Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Wounding the weak conscience - Alcohol and the Episcopal Church

The epistle in this week's lectionary reading for Epiphany 4B is a selection from the 8th chapter of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians addressing the subject of eating meat sacrificed to idols. Admittedly, lifting this directly from the Bible into our 21st century context is a bit baffling to those of us hearing this in the pew (whether lay or ordained). After all, we do not live in a culture steeped in religious sacrificial systems anymore. Nobody's heading down to the Temple of Zeus to sample the brisket offered in his honor. But in a bigger sense, Paul is saying something very important to our Church today with respect to our mutuality and responsibility towards each other.

The Episcopal Church is facing this very issue with respect to the issue of alcohol. Heather Cook, bishop suffragan of Maryland, was driving on December 27, 2014 with a .22 blood alcohol content and, while texting, hit and killed cyclist, husband and father, Tom Palermo. This was not Cook's first DUI. Her first was in 2010 when she was serving as a priest and Canon to the Ordinary (which is kind of like the bishop's "chief of staff"). When pulled over, her blood alcohol content was .27. She was so intoxicated in that incident, the field sobriety test had to be stopped due to concerns about her safety. There are other unsavory details in the police report from that first incident which have been widely reported.

The 2010 arrest was the first time Heather was caught drinking and driving. But, with a .27 BAC, it was not her first time drinking nor was it just "a glass of wine over the limit." In the words of the AAs in my home group - "she was shitfaced!" One does not drink their way to a .27 and still be conscious without having built up a serious tolerance level to the drug of ethyl alcohol. However, people who don't work with alcoholics or do not suffer from the addiction largely have no clue what BAC numbers mean and how they can be indicative of addiction.

In May 2014, Heather Cook was elected bishop suffragan - just a scant 4 years after her first DUI for which she received probation before judgement (very common on a first offense). Both criminal and church investigations are underway and many more details, both about Heather's high-functioning binge alcoholism and the many small failures in our search process which elected her, are coming to light.

Heather Cook is responsible for the death of Tom Palermo. Period. She showed poor judgement because of her addiction and chose to drink and drive. This could have happened if she had been a bishop or a bricklayer.

What the Church is responsible for is providing the enabling system to cover up their alcoholic leaders (both ordained and lay). The Church is an alcoholic family system. It is because so many of us come from alcoholic families and bring those behavior dynamics into our church. Alcoholic families have several behavioral traits:

  • Rigidity - alcoholic families are rigid due to being a highly anxious system. As the alcoholic gets more unpredictable, the family members compensate by imposing rigid rules on everyone else.
  • Silence - nobody talks about the alcoholic's addiction or behaviors. Truth tellers are bullied into silence or destroyed through behind the back rumors and character assassination (known as triangulation - and alcoholics are masters of this!)
  • Numbness - alcoholic family members are not allowed to have feelings. Better to numb the feelings, either by using alcohol or by repressive coping, than admitting what hurts.
These traits set up an enabling system which allows the alcoholic to persist in drinking and which will, along with the alcoholic, rationalize, minimize, hide and explain away the addicted behavior rather than confronting it and dealing with it. Anyone who breaks the rules by telling the truth pays a high price and will be targeted for elimination. This is why denial is such a powerful part of the alcoholic game.

Which is why, in the midst of all of this mess, the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Episcopal Relief and Development Fund. As part of this fundraising effort, the Steering Committee in charge of the celebration announced on January 6, 2015:
Just to sweeten the pot, here is an incentive: Deputy William Miller of the Diocese of Hawaii, author of The Beer Drinker's Guide to God,” will host a beer tasting at the Beer Hive Pub in Salt Lake City during General Convention for the deputation that raises the most money in the campaign. The winning deputation will be announced during the first legislative day of the House of Deputies at General Convention.
You can read the whole release here.

Not only does this action appear utterly tone deaf in light of the Bishop Cook incident, it also appears to be a violation of the General Convention's own rules regarding alcohol at church functions. The 68th General Convention of 1985 passed a resolution regarding alcohol which, in part, stated: "The service of alcoholic beverages at church events should not be publicized as an attraction of the event." What gives?

I do not advocate banning alcohol outright; however, it is time to acknowledge our family's alcohol problem: from our church's reputation as "Whiskey-palians," to the many jokes about alcohol in the Church, to our systemic enabling of actively alcoholic leaders who continue to damage themselves and the people in their charge. This is wounding the Body of Christ. While it is the responsibility of the alcoholic not to drink, are we placing a stumbling block in the path of our alcoholic sisters and brothers when we push alcohol front and center the way the House of Deputies appears to be doing? Where are we, in the words of Paul, wounding a weaker conscience by our enabling or our denial?

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:
"All things are lawful for me" - but not everything is beneficial. "All things are lawful for me" - but I will not be controlled by anything.
While alcohol is lawful for us, it is not always beneficial. While alcohol is lawful for us, we have let it control us ... to the great detriment of our Church and its witness to Christ.


adrien said...

Thank you Angel. We need Al-anon for the church community that continually enables alcoholics and does not intervene on behalf of life and health.

Snarky Anglican said...

Amen Adrien! I pray this whole tragic situation in our diocese can bring us to our knees to acknowledge we are powerless over alcohol and our corporate life has become unmanageable.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for shedding some light on this issue.