Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Rev: Part 2


(Part 2 of 2) by Jim and Lisa Gilbert

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

By 1964, after having been minister at the former Park Street United Church in Chatham for four rather tumultuous years, Reverend Russell Horsburgh had accomplished an amazing number of things.

He had established a program entitled "Youth Anonymous" that was designed to provide guidance for wayward youth, had designed a number of programs for the youth in the community that were designed to get them off the street and onto church property. Basketball games, dances, counseling services and the establishment of an unofficial "drop-in center" at the church occupied much of his time and made him a popular figure with the young. In fact, the famous Canadian actor Cedric Smith was taken under the wing of Horsburgh and given his first form of employment in Chatham thanks to Horsburgh.

The adults within the community benefited from his ecumenical approach to Sunday night lectures (invited rabbis, priests and representatives from other faiths to speak) as well as the bringing in of noted politicians (Lester B. Pearson) and artists (Virgil Fox and Miriam Anderson).

On the surface, one might imagine that the parishioners at Park Street United Church would have been overjoyed and would have been extremely supportive of their innovative, outgoing, charismatic minister and many in the church were very supportive. However, there was a darker side to both "the Rev" as well as to some church members.

Reverend Russell Horsburgh was the first to admit that he was not everyone's "cup of tea". He once described himself as being "impatient, uptight, demanding and having every ugly virtue possible". Others described him as being impulsive, headstrong, unlikable, chauvinistic, demanding, and media loving.

Some members of the church felt that he was "too big for his britches" and that he tended to "run rough shod" over the wishes of the congregation. He was not one to ask for permission or to follow long held protocol. He simply did and then dealt with the consequences. He was thought by some to not be a team player and some simply were jealous of the attention he received and how he was revolutionizing their church by opening it up to people from all classes and racial backgrounds. Some complained that their closely-knit church was becoming a "church of strangers". Clearly, there was a tension bubbling close to the surface that, in retrospect, was obviously destined to explode at some point.

The breaking point came in a cataclysmic, earth shaking moment in 1964 when Reverend Russell Horsburgh was formally charged (based on revelations by a few minors in the church) with "contributing to juvenile delinquency in his church" by knowingly allowing, permitting and possibly encouraging underage teens to engage in sexual activities on church property.

Although in 2008, these charges would seem rather trite and suspicious (considering all the other sexual offences allegedly committed by clergy since that time), the atmosphere that prevailed in 1964 made these charges front-page news across Canada and outraged religious groups, parental organizations and the general public.

The trial became a virtual witch-hunt that resulted in eighty hours of testimony by some pretty confused, frightened and scared teens. If you think sex sells to day, you can imagine what it did in the early 1960s. The fact that the testimony came from unidentified minors and told in rather circumspect ways served to make the accusations even more sinister, mysterious and licentious.

The court proceedings found Reverend Russell Horsburgh guilty of five of the eight counts of contributing to juvenile delinquency and he was sentenced to a year in prison. Although he served only 107 days of his sentence, his real punishment was that he was forced to resign as a minister in the United Church and for a time was relegated to working as a parking lot attendant in Toronto.

In 1967 the Supreme Court of Canada ordered a new trial for Horsburgh and in this trial three of the five original charges were dropped and he was acquitted of the other two. However, it was too little and it came too late for the once so confident minister. By 1967, he was a broken man who only wanted to clear his name.

By 1971 a partial victory came for Reverend Horsburgh when he was fully reinstated as a minister in the United Church. By this time, however, he was in the final stages of bone cancer and when a testimonial dinner was held at the Pyranon Ballroom (site of Rona Cashway Building Centre on Colborne Street to-day) in July of 1971, he was no longer the Horsburgh that once was. At that dinner, tragically, no young people were present and church officials (locally and nationally) were notably absent. The 170 people that were there however tried to make things right and tried to rally their fallen, broken friend and hero but it was to no avail.

Confined to a wheel chair, this man who seemed once, to have been larger than life and unable to be confined by anyone or anything, was a pitiful vision of his former self. Those who attended that dinner in Chatham and remembered him as he was a few short years before must have quietly shed a tear or two or felt intense anger well up within their hearts. However, it was too late for anger and there would be many more tears shed a few months later when Reverend Russell Horsburgh slipped from this life into the next in October of 1971.

He was cremated and buried in a plain tin box under the floor of Zion United Church in Hamilton, Ontario.

Do I feel he was mistreated and maligned? I do. Do I feel he was a tragic figure? I do. In fact, he could be described as a true Shakespearean hero in the fact that a tragic flaw within himself helped to bring about his own downfall. Do I feel that he knew there was some sexual activity going on in the church? Yes, I think he did and he either chose to ignore it or he was so absolutely naive that he did not truly grasp the danger inherent in his quiet acquiescence.

