Psychedelic Christian Worship
Psychedelic Christian Worship — thecages: “But it blows my mind that this state, an explosion of the mind, is what these albums emphasise of the worship experience. What’s important here is not the presence of God, but the worshiper’s own glowing mind.”
This post interested me for two reasons.
One was the title, “psychedelic Christian worship”. That interested me because nearly 40 years ago I was fired by the then Anglican Bishop of Natal, Vernon Inman, for my part in organising what was described as a “psychedelic service” in St Columba’s Anglican Church in Greenwood Park, Durban.
The second reason was that it highlighted the widely divergent meanings of the word “worship” among Christians of different backgrounds and traditions.
I suppose I first became aware of the divergence when I visited one of those new hypermarket consumer churches that have now become so common, Christian City at Elandsfontein near Germiston. After a period of rather loud singing the cheerleader said, “Now THAT’S worship!” And I wondered , “What’s worship”? It didn’t strike me as particularly worshipful. It was just loud singing with an even louder accompaniment.
And the post quoted above in thecages puts a finger on this changed meaning: What’s important here is not the presence of God, but the worshiper’s own glowing mind.
And this meaning has to be taken into account when adherents of hypermarket churches use terms like “worship leader” or “worship service” or “time of worship”. The last one gives the clue, because it exposes the underlying assumption that if there is a “time of worship” there is also a time of non-worship.
The “psychedelic service” at Greenwood Park was a somewhat different thing. It was planned by an ecumenical youth group linked to the Christian Institute, some of whom were members of the parish of Greenwood Park. After firing me the Anglican Bishop of Natal preached in the church the following Sunday, and told the congregation that their church had been “profaned” by what we had done.
What had we done?
As I wrote in my journal for 1 June 1969:
The service started a bit late, because we did not want to start before everyone was in. Martin Goulding and Geoff Moorgas then played “Lead kindly light” as a violin and cello duet, sitting in the vestry, while the church was in darkness. Then I shouted “let there be light” and played “Doctor Do-good” by the Electric Prunes at full volume while Sue Abbott at the back of the church flashed the lights on and off in time to the beat. Then we had lessons and hymns alternating – Genesis 1, the creation and separation of light and darkness, and then sang “Thou whose almighty word”. Then another reading “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light” and we sang “Oh freedom”. Then another lesson, from John’s gospel “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”, and we sang “We shall overcome”. And then from 1 Peter, “… a holy nation, a royal priesthood, led out of darkness into his marvellous light” and then Revelation 21 and 22 – the new Jerusalem, where there is no need for sun or moon, because Christ himself is the light of his people, and sang “Lights above, celestial Salem”. Then we had the offering, and passed round a collection plate filled with half cents and asked people to take some, saying that it was to remind us that we could give nothing to God, because everything we gave to him we first received from him.
Dick Usher read a litany while Martin Goulding projected slides showing light sources. Then Colin Butler, dressed as a night watchman in army greatcoat and Basotho hat, sitting in front of a brazier, about to begin his soliloquy about being all alone in the darkness when the band cut in and all sang “This little light of mine”, while members of the congregation came up and lit tapers or sparklers. Then we began singing “Lord of the dance”, but after three verses Geoff stopped it and said “Come on everybody, don’t just sit there, stand up and sing it with everything you’ve got.” Now they all stood up and sang it, better this time, with Roy Holden and Mervin Josie clapping from the back of the church. We sang it through a couple more times and then stopped. Nobody moved.
I asked “Do you want to sing it again?” “Yes” they all shouted. So we sang it several more times, and this time people moved out of their pews and moved round the church, dancing and singing, until everyone moved out, except for Mitch Lewis, one of the churchwardens, and some aunties at the back. Eventually they all danced out into the street, and it ended there, with people still holding lighted tapers, and all happy and smiling and excited. I have never seen such happy and smiling people coming out of church before.
Howard Trumbull shouted “Alleluia! Praise the Lord! It was great”, and several other people came and said similar things to us. I went back into to the church to try and get things straightened out, and then Mitch Lewis and Tom Abrahams, the churchwardens, asked me to go to the Vestry and said they didn’t want to do another service next week because many people had been offended by this one. I doubted very much that many people had been offended, because most of them looked so happy, but said if that was the case, probably the best thing to do would be to arrange a meeting later in the week and try to sort it out, and we could explain what we had been trying to do. Dick Usher was supposed to have come to the morning service to explain to the congregation what was going to happen in the evening, but he had overslept, and I apologized to them for that. Afterwards we went to have tea in the crypt and discussed it with some of the parishioners who were anti. One of them said he thought church services should be quiet, and this one was too loud – after all, Jesus never raised his voice. Martin Goulding muttered that he just overturned a few tables when he wanted to emphasize a point. Later we went to Geoff’s house, but Dick Usher and Sue Abbott didn’t come. Sue was in tears, having been attacked by a subdeacon called Dennis Pennington, who, I gather, is the big wheel of the parish. We thought that the service was great. Geoff said he had had doubts about it before, but the proof of the pudding was in the eating, and it made very good eating indeed.
It wasn’t really “psychedelic”, though in those days anything with bright colours, loud music and flashing lights was often called “psychedelic”. It was also ironic that within a few years the hymn Lord of the dance, which the Bishop of Natal had described as “blasphemy and profanity” became one of the most popular hymns sung at school assemblies in the UK.
Why did we do it?
I can’t speak for the others who took part in the planning and leading of the service, but were several things that had influenced me:
- An experimental drama festival at Durham University in June 1968
- Reading the works of Marshall McLuhan
- A seminar on Orthodox worship for non-Orthodox theological students held at Bossey, Switzerland in April 1968, followed by Holy Week and Easter services at St Sergius in Paris
- Talking to Walter Hollenweger about liturgy and worship at the World Council of Churches headquarters in Geneva
For me it was an attempt to make worship more “holistic”. Western Protestant worship at that time seemed to me to be too didactic and primarily verbal. Anglican services compiled at the time of the Reformation (and largely still in use) had been designed with the primary purpose of edification.
The drama festival at Durham (where I was then studying) attracted people from all over Britain, and several of them had been influenced by Marshall McLuhan, with his idea of “the medium is the message”. While attending the seminar on Orthodox theology and worship at Bossey, a friend and I had taken the train to Geneva to talk to Walter Hollenweger, then on the staff of the World Council of Churches. He said that if we wanted to learn about liturgy, we should look at journalists.
And Orthodox worship seemed more holistic, and not entirely verbal. The Holy Week and Easter services made a deep impression on my, especially the way that words and actions were integrated, for example in the Easter kiss followed by the reading of the Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostom.
So in this so-called “psychedelic service” we were striving for something that would be more symbolic, and less verbally didactic, something more holistic, involving all the senses.
Looking back on it now, I see that we were still quite a long way off the mark. Whatever it was, it still was not really worship. It was more like theatre, and still didactic. The aim of it ultimately boiled down to giving the congregation a learning experience, even if it was a multimedia experience rather than a purely verbal harangue. In that sense, it was still directed at altering the minds of the congregation rather than worshipping God. We were didactic, in that we were trying to teach the congregation about worship, rather than actually worshipping.
The week after the “psychedelic” service most of the Anglicans in our group, annoyed at the reaction of the Bishop of Natal, went to the Divine Liturgy at the local Orthodox Church. The priest welcomed us publicly. He had read all about the controversy in the newspapers, and was sympathetic.
But it still took me a few more years to realise that real worship was liturgy, the work (or service) of the people. It was not primarily theatre, and nor was it primarily didactic. Worship was not to be directed at the minds of the congregation, but at God.