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