January 14, 2015

Drinking problem

This is from the January 2015 issue of our church newsletter.

On January 8th, I celebrated my first decade of ordained ministry as a priest. Since that day, I have been doing a bit of reflection around the question of what-all has changed over the past ten years, and how it’s changed and why, and if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, or simply just how things are.

The majority of those reflections can be held for later, but there is something emerging out of the questions that has a certain urgency to it, and that is the question that has been kicked up by recent events, within The Episcopal Church in general, involving alcohol.

On December 27th, Tom Palermo, a bicyclist living in Baltimore, was struck and killed by an SUV. The driver of the SUV left the scene. Cyclists followed the vehicle to the home of The Rt. Rev. Heather Cook, who is a Bishop Suffragan in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. About a half-hour after the accident, Bishop Cook showed up at the scene where Palermo was struck. She was administered a breath test for the presence of alcohol. It registered her at almost triple the legal limit for Maryland.

Bishop Cook is being held on charges of manslaughter, driving while under the influence, leaving the scene of a crime, and texting while driving. Bail is set at $2.5 million. In the church, the process to commence “Title IV” proceedings has begun. (Title IV is how you remove a bishop from office. It is an enormous time- and energy-consuming process.)

In court, Bishop Cook’s attorney said that “She does admit to an alcohol problem.” A December 30th statement by the Diocese of Maryland, reflecting on Cook’s election to Bishop, said, "As part of the search process, Bishop Cook fully disclosed the 2010 DUI for which charges were filed resulting in a 'probation before judgment.' After extensive discussion and discernment about the incident, and after further investigation, including extensive background check and psychological investigation, it was determined that this one mistake should not bar her for consideration as a leader.”

The Rt. Rev. Eugene Sutton, Bishop of Maryland, wrote this to the people in his diocese: “There are still too many questions for which there are no easy answers, and we are filled with anger, bitterness, pain and tears. Our thoughts and prayers remain with the Palermo family in their bereavement and for ourselves as a diocese in mourning. And we continue to pray for our sister Heather in this time of her tremendous grief and sorrow .... My sisters and brothers, we will get through this. We will shed tears, suffer together, explore what we could have done better and learn to accept what we couldn’t have done better. We will pick ourselves up and go on with our ministries in our churches and our mission in the world, including finding ways to support the cycling community and address the problem of addiction in our culture and in our Church.”

The pain and the sadness of this situation is very palpable even from our vantage here in Sioux City. Most of us have known lives that were destroyed by alcohol. Sometimes those lives were in the hands of the users, and sometimes they were needlessly cut short or hampered by those using alcohol.

There is zero immunity from the effects of alcohol within the walls of the church, whether it’s our congregation or any other. Sometimes we passively, permissively, consciously allow for the abuse of alcohol long after we should have done something about it. That may be because it has more social acceptance than illegal drugs, but more than that, folks just don’t like to get their hands “dirty.” We ignore the problem in the hope that it will magically get better on its own, or at least go away. Meanwhile, we end up gathering stories of friends, family, coworkers, and parishioners who succumbed because they perceived that they couldn’t climb out and had nowhere to turn. I have stories like this myself, and they break my heart. One of them ended with me saying last rites over someone.

Before something like this happens again, The Episcopal Church needs to begin a very forthright and much more earnest conversation. We have defended our right to have wine as a means of religious self-expression closely connected with the passion of Christ. This is as it should be, and I’m grateful to live in a country where where religion intermingles with the rights of free speech and free assembly. Yet, we Episcopalians have condoned abuse in the name of socialization and freedom. We have endured and perpetuated notions (some of them outright stereotypes, some of them outright truths) about the easy use and abuse of alcohol. We have a church culture of jokes and songs (“Whiskypalians” and “Wherever two or three are gathered, there will be a fifth”) that is both inwardly true (Scotch at General Convention or clergy conference, and sherry at General Seminary) and outwardly visible. If this makes people think we are a drinking society rather than a church, it seriously impinges upon our witness.

I need to admit my part, which has been more or less a freewheeling casual acquaintanceship with alcohol. I don’t like the idea of drinking to get drunk because I don’t like the feeling of being out of control. Even the phrase “take the edge off” rankles me. I have seen lives destroyed by the stuff and I don’t want my life to be one of them. I recognize that there’s an appreciable difference between a healthy amount of anything and a poisonous amount, and I have tried to attend to that. But I also know that I have made the same jokes as everyone else (at the very least, publicly here and here) without giving them a thought and let reckless behavior slide by without calling it out.

As a longtime partner of the support and recovery community in Sioux City, the congregation of St. Thomas needs to be especially aware, prayerful, and compassionate about the dangers of alcohol. We have support and recovery groups actively meeting on our campus. Our example must be impeccable, meaning that we must look after one another with the utmost kindness and encourage all forms of self-care and promotion of a healthy lifestyle. (There is nothing about “kindness” and “encouragement” that lend themselves to turning a blind eye.) “Being impeccable” does not mean we lull ourselves into believing that “it can’t happen here.” Pretending won’t help.

Please know that if you are living with alcoholism, you are in the presence of a disease for which there is no magic pill to take. You have to reach out and get help. Go to to learn more and find a meeting. Or you can call a treatment program such as that offered by Jackson Recovery ( or 712-234-2300). Jackson offers a sliding-fee scale based on income. And there’s River Hills Recovery Center, “a specialty outpatient program [with] an array of treatment programs for professionals and their families struggling with addiction.” If you are with someone who is abusing alcohol, these same places can help you do what you need to do to get yourself and other loved ones to safety.

Finally, I’m making sure that the diocesan policy on the Use of Alcohol at Church Functions is included in this issue of our newsletter. I believe we have been in compliance with it so long as I have been able to witness, but it never helps to be refreshed by wise counsel.

Beloved sisters and brothers, we need to take a hard look at ourselves. Self-assessment and real honesty before God, self, and others is never easy. But being the broken Body of Christ living and serving in a broken world is a privilege it remains our highest honor to count. Our beloved St. Irenaeus reminds us that the desiring of God for us is to be human beings, “fully alive.” That life and fulness of life is my desire and prayer for each of us.

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