General Convention takes a first step, admits: ‘Alcohol affects us all’

By Pat McCaughan and Matthew Davies
Posted Jul 1, 2015

[Episcopal News Service – Salt Lake City] The House of Bishops on July 1 passed three resolutions, one with an amendment, on the issue of alcohol and drug abuse.

“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.” He expressed “profound gratitude” to the presiding bishop and the president of the House of Deputies for establishing the committee and thanked all the bishops for their affirmation of the work.

Resolution D014 recommends that ordinands should be questioned at the very beginning of the discernment process about addiction and substance use in their lives and family systems.

The bishops also passed Resolution A159, which 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.

Bishop Pierre Whalon of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe said that Europe is, in many ways, “far behind the U.S. in understanding alcohol and drug addiction.” The resolutions, he said, “will enable us in Europe to put forward the policy in our church…to address a culture of denial in many respects.”

Resolution A158 adopted a policy on alcohol and other substance misuse and encourage dioceses, congregations, seminaries, schools, young adult ministries, and affiliated institutions to update their policies on the use of alcohol and other substances

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 have lived too much into the jokes of ‘where there are four Episcopalians, there is a fifth’ and ‘we are whiskey-palians’: 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.”

After Maryland: courage to change the things we can

Paraphrasing the prayer popularized by recovery ministries, Deputy Scott Slater of Maryland, told deputies June 30: “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 in the Dec. 27, 2014, hit-and-run death of cyclist Tom Palermo, a 41-year-old husband and father of two, “has shaken so many of us and we have yearned for our denomination to take a hard look at this issue.”

Legislative Committee 22 on Alcohol and Drug Abuse was created by the presiding officers 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 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.”

— The Rev. Pat McCaughan and Matthew Davies are part of the Episcopal News Service team reporting on the 78th General Convention.

Editor’s note: This story was corrected Sept. 9 to remove an inaccurate description of Resolution A158’s intent.


Comments (18)

  1. David Loving says:

    Try a little controlled drinking.

    1. Frank Bergen says:

      I’m not totally sure what was meant by “try a little controlled drinking” but I don’t think it evidences either understanding or empathy. I say this as a person for whom “controlled drinking” proved over 40 years to not be an entirely feasible option. Twenty-two years of ‘controlling’ drinking by choosing not to include alcoholic beverages in my social or solitary activities has worked pretty well for me. And I’ve often found myself in situations where it is assumed that alcoholic beverages are the beverages of choice, perhaps especially for our clergy.

  2. Terry Webb says:

    Praise God for Resolution A159 and for the courage of the clergy and bishops in recovery to take the leadership on waking up the church. Although some of us have been trying to train and educate clergy (see it has been an uphill ministry.

  3. Kathleen Kuczynski says:

    We should retire the phrase “drugs and alcohol.” We should instead say, “alcohol and other drugs.” Alcohol is as much a drug as heroin or cocaine or Vicodin, but because it is legal for adults, we shy away from that label.

  4. Jim Cutshall says:

    Why would we be surprised? Alcoholism is everywhere. I minister in the prisons and many are there because of alcohol and related drug use.
    Why would a church be different?
    Why does the obvious require a resolution?
    AA has transformed many lives.
    Our tool chest should contain many tools to help one another.
    This is but one of many that faces man.

  5. Seamus P.Doyle says:

    I hope now that the next step will be to offer Grape Juice at Eucharist.
    The only rationale for using Wine is from Lambeth Conferences in 1888 and 1908. It’s now 2015 and we know that for many the smell/taste of wine may be more related to the last drunk than “The Blood of Christ”. Jesus did not pass the bread and say to his disciples they had a choice of bread only.

    1. Susan Allison-Hatch says:

      For four years, I offered non-alcoholic wine at our weekly Eucharist at the Homeless shelter where I serve. Great for people who were not alcoholics–good taste, sense of wine, a fine alternative. Or so I believed until one person told me he was addicted to our non-alcoholic wine, another told me that our alcohol-free communion wine triggered a relapse, a third said, “I’ll skip the bread; I just want the wine.” We now serve grape juice. It’s a gesture of hospitality for all.

    2. Bob Bates says:

      I also hope that the Episcopal Church will officially authorize the use of non-alcoholic grape juice for communion. We are a progressive denomination and we have rescued ourselves from fundamentalism and from narrow and outdated thinking in so many ways. Why do we cling to the necessity of including alcoholic content in the “fruit of the vine”?

  6. martha knight says:

    I praise the fervent work that is addressing the prevalent use of alcohol in TEC especially in parish events. As someone who has been in recovery for 25 years I applaud this work. Years ago when I participated in The Alpha Course in my parish, bottles of wine were in abundance for every session. This saddened me deeply. We are in all of this together.