Do I blame the people in Chatham of the time and particularly those church members at Park Street United Church? I have mixed feelings about that. I would venture that some felt that they were doing the correct, moral thing for the time while I also venture that some were attempting to "put Horsburgh in his place" and "teach him a lesson" not realizing how devastating and tragic an end would result. In short, it was a different time and place and who knows how any of us would have reacted facing a similar crisis. After all, by 1964, it must have appeared to many parents that the sex, drugs and rock and roll revolution was swiftly approaching and all of their children were in dire danger.

A play was written about Horsburgh's time in Chatham (as well as two other books, a record album and countless newspaper and magazine articles) by respected Canadian playwright Betty Jane Wylie in 1981. Considering that the former Park Street United Church is now in private hands (the Chute Family), I wonder if it is time to finally stage this play within the church that spawned this huge controversy?

Personally, I think that it would be rather compelling, enticingly appropriate and more than a little spooky!

I am quite sure that it has never been staged anywhere in Chatham-Kent and it might just be a final fitting tribute to a man who has been described as "a bundle of contradictions, caught up in the furies of the sixties". 

Jim and Lisa Gilbert are local, national and international award winning educators and historians.


Postscript. Though the Gilberts have a right to their opinion based on what they were able to piece together about Horsburgh, the fact remains that they were not there when it happened.  Public opinion eventually swung back in Horsburgh's favor, but my own view is that it swung too far.

I was ten years old when Horsburgh was removed from Park Street United Church. I remember a belligerent, browbeating figure literally pounding the pulpit as he harangued his astonished congregation about their unforgiveable rigidity and ignorance.

I remember three very drunken teenage boys hanging around outside the church late one evening,  guffawing and slurring, "Hey, where's the Rev?"

I remember my father's best friend saying, "he's a psychopath," though at the time I didn't know what that meant.

I remember my mother, the least-gossipy person I knew, whispering to someone, "You know, they found empty liquor bottles in the church basement. And worse."

I remember a church bulletin that had an entire page bizarrely x-ed out. When my older brother held it up to the light, he saw that it contained a fulminating rant aimed directly at the ignorant fools of Park Street United, ending with a famous quote: “You ungrateful people should be ashamed of yourselves. . . . I am sorry I ever freed you from the tyrants and the papists. You ungrateful beasts, you are not worthy of the treasure of the gospel. If you don’t improve, I will stop preaching rather than cast pearls before swine.”

It was signed:

Martin Luther
Russell Horsburgh

Rev. Russell Horsburgh: what I didn't know


The Controversy over Reverend Russell Horsburgh Continues After Almost Half a Century

The following article by Jim and Lisa Gilbert (part one of two) outlines in vivid detail the strange, turbulent, ultimately self-destructive reign of a United Church minister in a sleepy Ontario town. It was the early `60s, and I dutifully went to Sunday School at Park Street United every week, but in between the services there were whisperings that something terrible was happening with the minister. Though I barely understood what was going on, the episode, and my family`s subsequent flight to a rigidly fundamentalist Baptist church, left indelible scars on me. Years later when my church in Coquitlam hired a fraud who had to be dismissed  from the pulpit, anguish bubbled up from those buried memories, made worse by confusing, fragmentary information and the poisonous fear that comes from not knowing. A few years ago I tried to google Horsburgh and came up with exactly nothing, so these two articles from 2008 were a revelation to me. I reproduce them here out of gratitude that someone finally made an attempt to make some sense of "the Horsburgh affair". They filled in many informational gaps, while at the same time leaving out a lot of emotional context that could only be experienced by someone who was there. Though I do not agree with all of their conclusions, I am grateful to Jim and Lisa Gilbert for clearing out some of the cobwebs from a dark, scary, and extremely traumatic episode from my childhood.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

I felt that I might bump into him around the very next corner. His larger-than-life presence drifted in and out of my possibly overactive mind. Whispered teenage voices seemed to be almost audible amidst the quiet of the once former church. There were muffled giggles, whimpers, hushed outrage and hearty laughs that seemingly emanated from everywhere and yet nowhere. I wandered around the former Park Street United Church trying to visualize a man I had only seen once or twice and a scandal that I, as well as most of Chatham Kent, had largely forgotten.

There's a strange mixture of the holy and the profane that seems to permeate the many rooms of the slightly forlorn former church today. Although it has been almost fifty years since the silver-tongued voice of Reverend Russell Horsburgh mesmerized, mocked and motivated those seated amidst the deep, dark pews and the sacred, stained glass windows, his presence still lurks like a forlorn and forgotten spirit that longs to speak but cannot or....dares not.

