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Speaking to the Soul: Alcohol and The Episcopal Church: a time for personal and institutional self-examination

Speaking to the Soul: Alcohol and The Episcopal Church: a time for personal and institutional self-examination

The Rev. David Sellery, who writes our Tuesday reflections on next Sunday’s gospel asked that we publish this essay instead of his this week:

Alcohol and the Episcopal Church: The Maryland Tragedy as a Teaching Moment and as an Occasion for Personal and Institutional Reflection and Self-Examination

This past week as I have read of the death of a Maryland bicyclist in a hit and run accident that involved the Suffragan Bishop of Maryland, who is now indicted for Manslaughter, Leaving the Scene of an Accident, and Driving under the Influence, I have felt the most profound sense of grief and horror.

I confess that I have a fondness for Chardonnay and the occasional glass of Sherry. For many years I have endeavored to consume no hard liquor – though I love Lemon Stoli Vodka, to keep my alcohol consumption moderate, mostly at home, mostly in association with the evening meal, never during the day, rarely with parishioners or at parish social events, and not at a level that will impact my drive home. I know that on occasion I have made compromises with these self-imposed strictures. I know that times of particular stress in ministry have sometimes made me more likely to make those compromises. With respect to alcohol I have long endeavored to pursue a moderate Anglican via media. That said, I recognize that in years past, there were a few occasions when I might have found myself in as much trouble as the Suffragan Bishop of Maryland now finds herself. This thought shakes me to the very core of my being.

I have long been troubled by the number of Episcopalians – clergy, seminarians, and laity – who regularly or occasionally drink to serious levels of excess. I expect most readers of this article can recollect Bishops, Priests, Deacons, Professors, Lay Leaders, Congregants, Family Members, and others whose lives were marred and probably shortened by the excess use or abuse of alcohol. I suspect we all are acquainted those who struggle with being Adult Children of Alcoholics or with serious Co-dependency Issues. I would be remiss if I did not say that dependence on illegal drugs or prescription medications usually echo the negative dynamics of Alcoholism, often coupled with more complex issues of illegality and criminality. Process addictions such as gambling, shopping, credit card use, and a variety of others, also should not be overlooked.

I wish that all of us remembered that the General Convention of the Episcopal Church long ago mandated that if alcohol is served at parish events there MUST BE ATTTRACTIVE ALTERNATIVE BEVERAGES and they do not mean tap water or pink bug juice. In the nineteen years I served on the Faculty of The General Theological Seminary, I often seemed to be the only person in the institution who remembered this mandate. Almost annually there would be one or more events when only wine and sherry, or sometimes even harder stuff, were the only beverages on offer. I would make a fuss each time, and either attractive alternative beverages would be found, or I would go out and buy some and bring them back. This message and this lesson never seemed to stick. My concern caused one of my senior Faculty colleagues to tell anyone who would listen what a shame it was that Professor Doubleday had an alcohol problem – that was how clear his mind was on such occasions.

As a hospital chaplain, I learned how frequently alcohol abuse is a contributor to all sorts of ill health and disease. As a pastor, I often see mental illness and spiritual distress exasperated by alcohol use and abuse, sometimes with individuals unconsciously trying to medicate themselves – ever so ineffectively. There is no doubt in my mind that when I encounter marriages, relationships, or families in trouble, alcohol is more often than not a contributing factor. As a parish priest and sometime consultant, I have been stunned by how many churches still consume alcohol at parish business meetings, such as the Vestry.

As a church historian, I am proud of the role that members of the Episcopal Church – clergy and laity – played in the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve Step Program. I acknowledge how many of our churches were original hosts for their meetings and how many continue to be, often at a very clear financial loss to the parish. But I lament how few of our own members actually attend such meetings and how little the institutional church has to offer to those who do attend those meetings. I regret how few of us have ever sat down with the Twelve Steps and discovered how much they speak – in one way or another – to all our lives, even if alcohol use and abuse is not our issue.

During the twenty-five years I taught Pastoral Care at The General Theological Seminary, and later at Bexley Hall and Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, I always tried to include a unit on Alcohol and Addictions. I was disappointed to see how few students really engaged with the issues, no matter what books I had them read, what speakers I had them hear, or what case studies I had them consider. Periodically I would arrange elective courses on “Alcohol and Addictions” which were taught by skilled clinicians. Alas they were often undersubscribed and sometimes had to be cancelled due to insufficient registrations. I was also troubled by the number of seminarians I knew who arrived at seminary “in recovery” and graduated persuaded that they were really healthy social drinkers. Not a few train wrecks have ensued over the years.