  7. Cindy Clark Selby says:

    As an alcoholic with 21 years in recovery, I am also tired of the “Whiskey-palian” jokes and the frequent spotlighting of alcohol at our church events. As a member of the Evangelism Committee at my parish, my heart broke recently when I approached a newcomer to welcome her, and she replied, “I was looking for a good party church, and I think I’ve found it!” Party church? Really? I don’t even know how to respond to that.

  8. Annette says:

    I believe many of the comments here go toward intolerance and Prohibitionism. Your problems with alcoholism will not end by wiping out the presence of alcohol. Just because some of you state are unable to be social or controlled drinkers doesn’t mean that millions of others can’t. We already live in a society where unprecedented numbers of people have quit going to church and declare “no religion” in large part because of the visibility of the religious right in politics–trying to enforce their wills on others. We should certainly develop a culture in our churches in which we understand and recognize addiction of all kinds and be loving, understanding, and helpful to all. Further, just because of your experience doesn’t mean “all parishes” even have an issue with their current policies.

  9. Mack Allison says:

    As a life long episcopalian and an alcoholic, this discussion brings about mixed emotions. I feel that my recovery began in earnest when I stopped asking the world to change around me, so I have long accepted that Episcopal gatherings usually involve wine. On the other hand, at least acknowledging that alcoholism exists in our denomination helps many people. There were times in which I could not, given our culture, accept that I was an alcoholic and an Episcopalian. It seemed that I’d have to give up one or the other. Also, communion wafers are really terrible without any liquid to help them down. The common way alcoholics take communion is to receive the wafer, and skip the wine.

  10. Lee Cunningham says:

    I am a pastor and life-long Methodist until retirement when I returned to Mother Anglicanism. I am also a recovering alcoholic with 20 years of sobriety. The denomination in which I served in full-time ordained ministry has the rubric in its Book of Discipline: “The pure unfermented juice of the grape shall be used…” in the Eucharist. This has been one of the stumbling blocks to full communion between the United Methodists and Episcopalians. Aside from being contrary to Scripture, the practice has its roots in the Methodist participation in the temperance movement of the last Century. I don’t believe it has made any difference in the number of abnormal drinkers in that church. The use of grape juice instead of wine in the Eucharist has its own set of problems. For example, the only way the common cup can be used is by intinction since grape juice lacks the sanitizing capabilities of wine. Abstinence from alcohol is something I MUST practice as an abnormal drinker. The vast majority of clergy and laity, however, are not abnormal drinkers. I am able to receive the wine of the Eucharist, appropriately enough, like a child — by intinction. It seems to me the Episcopal Church can be hospitable to recovering alcoholics like me without requiring abstinence from the entire membership. My religious order, the Order of Saint Luke, usually has one chalice under the sign of wine, and another under the sign of dealcoholized wine or grape juice. My parish is hospitable to persons who cannot tolerate gluten by providing gluten free hosts. It would be quite easy to, in like manner, provide an alternative for those who cannot tolerate alcohol. It’s a little more work for the Altar Guild, but not an awful lot.
    Alcoholism is a serious disease and it is good that we are looking for ways to be in ministry to the 10% or so of the adult population who cannot drink like normal men and women. Education is a good starting point, and my local parish has had an excellent Recovery Weekend which I commend to every Episcopal Church. A balanced approach which avoids the extremes of prohibition and being “whiskypalians” is not only in order here, it’s downright Via Media Anglicana!

  11. Selena Smith says:

    Scripture does not condemn drink (alcohol) or drinking of alcohol; rather, Scripture says no to “drunkeness.”

    1. Lee Cunningham says:

      “Scripture does not condemn drink (alcohol) or drinking of alcohol; rather, Scripture says no to “drunkeness.” I agree 100%.

  12. Robert Horwath says:

    Unfermented grape juice should be offered on our altars along with wine since we never adopted the eucharistic theology of the Latin church regarding proper matter in regard to the Eucharist or their doctrine of validity. The presence of Jesus in the eucharistic elements is essentially mysteriological and thus use of grape juice makes sense for us or should…it should be offered to the faithful, especially children, teen agers, and those challenged by alcohol addiction along with those who prefer it who have come into our tradition from ecclesial communities which do not use fermented wine for communion.

  13. Moira Cradgwyn says:

    I am saddened by the curse of alcoholism, and I am also saddened by the nannyism displayed in so many of these responses. The latter is more frightening. Is it possible that the Episcopal Church is now led by self-righteous old cat ladies? (political incorrectness intended)

  14. Moira Cradgwyn says:

    The problem may well be in the clergy, not the bottle.

Comments are closed.