The Episcopal Church and Addiction
The events surrounding the death of Thomas Palermo in Maryland are tragic for all. I don't pretend to know anything about the circumstances that involve Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook and this collision so I will refrain from any comment on the specific situation.
However, I would like to add my voice to others in the Church who are concerned about the prominent role that alcohol plays in our gatherings. Episcopal Health Ministries has long been conscious of the pressures of social events and the need for a response to those struggling with addiction in these situations.
We have held an annual national conference for our organization since 2008. Several years ago, we were asked to include time for a 'Friends of Bill' meeting during our gathering. We provided a simple room and time on the agenda for this meeting. Later, as our conference closed, we were discussing the impact of the conference and take-aways for participants. I was surprised and honored to have several participants speak of their deep gratitude for this simple gesture.
We have included time for these meetings at every conference that followed, always with a similar, if private, gratitude.
I remember these conversations and how they alerted me to the near-constant presence of alcohol at many church gatherings. It is with these reflections in mind that I read these two blogs this morning:
An essay by William A. (Bill) Doubleday reprinted in Episcopal Cafe notes:
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.
Dean Mike Kinman of Christ Church Cathedral in Missouri:
I know that my own Diocese of Missouri had an active alcoholic as a bishop when I first arrived here as a college student in 1986. His name is Bill Jones. I know there was an intervention done at the end of his tenure and that he lives now in courageous long-term recovery but that our diocese has never truly addressed his alcoholism – or the systems of dysfunction that led us to call him, sustained him and did not magically disappear when he left office.
I know that our own Christ Church Cathedral was serving alcohol at Chapter meetings when I arrived here. I know that consumption of alcohol was a central part not just of Cathedral social events but committee meetings. I also know that when we brought Dale Kuhn from Care and Counseling in to do two sessions with the Chapter and two more with the congregation on the topic of addiction and family systems, there was a great deal of pushback and some people left the congregation.
The statements in these blogs ring true in my own experience, which includes a significant number of national church meetings, including General Convention and other committee work. Most of these involved a very real presence of alcohol in the evening. To be clear, I am not saying that everyone (or even anyone) was intoxicated to excess or inappropriate. I'm simply stating that alcohol was conspicuously present, and nearly every time.
What do I mean by conspicuously present? I mean that nearly everyone had a drink in their hand and if for some reason you did not, then it was assumed you needed one and regular offers would be made to get you one. If you were drinking a non-alcoholic beverage, you would be asked to explain why you weren't drinking. It seems odd to have to explain why you aren't drinking while you are actually holding a beverage, but I don't make the rules.
Perhaps I noticed this culture more because it had been pointed out to me by friends but I also know that I noticed it because I am one of those people who, for the most part, doesn't drink. This is not because I am addicted to alcohol. The primary reason I drink very little is that I often get crushing headaches after the slightest bit of alcohol. It is not unusual for me to have no more than two beers with friends over the course of an evening and wake up the next morning with a terrible migraine. This often gets worse during times of stress, dehydration, and travel, which means at most job-related events I choose to abstain entirely so I can be at my best for the actual work to be done.
The second reason I avoid alcohol at these times is because of a certain... self-awareness. I often have strong opinions on politics, current events, and the New England Patriots (I'm against them). It is not always appropriate to voice these in an uninhibited manner. I have a hard enough time controlling my comments and behavior when completely sober; the last thing I want to do is overstep my bounds because of impaired judgment.
All of this to say that we definitely have a culture of alcohol friendliness, if not outright abuse in our church. It's an open secret that many of our clergy struggle with issues related to addiction. So do many of our lay leaders, congregants, and other church employees.
I hope that the recent events in Maryland are provoking thoughtful reflection and conversation in all parishes, dioceses, and national meetings on the role of alcohol in our community. It would be all too easy to look at the extreme events in Maryland and believe they don't apply to us. I would argue differently; these events, while unusually severe, are not an anomaly. They reveal a significant cultural practice that is often at odds with our stated values.
Perhaps this is a good time to reconsider the role of alcohol in the Church?