What to do about Drinking and the Church

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one: what’s the difference between a Baptist and an Episcopalian?


An Episcopalian will talk to you in the ABC store.

There are others—the thing about Episcopalians and how where there’s a fourth, there’s always a fifth. Or the joke about how we’d be better off calling ourselves “Whiskeypalians.”

While the national church has always taken a liberal view on alcohol consumption, that tone changed over the course of this summer’s General Convention in Salt Lake City. The House of Bishops on July 1 passed three resolutions, one with an amendment, on the issues of alcohol and drug abuse.

A Preventable Tragedy

The church’s worst fears about its reputation around alcohol came to a tragic head in December 2014.

Two days after Christmas, Heather Elizabeth Cook, the now-former Bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Maryland, slipped behind the wheel of her car.

She had been drinking.

Making matters worse, Cook began texting on her cell phone as she drove that day. She swerved across her lane and into the bicycle lane. Then, tragedy: Cook struck a bicyclist, Thomas Palermo, a 41 year-old father of two, throwing him into her car’s windshield. The crash claimed Palermo’s life.

Cook left the scene but later returned; she was arrested and is currently out on bond after having been charged on 13 counts, including manslaughter.

Tragically, this wasn’t Cook’s first time in court after driving drunk. In 2010, after noticing Cook driving on flat tires on the shoulder of a highway, a Maryland sheriff’s deputy arrested her for driving with a 0.27 blood alcohol content level—more than three times the state’s legal limit. Reports around whether or not Cook disclosed her drinking problem when she was elected to serve as a Bishop in Maryland are mixed; some say they knew of her 2010 arrest, while others say they were unaware when they voted to approve her.

On the day of the deadly accident in 2014, Cook’s blood alcohol content measured 0.22. The Diocese of Maryland accepted her resignation; the national Episcopal Church later defrocked her, removing her ordination as a priest or bishop.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported in 2012 that 17 million American adults had an alcohol use disorder and that nearly 1.5 million received treatment for their addiction at a specialized facility. Roughly one in ten children lives with an alcoholic parent.

In a society that clearly embraces alcohol—watch television long enough and take note of how many beer commercials you run across—how can the church make peace with the tragedy in Maryland? And how can we do that  without entirely alienating its congregation?


House of Bishops Approves Resolutions

“I’m Mark and I’m an alcoholic,” said Bishop Mark Hollingsworth of Ohio, chair of the Legislative Committee on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, as he introduced the resolutions to the House of Bishops and acknowledged his own journey of addiction and recovery. Hollingsworth said that the committee represented “hundreds of years of sobriety and recovery.”

Overall, the General Convention passed three resolutions: the first recommends ordinands should be questioned at the very beginning of the discernment process about addiction and substance use in their lives and family systems. The second, Resolution A159, acknowledges the church’s role in the culture of alcohol and drug abuse. Hollingsworth said A159 is intended to give direction in how the church can move forward in owning that reality of complicity and in healing.

The third measure, Resolution A158, will create a task force to review and revise policy on substance abuse, addiction and recovery; it passed with one amendment. The amendment asks that when offering the sacrament, a nonalcoholic wine be provided. The original resolution had suggested a nonalcoholic alternative, but did not specify that it be wine.


Deputies examine ‘unhealthy and unholy’ relationship
A day earlier, deputies had overwhelmingly supported the resolutions, asserting the time has come to transform the church’s “unhealthy and unholy relationship” with alcohol and addiction.

“We must redefine the norm,” said the Rev. Kevin Cross, a deputy from Easton, Maryland.

Deputy Mary June Nestler of Utah said that alcohol topped the list of diocesan inquiries during preparation for General Convention.

“The No. 1 question that came into our offices went like this: Can we get a drink in Utah? Will we be allowed to drink in our hotel rooms? Can our group hold an evening meeting and serve alcohol? Can I bring alcohol in from other states?’

“We must address this in our corporate culture.”


Courage to change the things we can

Paraphrasing the prayer popularized by recovery ministries, Deputy Scott Slater of Maryland, told his fellow deputies earlier this year: “I ask God to grant me the serenity to accept legislative actions I cannot change. I pray that we as a church will have the courage to change the things we can.”

Slater, a member of diocesan staff, said former Suffragan Bishop Heather Cook’s drunken driving arrest for manslaughter “has shaken so many of us, and we have yearned for our denomination to take a hard look at this issue.”

The presiding officers created Legislative Committee 22 on Alcohol and Drug to do just that, and “there was a clear charge to us to conduct our work with compassion for all affected by the devastating effects of alcohol misuse and addiction,” said deputy Steven Thomason of Olympia, a co-chair.

“Many members of the committee and several who testified in our hearings shared their experiences with alcohol. Many shared their shameful experiences of the church’s complicity in a culture of alcohol,” he said. “Some have even felt unwelcomed or stigmatized by the church simply because they are in recovery.”

The Rev. Steve Lane, treasurer of Recovery Ministries of The Episcopal Church, was stationed at a booth during General Convention and said he is excited to see the church finally beginning to face the challenges of addiction.

“Addiction is rampant in every congregation in our church, I believe, in one form or another,” he told the Episcopal News Service.

“The best known solution for it is a spiritual one, but our church needs to be aware of it and see our own shortcomings and be aware of our own failures first before we can reach out and help others.”

Retired Bishop Chilton Knudsen of Maine, who will begin assisting in the Maryland diocese in October, is a recovering alcoholic, an experience that is central to her ministry, she told ENS recently.

“When the case in Maryland happened, my heart broke, as everybody’s did,” she said. “There’s some good leadership in Maryland, and good recovery, and those folks are part of the forward movement in the diocese.”

Advocating abstinence is not the answer—training is, she said, and understanding addiction not as a moral issue but as a health issue. “Many denominations that do advocate abstinence have the same rate of alcoholism as we do.”

Rather, she is advocating for a sense of “intentional awareness that some people are at risk, and to make our social life so hospitable that it’s not weird or strange if you decline to drink.”

Updated policies and training for seminarians and communities of faith are needed “the way we make anti-racism training mandatory, the way we make sexual misconduct training mandatory,” Knudsen said.

Otherwise, “the church can be helpful, or can really help foster somebody’s denial or support their being sick for awhile.”

And finally, she said, becoming healthy requires telling the truth about who we are and requires telling our stories. “The tragedy in Maryland presents us with an opportunity,” she said.

Deputy Doris Westfall of Missouri agreed. “The church holds out the hope of living into recovery, which is no less than resurrection,” she said.

When urging adoption of Resolution A159, Westfall said: “This resolution also recognizes that addiction is a complex disease, that it needs to be treated in its totality and with all the support and love that we can muster as the people of God.” — With contributions from James Hogan and The Rev. Pat McCaughan and Matthew Davies of the Episcopal News Service





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