Founder of the Clinical Theology Association

Dr Frank Lake

Frank Lake, M.B., M.R.C. Psych., D.P.M., was one of the pioneers of Pastoral Counselling in the U.K. He founded the Clinical Theology Association in 1962 and remained its guiding spirit up until his death in 1982. Its primary aim was to make clergy more effective in bringing the healing power of the gospel to bear on troubled minds, by helping them to understand and accept the psychological origins of their parishioners' personal difficulties.

However, the training seminars in pastoral counselling, which he began in 1958, eventually enlisted professional and lay people in various fields, of both sexes, and of every denomination. Many thousands of people have passed through the seminars.

Dr Lake was born on 6 June 1914 in Aughton, in Lancashire. His parents had deep roots in the Parish, where his father, John, a stockbroker in Liverpool, was organist and choirmaster. His mother, Mary, had trained as a teacher. Frank was the eldest of three sons. He studied medicine at Edinburgh University, graduating with diplomas in medicine and surgery in 1937. Having long been attracted to missionary work, he then trained in parasitology at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine before taking up an appointment with C.M.S. to serve in India. As World War 2 went on, he was recruited into the Indian Medical Service, from which he emerged with the rank of lieutenant-colonel in 1945. His fiancée, Sylvia Smith, joined him in 1944, and they were married in Poona, where the eldest of their three children, David, was born.

In 1946 Frank was posted to the parasitology department of the Vellore Medical Centre. Dr Lake's momentous change of direction — from parasitology to psychiatry — came about after he was appointed Superintendent of the Medical College in Madras. In the course of setting up a psychiatric unit there, he became concerned with what he called 'a variety of imponderable emotional factors which I had never been taught to think about seriously before'. Following his next furlough in England, in the early fifties, he undertook re-training as a psychiatrist, first at The Lawn, Lincoln, then at Scalebor Park Hospital in Burley, Yorkshire. His allegiance was to the 'Object-Relations' school of thinking, which considered the development of good human relationships the lynch-pin of mental health.

Dr Lake's commitment was absolute, but various factors militated against a return to the mission field. Among these were his own mission to serve the home church as, over seven years of training and practice, he discovered the extent of emotional problems among the clergy, who did not appeal for psychiatric help at that time except in complete desperation. Their own limitations, combined with a lack of proper preparation in the seminaries, meant that many pastors were ill equipped to listen to the deepest concerns of their parishioners. In his text, Clinical Theology, published in 1966, Frank Lake defined his subject as theology rooted in the love and power of God but 'meticulously observant of the sound practice of psychiatry and psychotherapy'. His book was the foundation for the seminars offered in eleven diocesan centres by Lake and his team of pastors and psychiatrists in 1958.

The then Bishop of Bradford, Donald Coggan, later Archbishop of Canterbury, had given them his blessing. For many clergymen who attended them they were little short of life changing. It is not easy to describe, almost half a century later, the sense of liberation and excitement many of those early seminar members experienced, though it has been echoed by many others over the years. Those striving for perfection — or at least the appearance of perfection — in their lives and character, and inevitably failing, found themselves totally accepted. Frank Lake exposed the over-zealous attempt to win approval from God as less a virtue than a neurotic symptom. He had no use for what he called 'the hardening of the oughteries'. Pastors assuming that they had come to learn how to minister to others began to understand, accept and minister to themselves.

What was unique about the Clinical Theology Seminars? Frank Lake had chosen for his model of mental health and normality Jesus Christ himself. The Gospels, notably St John's Gospel, portray Jesus as having a secure sense of identity, rooted in God the Father, the source of his being. When days spent in ministering to the sick, sinful and sorrowful depleted him of resources, he withdrew from the crowds to rest and seek new power through prayer. It was out of this picture that Dr Lake evolved one of the most enduring and flexible of his teaching tools — the Dynamic Cycle.

The Dynamic Cycle charts the process by which a child acquires its sense of being from the love and nourishment provided within its immediate family; then how it is sustained and nurtured so as to be able to overcome the stumbling blocks on the way to adulthood. If all goes well, the adult arrives with a sense of identity and status, in good relationship with others, enabling him or her to lead a productive life and achieve personal goals. However, the stumbling blocks are many. The intricate charts, which accompany the written teaching material, demonstrate graphically how failures at various points in the cycle may affect the developing psyche.

There was also the experiential nature of the seminars, which homed in on real problems and involved every one of the seminar members. The confidentiality of the groups made such sharing possible and bound members together. In addition to these factors, there was Dr Lake's dramatic depiction of personality patterns like the schizoid position, which leads to withdrawal from, rather than attraction to, intimate personal relationships.

From the beginning, the ideas embodied in Clinical Theology sparked controversy. At the same time they were warmly welcomed by those who tested them in practice. Frank Lake himself — a slight, modest figure in half-moon spectacles — was an inspiring lecturer and facilitator of groups, much in demand at home and abroad. From his headquarters in Nottingham, he saw individual patients, lectured to seminarians, engaged in tutor-training sessions, and mounted workshops in various aspects of counselling and group facilitation. At annual conferences he introduced new ideas and eminent speakers from abroad, mainly the U.S.A. His outlook was extremely eclectic. The theories of people like Carl Rogers (non-directive counselling), Eric Berne (transactional analysis) and Fritz Perls (gestalt therapy), and many others, became integral to the seminars. It was a fertile period for new approaches to counselling.

Meanwhile, Dr Lake was pursuing his own researches. In his early days in psychiatric practice, he used carefully controlled doses of LSD to assist patients in retrieving past memories and became convinced that the experience of birth was crucial to the defence patterns that people establish in order to ward off mental pain. He soon learned how to retrieve these 'memories' — if that was what they were — even without the use of LSD. And there appeared evidence of pre-birth memories as well, particularly of pain transmitted from the mother. In 1981 he described what he called 'the Maternal-Foetal Distress Syndrome' in his second book, Tight Corners in Pastoral Counselling. By the time of his death he was investigating what effect external events might have on the foetus even as far back as its first trimester in the womb.

Frank Lake's restless enthusiasm for new ideas — his own and those of others — did not win him complete acceptance in either religious or psychiatric circles, but he had such devoted adherents in both that the demand for the seminars he had established continued after his death in 1982. The Clinical Theology Association was at first cautious about following its founder into uncharted territory, but has remained faithful to his vision of the counsellor as listener, the mainly silent 'witness to the presence of Christ at the depths of mental pain'. Under its new name, The Bridge Pastoral Foundation, it offers training seminars, experiential workshops, books and tapes that help to carry on his pioneering work.