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Alcohol and the Episcopal Church: Updated

Alcohol and the Episcopal Church: Updated

In the past few days, a number of commentators have begun to wrestle with some of the questions raised by the sad case of Heather Cook and Thomas Palermo in Baltimore, Maryland.

In today’s Speaking to the Soul, the Revd William Doubleday reflects on these questions through the lens of his experiences as hospital chaplain, pastor, church historian, and educator.

On the blog Angels in the Alley, the Revd Dr Hilary Smith posts with the subtitle, “I Never Felt Peer Pressure to Drink Until I Joined the Episcopal Church:”

I never felt peer pressure to drink until I joined the Episcopal Church. Let me give you a few examples of what I mean. So many times at church events, when I am offered a glass of wine or a beer, and I decline… immediately the person follows up with, “it’s ok, you can have a drink.” I usually have to refuse the drink two or three times before the person will let it go. During an interview process for a position in a church, I was offered a drink by a vestry member during the social time before dinner. When I stated that I was “good” with the water I was drinking, this vestry member stated, “We like to drink with our priest.” I didn’t get that job.
There is culture in the Episcopal Church of drinking and being proud of it.

The Very Revd Mike Kinman, of Christ Church Cathedral, St Louis, asks what is the right question to ask:

I have yet to see what I believe is the “right question” … the question I tremble to ask. The question that convicts us all – myself included.

What does this say about us? What does this say about the family system of the Episcopal Church?

The Revd  Canon Andrew T. Gerns, contributing editor at the Episcopal Cafe, reflects at his blog on questions to ask candidates for episcopal ministry who may be affected by alcohol and addiction:

With with the clarity of hindsight, these are the questions that I wish the search and nominating had asked Heather Cook, and I hope that every future search & nominating committee asks some future candidate for the episcopate who has an addictions history:

“Have you ever discussed your addiction and your recovery with your parishioners and colleagues?”
“How have you integrated your recovery into your preaching, pastoral care, and teaching?”
and finally,
“Would you be willing to have a candid discussion of your experience with the whole search and nominating committee? How would you answer a question about your DUI in a public forum?”
My belief is that recovery is not just something you do, but something one lives. That really successful recovery happens when the person not only refrains from drinking or using drugs but integrates what it means to be in “constant recovery” into their daily living. Recovery requires the whole person in a living context: emotional, relational, medical, and spiritual.
Gerns’ post includes a link to a pastoral letter sent by the Revd Anjel Scarborough to her Maryland congregation, naming some of the many questions that have been raised by this sad situation.

Answers may yet be few. But the conversation has at least begun.

Posted by Rosalind Hughes. Updated 1/13/15 @18:46 to include links to Andrew Gerns and Anjel Scarborough.


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Bude VanDyke

As an Episcopal priest, in recovery for 24 years and 11 months, as as Spiritual Director for a large Southeastern drug and alcohol treatment provider, I would like to weigh in. The beginning four paragraphs of chapter 11 in the “Big Book” of AA speaks quite helpfully to the dilema that exsts because so many can healthily enjoy and celebrate life with alcohol and some of us cannot. That is a truth, a loss for the alcoholic that actually needs to be grieved to avoid the disbling attitude of resentment. In my own experience, I quite certainly had bouts of thinking the whole world should stop drinking because “I had to”. I found myself grieving that loss and the embodiment of accptance and integration for me was one day actually discovering and feeling that “I didn’t need to drink”. I used to drink to get past my soical anxiety.

To be sure…groups at times seem to put pressure on people to drink to feel like they belong. And, there are certainly individuals and groups in the church that seem to do just that. However, somewhere in my joureny into sobriety I discovered that the functional Higher Power I once served, the approval of others, would not keep me sober. I had to dig deep, and rediscover a realitionship with my own true self and with the God of my understanding, the one I find in the liturgy of the Episcopal Church. At times, it is a challenge for me because some people at keast seem to avoid me because I do not need to drink…but those challenges, when I work the program on them , help me find a deeper place of sobriety than I previously experienced. Do not hear me say that I condone the act of challenging the person in recovery, but do hear me say that the One who provided all things necessary for human existence before creating human beings, has also provided us with a program that helps us deal with those things we cannot change, which is others.