The former church was so quiet that I suppose I could have imagined many things and the mere closing of the eyes conjured up a hundred visions and revisions. Sitting in the former sanctuary of the silent structure in 2008, it is possible to imagine a time, some forty eight years ago (1960), when Park Street United Church in Chatham, Ontario was described as a "preacher's church" and the most controversial minister ever to step inside its doors was about to make his appearance.

With its population of over a thousand parishioners Park Street was considered to be the second most powerful church in the London Conference and placement there as a minister was considered to be a "plum job" leading to a promising and powerful future.

When Reverend Russell Horsburgh took over the reins of pastor at Park Street in 1960, President John F. Kennedy was still alive, the Beatles were playing for a few pounds in Liverpool and the distant growing din of a new generation willfully embracing sex, drugs and rock and roll had yet to reach the sensitive ears of those church-going, God fearing, conservative residents of Chatham, Ontario.

If there were whispers of change in the air, they were ignored. Those things happened in Detroit or Toronto but not in the safe, innocent and quiet backwaters of Southwestern Ontario. That, however, was to all change the day Reverend Horsburgh stood up in the pulpit and began, in grand oratorical fashion, to outline his vision of the church's future.

"The Rev", as he soon came to be known by the young and those that admired him, looked at things in Chatham's Park Street Church that never were and instead of simply asking "why", he dared to ask "why not?".

Described by those that knew him, or thought that they knew him, as being impetuous, impulsive, caring, rebellious, creative, maddening, charismatic, contradictory and a hundred other things the new minister wasted little time in "opening up" the church. Park Street United Church was, under his guidance, destined to be open seven days a week. He longed to take the church out into the streets and bring those in the streets into his church.

Between 1960 and 1964 he, amid many other things, launched a teen drop-in center, organized youth basketball nights, set up teenage counseling sessions, arranged group therapy sessions, put a pool table in the church hall, and held regular teen dances on Saturday night.

He also, during those first four years, organized a series of Sunday night lectures where he invited, among many others, a rabbi, a Catholic priest, Lester B. Pearson (whose father had been a former minister at Park Street), Virgil Fox ( the famous church organist) and Marian Anderson (the renowned black opera singer) to speak to anyone who chose to attend. The attendance at these presentations was overwhelming. The church, each Sunday night, was "standing room only" as all residents of Chatham and Kent County, no matter what religion they espoused, were invited to have a glimpse at an exciting outside world that had rarely, in the past, come knocking.

Those concerts were followed up by a series of "sex lectures" that ran from October 20th, 1963 to December 8th, 1963 entitled "The Modern Crisis In Sex Morality". While the world mourned and anguished over the assassination of a progressive young leader who seemed immortal, the charismatic "Rev" was intent on bringing the voice of reason and logic to teenagers, as well as troubled adults, who were woefully ignorant. Ignorant about sexual matters as well as about a world that seemed to be moving much too quickly and losing its innocence on many fronts.

The lectures dealt with such innocuous topics, by to-day's standards at any rate, as "going steady", "petting", "lifting sex out of the gutter" and "date bait" but in the 1960s these topics were perceived, by some in the church, as opening the church doors to sex, drugs, rock and roll and, I suppose, Satan himself.

Thoughts turned to whispers, whispers turned to murmurs and murmurs turned to open dissension out in the pews among some of the conservative members of the congregation. They whispered of a minister who listened to no one, who was an ego maniac, who was much too friendly and way too permissive with their children, who allowed too many strangers (some of them black) into their church and was, like the 1960s in general, moving way too fast.

There were others of course in the church (and well beyond the church doors) who considered Reverend Russell Horsburgh to be a saint who embodied the essence of Christianity and who was attempting to save not only the youth of the church but the very church itself.

The scene was set for one of the most controversial events (up to that time) to occur within Canadian church history. It was to occupy the media across Canada and North America. It was to bring the former City of Chatham much unwanted attention, inspire three books, a play, a record album, destroy a man and create a local controversy so powerful and so divisive that I had to think long and hard about bringing it to light once again.

However, after almost half a century and so many other much more horrendous scandals and crimes allegedly committed by the clergy, I felt that it was time to revisit Reverend Russell Horsburgh and attempt to put the incident into a balanced, objective and modern perspective. I wanted to explain both sides of the issue and try to see the good, the bad and the ugly in this really sad story that hints, in many ways, at an almost Shakespearean tragedy.

Next week......I shall try.

Jim and Lisa Gilbert are local, national and international award winning educators and historians.