With a history of sherries at church coffee hour and wine during Holy Communion, Episcopalians have long endured — and shared — jokes about their drinking. (For example: “wherever two or three are gathered, there’s a fifth.”) Yet the relationship is complicated.
The denomination stood out a century ago for saying alcoholism wasn’t an evil. And Episcopal clergy played a significant role in the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous.
So perhaps it was surprising that this week a top church leader said the case of Heather Cook — the Maryland bishop now accused of killing a cyclist while driving drunk — revealed Episcopalians’ “systemic denial about alcohol and other drug abuse.” Leaders will review church policies on drug and alcohol abuse for the first time in 30 years when they have their once-every-three-years meeting this summer.
One bishop is already proposing not drinking at the major gathering, and parishes are launching special worship services for people in recovery. Yet the Episcopal Church’s unusual history regarding drinking adds to the complexity of dealing with the issue.
Meanwhile, while many say they are glad that the December death of Baltimore bicyclist Thomas Palermo has at least brought new attention to alcoholism, some worry that the church’s effort to focus on addiction could distract from unanswered questions in the Cook case. A particular sticking point is the fact that church leaders had information about Cook’s drinking before she was installed that they didn’t share with the wider Diocese of Maryland.
The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies — akin to the speaker of the House for Episcopalians — said in a statement Monday night that she was creating a legislative committee to review the church’s 1985 policy, which has a huge impact on a church that had at the time an usually relaxed attitude toward casual drinking. That policy said for the first time that when church events serve alcohol, they must offer non-alcoholic drinks “with equal attractiveness,” and that church events shouldn’t publicize alcohol as an attraction of a gathering.
The church “can sometimes confuse secrecy and confidentiality, and . . . our desire for reconciliation can sometimes make us reluctant to confront one another in love. I hope that we can examine our church’s relationship to alcohol and other drugs in a clear-eyed and forthright way,” Jennings wrote.
After the death of Palermo, Episcopalians were shocked to learn that Cook had been arrested four years earlier in a dramatic drunken-driving incident. In that case, she was driving in the middle of the night on three tires and was too inebriated to take a sobriety test. They have since pushed church leaders in the dioceses of Maryland and Easton — Cook’s previous posting — to explain more about what they knew, why they didn’t share more information when Cook’s candidacy was up for a public vote last spring and whether her drinking was being addressed or ignored.
Leaders of the denomination mostly have declined to comment, saying Cook is under an internal investigation, and on Tuesday they formally suspended her from any ministry. Cook has been in a treatment center since the December crash.
Bishop Eugene Sutton, the leader of the Diocese of Maryland, recently disclosed that he told Katharine Jefferts Schori, the denomination’s leader, a couple days before her fall installation that he was worried about Cook’s drinking.
In her statement, Jennings acknowledged that the question of whether the Episcopal Church is too tolerant about drinking doesn’t satisfy those concerned about how leaders handled Cook’s selection.
Leaders of the church have to “acknowledge that the credibility of the process by which we elect bishops is in question,” she wrote. The process of bishop-picking is broken, she said, and is scheduled to be discussed at the General Convention in Salt Lake City this summer.
The Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral, said his church has a high number of people in recovery. At the same time, Hall said that, in his view, the church still has a somewhat lax attitude toward drinking. Before the 1985 policy, he said, he often attended church events that didn’t offer non-alcoholic drinks, and that is still true too often.
“I think the fact that the Diocese of Maryland could elect a woman who clearly has had an alcohol issue and how no one could speak about that publicly was a symptom of a bigger problem,” he said. “The Heather Cook event is making us step back and think: . . . How do we find a way to be more intentional about our relationship with alcohol?”
Byron Rushing, the vice president of the House of Deputies — Jennings’s No. 2 — was a lay leader during the 1985 vote and said the Episcopal Church’s approach to alcohol is complex. The denomination is one of the very few in Protestantism that takes wine with Communion, a ritual that is so core, he said, that maintaining it is one of a few requirements for having an ecumenical service.
“We have this thing that alcohol is a sacrament. And we take it really seriously,” Rushing said.
Episcopal priests in the early 1900s were behind the Emmanuel Movement, then a groundbreaking spiritual approach to health that was very concerned with alcoholism — an approach decades ahead of other parts of religion. However, the church’s theology sees all things as God-created and good, Rushing said, unless they are explicitly and totally bad. Episcopalians are open and not absolute.
“We see our approach as being realistic and not condemning something when it’s not the something that’s doing it,” he said.
Episcopalians didn’t join much of the rest of U.S. Protestantism during Prohibition, he said, a movement with strongly anti-Catholic undertones.
The church needs to dig more deeply into how church leaders and culture may have contributed to the Cook case, he said, and that may include both insufficient attention to drinking as well as other factors — namely the transparency of the bishop-picking process.
“I don’t think we’ll come out of this just by saying: ‘We should stop drinking,’ ” Rushing said.
After the Cook case erupted, the Rev. Anna Noon scheduled the first Recovery Eucharist for Feb. 22 at her parish, St. David’s Episcopal Church in Baltimore. It is a special worship service in the sanctuary for people in recovery, which she said will be different from the many 12-step programs that meet in the church for people confronting various addictions.
The Episcopal Church, she said, has long been a place of welcome for 12-step groups and addicts who typically meet in church basements. The Cook case highlighted a need to bring the topic of addiction more into the open and to highlight the church as a place for reconciliation, to break down this concept of a hidden basement and an open sanctuary.
“This is meant to make that ceiling and floor more porous,” she said.