The issue of the day, the Bishop who killed the person and left the scene is an event to its own. It is tragic to be sure. It would be better served though to be discussing all of the forms of distracted driving that are, each and every one, not necessary. They are the responsibility of the driver of a motorized vehicle. Driving and texting is terrifyingly present today. People impaired on pain medication and psychotropic medications are drving today. People who just left a big argument, or who were fired or let go from work and whose minds are anywhere but on the safety of other drivers they encounter are on the road every day. I would like to see us put our heads together on dicovering real ways to address all forms of distracted or impaired driving.

I would like to see the Epicopal Church decide to forever stop paying for and providing alcohol at any function. And, I would love to see the church take a much more active role in the insistence on driving someone home if they have been drinking or otherwise i,psired. But, attacking the use of alcohol itself in the interest of “keeping me sober” is an unnecessary distraction from the effective work we could be doing.

Peter Snow

As rector I have had to initiate and assist at three interventions for three senior wardens. (Different churches) Not a good record. My experience suggests the following. We clergy have to know about this disease, be able to recognize it and deal with it within our congregations and fellow clergy. (Starting with oneself). Two of the three are to this day grateful for that intervention. The other one died some years ago.
The seriousness of this issue must become a cause for education within the parish because our people and their family members suffer horrifically if they are abandoned to the ravages of alcoholism or drug addiction. We as clergy have to know the symptoms, signs and treatment options. We need to stand with them, but intervene.

Nancy Lea

well, firstly, I was raised to understand the difference between “having a drink” and “drinking,” the latter being the unacceptable.
I’ve been Episcopalian all my life (past “middle aged” at this point) and have NEVER been pressured to drink. I prefer water with my meals, generally, and have never been treated as if this was “odd” in any way. I DO enjoy a good wine with a meal sometimes.
If some parishes, like some social circles, pressure somebody to take a drink, then, they need to be enlightened, but, as I said, in all the places I’ve lived (work stuff) and worshipped in Episcopal churches, I’ve NEVER had alcohol forced on me. (I did have a friend in NY who was a coffee-fanatic (roasted his own beans) who’d INSIST we try his latest blend/roast LOL)

James Wolfe

There is nothing wrong with having a drink at a social gathering if done in the proper manner. We are talking about a church that did not vet its new bishop in the proper way. The fact that in our push to be inclusive we :
1. Failed to tell everyone involved about the Bishops prior arrest
2. Failed to see if the Bishop was working a valid recovery program
3. The failure of those who continued to see her drink said nothing
The answers to those questions will only come out after a civil suit is filed against the church. As for now I am sure Bishop Sutton and the nominating group have been told not to say anything by the church lawyers. So don’t expect the truth to come anytime soon.
The conversation we need to have concerns the whitewashing of the nomination process and how this ever could have happened given what we already know.

Meg Decker

I have been reading the comments here and on many other sites about Episcopalians and alcohol, and I need to say that they do not reflect my experience of the Episcopal Church. In 25 years of ordained ministry I have never been to a vestry, church committee meeting or decision-making activity where alcohol was served, although I have been to comparable community service events where alcohol was present. I have been to many church social events where alcohol was present, and only once do I remember there not being an alternative drink offered. Certainly I have known of alcoholics, recovering and not, in my ministry, and even participated in a few interventions. I offer my experience not to dismiss the horrible stories others have shared, but simply to point out that not all Episcopalians are having the same experience. I do think there is a place for responsible use of alcohol in our lives and in our congregations, and, in my experience at least, there are places where that is practiced. I do wonder why, in the case of vetting Bishop Cook, a DUI conviction was treated so lightly. Would a past affair or an history of embezzlement been overlooked so easily? How much did the fact that the candidate was white, articulate and female have to do with that? Is this a sign of our problem with alcohol or simply with power and accountability?

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