Starting in 2010, I bought numerous copies of So You Think You Don’t Know One? Addiction and Recovery in Clergy and Congregations by Nancy Van Dyke Platt and Bishop Chilton R. Knudsen (Morehouse Press, 2010), and gave them as gifts to all of my seminary students. The book is full of wisdom and superb case studies that are diverse enough to engage almost anyone’s awareness or imagination. These days, I hand out copies to parishioners from time to time as well.

I am convinced that at this tragic time in the life of the Diocese of Maryland, and the Episcopal Church, we are called yet again to come out of the darkness and the silence which still surrounds alcohol and addictions. Perhaps some brave souls will shed their anonymity, though that can be a serious career risk for clergy. Perhaps more of us can raise these concerns in our teaching and preaching. Perhaps we can draw on the expertise of professionals in the fields of alcohol and addictions, some of whom are present in our parishes or communities. In the early days of the AIDS Crisis, the activist group called “Act Up” had the slogan: Silence = Death. Indeed it does!

William A. (Bill) Doubleday was a pioneering Chaplain in the HIV/AIDS Crisis in New York City in the early 1980’s. He was a five-time Deputy to General Convention from the Diocese of New York. After twenty five years as a seminary professor and two years as Interim Dean of Bexley Hall, he is enjoying the challenges of full-time parish ministry as Priest in Charge, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Mount Kisco, NY


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Nancy Bennett

Anyone who gets drunk after a rough week has a potentially serious problem and should absolutely carefully examine their drinking and its role in their life. Because 1) getting drunk is a very serious health issue for many reasons 2) getting drunk in response to stress is a very serious psychological issue for many reasons.

I would say there are, by many orders of magnitude, far more people who have drinking problems who are in denial than people who do not have drinking problems who are unnecessarily worrying that they do.

Nancy Bennett

Michelle, the problem with saying that alcoholics have a disease which causes them to lack willpower is that it becomes a complete truism that is true by definition. Alcoholics are by definition those people who do not drink responsibly, ergo alcoholics lack the willpower to behavior responsibly since otherwise they would (and they wouldn’t be alcoholics).

Why not just say “there are people who behave irresponsibly and irrationally with respect to alcohol and we call those people “alcoholics.”?

I do not blame an alcoholic for struggling with their drinking anymore than I blame a smoker for their addiction because I understand how powerfully they are addicted. But smokers know that it’s not allowed to smoke in buildings and they go and stand out in the snow or rain or whatever to get their fix. So they have the “willpower” to smoke when and where they’re allowed to, even if they (by definition) don’t have the willpower to stop. And alcoholics know that it’s illegal to drive under the influence and some people are alcoholics for decades and aren’t driving under the influence. Further, anybody who is texting while driving has almost certainly made a regular practice of doing so and has not just, while under the influence, made a sudden “disease-driven” irresponsible decision to do so. Unless you want to give the alcoholic a total free pass that due to their “willpower” disease they are not responsible for any bad act.

People struggle with all kinds of problems. I understand that. But we don’t call pedophilia, for example, a disease of “willpower” even though all the evidence suggests that it’s at least as intractable as alcoholism.

David Streever

I wonder if our short patience, as a society, for alcoholism is part of why alcoholics have more of these problems? The fact that we, as a society, are so prone to navel-gazing on alcoholism (versus smoking or other problems) seems to encourage secrecy in the sufferers.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone who rarely drinks normally express uncertainty that they may be an alcohol, because they got drunk with their friends on a Saturday night after a rough week. It’s a weird set of kind of hyper-examined and hyper-judged behaviors, which I think is probably unhelpful for people who struggle with alcohol.

Brad Howard

Alcohol did not cause the accident. The irresponsible use of alcohol caused the accident. I think it’s important that we remember that.

Michelle Schwab

I agree but I’m not sure ‘irresponsible’ captures it accurately as it may suggest the problem is an absence of willpower. Untreated alcoholism caused the accident. The Bishop has a disease which, if untreated, eliminates her capacity to behave responsibly or rationally when it comes to alcohol use or self assessment of impairment. Nonalcoholics can usually exercise choice to drink responsibly.

Laura Ellen

Reading this article and the thoughtful responses to it gives me hope for TEC. That hope, for me, lies in the recovery community where it seems there is still integrity and honesty.

Robbin Laddd

Thirty-years sober and it changed my life. But it didn’t make me
smart. Recently while taking pain medication for knee replacement operation, I drove my car. Nothing happened that time but the next time my brain was on sleep I had an accident, no one was hurt, but it turned on my head. thank God!

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