the hystero-schizoid, the paranoid, and the depressive. These are related to particular forms of birth and early trauma, and interpreted through the orthodox doctrine of the Holy Trinity as being the ‘family life’ that grounds all human relationships.
CT certainly received criticism from both Christian and psychiatric quarters throughout the Sixties, but its popularity demonstrated a desire within the Church to modernise its pastoral care methods. Upon opening the first CTA centre in Nottingham, for instance, the Bishop of Edinburgh warned clergymen not to become amateur psychiatrists and neglect their ministerial duties’ nonetheless, he added that ‘the dangers are as nothing to the opportunities.’
While LSD was not used in CT meetings (as far as I know!), Lake continued to use the drug in his own clinical research to develop his methods, and the patients in these were usually Christian laity or clergyman—some of whom may have also taken part in the CT seminars. The context of the LSD sessions was framed using Christian ritual, i.e. in secondary religious experience, and thus Lake applied Christian goals and frameworks alongside therapeutic methods of analysis.
Sessions often began ‘with the peace of God, fortified by every resource of Christian faith, by prayer, and at times by sacramental acts should the patient and his pastor desire them’. For Lake, his stated goal of ‘Christ realisation’ in patients was not about mystical transcendence, but geared around a personal adjustment to moral and social orthodoxies. And this is where contemporary cultural changes in Britain are most clearly articulated in his writings and practice.
One aspect of Lake’s work was in treating what he believed to be certain problematic sexual behaviours, such as homosexuality, which remained illegal in Britain at the time. Indeed, he provides a whole chapter on the topic in Clinical Theology, stating that he started this form of treatment alongside his exploration of LSD in 1955. Justifying the need in the context of his own work, Lake also claimed that there existed a higher ratio of homosexuality among clergymen compared to the general population.
On the surface, therefore, Lake’s work revolved around maintaining the predominant, socially conservative view of Establishment Britain in the mid-1950s—something one might expect given the context. Yet, it also reflected a period in which there was beginning to be a cultural and political shift in moral, and particularly sexual, social codes of behaviour—a period in which medicalization bridged a gap between criminalization and liberalization.
During this time, homosexuality was increasingly understood as the private concern of individuals, and not of the State’s. Indeed, the Church of England supported the government-commissioned Wolfenden Report (1957) which was the first step in law reform, and continued to do so throughout the Fifties and Sixties. Lake’s work, whilst obviously abhorrent to today’s liberal sensibilities, is indicative of the early phases of this shift. His patients were not, so far as he was concerned, criminal.
Pastoral counselling, such as Lake’s CT, points towards the fact that practices associated with secondary religious experiences were shifting not only into a secular and medical context, but also an increasingly liberal one. Metaphorically at least, LSD is a lens that reveals this process. As a tool, however, what precisely LSD might have meant for the Church in an ethically more liberal era of pastoral counselling and sexual morality was curtailed by a new moral panic: drugs.
Lake was caught up in the LSD media storm of the late Sixties. In February 1967, The People published an expose in response to comments made by one Rev Wilfred Wilkinson in an unspecified church journal. Wilkinson was a curate at St Mary’s church in Clifton, near Nottingham, who had received hundreds of hours of LSD trips with Frank Lake. The article also claimed that 50 parsons, apparently without mental health issues, had also received acid care.
The non-medical use of the drug had apparently been kept a secret, as according to Lake, ‘There are so many stuffy people about and it would be damaging for a vicar to admit that he has taken psychiatric treatment with the use of L.S.D.’. The paper was indignant, equating this with recreational LSD use, and Lake was forced to defend himself. Writing that the role of LSD abreaction was to reveal painful memories, Lake revealingly added that,
this therapeutic resource from the Word of God, first taken into account in the exigencies of the abreactive session, has since proved equally valid outside this special therapeutic setting.
Curiously, and likely signifying the changing times, Lake believed that LSD had a religious value that lay beyond the medical orthodoxy of psychiatry. As the cultural revolution took place in Britain, the nature of the secondary religious experience of LSD might have similarly transformed. However, Lake gave up employing it soon after the controversy, so how this might have manifested must of course be left to counterfactuals.
Reflecting on today’s renaissance, it is perhaps worth considering what moral orthodoxies new psychedelic therapies are concerned with. They do, of course, continue to bare some resemblance to aspects of the secondary religious experience—a type of secular pastoral care in the 21st century.
Lake’s research shows that when one considers the ethics of psychedelic therapy, one is also considering what values we wish to share as a culture—values which ultimately frame the long term benefits, or otherwise, of primary religious experiences in society.