Ambivalence about Alcohol

The Episcopal Church is having its 78th General Convention in Salt Lake City, and in the wake of the tragedy involving the former Suffragan Bishop of Maryland, Heather Cook a few days after Christmas, there have been calls to make Convention alcohol free (granted, Utah is an easier place than most to have a dry convention).  Having been part of the Anglican Communion in three different countries now (the United States, Canada, and England), I understand our ambivalent relationship with alcohol.  It’s legal for persons old enough to partake.  It’s one of the principal material elements of the service of Holy Communion, or Eucharist. It’s part of social festivities.

And for a significant number of people, it cannot be consumed safely at any level or under any circumstances.  In advance of the Convention, a priest who is himself in recovery from alcohol addiction wrote this piece. Over the last six months, there have been a lot of words written concerning how we deal with alcohol addiction amongst the clergy, how we make non-drinking acceptable at church functions, how we make sure that candidates for senior church offices are properly vetted, without unduly discriminated against if addiction and recovery are part of their personal history.  Bishop Chilton Knudsen, a woman I came to know and admire during my time in seminary, is a shining example of a priest whose honesty about her own recovery has become an important part of her ministry as a bishop.  Although retired as the diocesan for Maine, she has served as an assisting bishop in several dioceses, and–I never use this phrase lightly–her work, story, and personal integrity have blessed more people than can be named.

Alcohol is a serious issue for Anglican Christians.  It is, as said in the service of Holy Communion, “the fruit of the vine and the work of human hands.”  As such, it brings together the gifts of divine provision for human wellbeing, and divinely given human knowledge and skill, which join together for sustenance and celebration. It’s meant to be used for our good–happiness and health.

Yet, our scriptures warn us that too much alcohol causes difficulties.  Excessive use of wine (really, the only alcoholic beverage mentioned in the Bible) is the root of embarrassment, inappropriate sexual behavior, and ill reputation–Jesus was derided for keeping company with gluttons and drunkards; the disciples were reputed to be drunk at too early an hour of the day when the Holy Spirit descended upon them at Pentecost.

Where is the balance?  Thomas Aquinas is reported to have advised that one might drink wine “to the point of cheerfulness”.  But cheerfulness tends to have a different tipping point for each individual.

I’m not prissy when it comes to alcohol.  I’ll admit there have been times when I’ve had more than was probably good for me (although I’ve had the sense never to drive at those moments). But I’m also a little concerned when my Facebook feed is crowded with words and images of friends–and unfortunately, frequently my friends in holy orders–about it being “wine o’clock” or how many different beers or whiskeys they’ve had in an evening.  I often find myself wondering, “yes, I know ordained ministry is stressful. But is this the main, or only, way to cope with it?”

Alcohol has a great capacity to alleviate stress.  Indeed, this weekend, I opened a bottle of wine I received for Christmas for exactly that purpose. I had an unusually trying day on Friday (which, for a number of reasons, I can’t detail here), and said, “if there was a time a glass of wine is in order, today is it.”

Perhaps I’m fortunate that I can’t handle more than a single, small (and I do mean small) glass of wine at any given time.  I’m thankful that it helped me to sleep adequately, to put some of the sights and smells that I’m never going to be able to un-see and un-smell aside for eight hours.  One of the blessings of alcohol is that it can do that.

One of the curses of alcohol is that it can do that.  And for longer periods of time. And to a point where it damages relationships and property and lives.

I’m not sure my glass of wine on Friday was an appropriate use of alcohol.  I’m not sure it was an inappropriate use of alcohol.  I know I don’t drink every day.  I know the rest of the bottle will probably go off before I finish it. I also know that it would have taken much more than the single glass I can tolerate to bring me to Aquinas’s standard of “cheerfulness”.

I’m glad it was there, honestly.  I’m thankful for the capacity to be able to say “just one”.  But I know that my capacity is not everyone’s.  And I know that it might not always be mine, either.

Yes, we need to have the discussions around alcohol in the church–for clergy and laity–that will help us embrace its benefits while at the same time minimizing its dangers.  I’m not sure a “dry” convention is the way to do this.  That’s too much an all-or-nothing approach, and a way of avoiding the complexities and nuances of something that is God-given but has the potential to be God-damned.

For me, at least, being formed in the Christian tradition is about how I deal with complexity and nuance, how I deal with things that aren’t entirely all-or-nothing.  It’s how I manage to take those things that God has given for our good, and not use them for purposes that harm and destroy.

Christianity isn’t for the simple.  Anyone who tries telling me otherwise is not going to have an easy time convincing me otherwise.

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