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

June 30, 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.