When the Rev. Canon Mary June Nestler fielded calls about the Episcopal Church's General Convention in Salt Lake City this summer, she wanted to tell visitors about "the beautiful mountains or our wonderful people."
Instead, the conversations often turned to booze. Can you buy alcohol in Salt Lake City? Is it OK to have a cocktail in your hotel room? Could you drive into Utah with alcohol from another state?
"Our whole diocese found it curious that so many questions came in" relating to alcohol consumption, the Rev. Canon Nestler, executive officer of the Episcopal Church's Diocese of Utah, said. Part of it she credited to Utah's reputation of having complex liquor laws, but the questions also "said something about our (Episcopal) church" and the leadership's comfort level with alcohol.
That same church leadership took action at the end of June to address alcohol consumption among members and clergy. Specifically, delegates representing the 1.8 million member denomination enacted resolutions on how and when alcohol is to be served at church functions and that the church "confront and repent of (its) complicity in a culture of alcohol, denial, and enabling."
A third measure called for those evaluating candidates for ordination to ask prospective clergy whether they have issues with substance abuse.
The issue of alcohol addiction — medically defined as "alcohol use disorder," or AUD — is a continuing national concern. In June, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the federal National Institutes of Health, said "nearly one-third of adults in the United States have an AUD at some time in their lives, but only about 20 percent seek AUD treatment."
Many congregations, even in faith groups that shun alcohol altogether, have programs designed to help members and clergy dealing with alcohol abuse, including meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs.
"We as a group firmly believe that the real solution to these problems is found in a spiritually based solution," said the Rev. Steve Lane, treasurer for the Episcopal Church's Recovery Ministries. He said "real recovery from addiction to alcohol or substance abuse is involved in finding a God of your own understanding."
The votes by Episcopal Church's House of Deputies and House of Bishops, which hadn't addressed alcohol abuse since 1985, came in the wake of the resignation and defrocking of Heather Cook, who was charged with vehicular manslaughter and drunken driving earlier in the year. The former suffragan bishop, the No. 2 official in the Baltimore diocese, allegedly struck and killed cyclist Thomas Palermo, 41, a married father with two children.
"The whole church was incredibly sad about that tragedy, and we wanted to examine among ourselves whether there was anything about the church that encouraged that," the Rev. Canon Nestler said.
The strain of the Cook case was apparent during legislative discussion of the matter, the Associated Press reported.
A member of the church's committee on alcohol and other drug abuse, Brenda Hamilton of the Maine diocese, told the news agency, "People call us the 'whiskapalians.' Those jokes aren’t funny anymore."
The Rt. Rev. G. Porter Taylor, who heads the Western North Carolina diocese, said "the Heather Cook incident was a call for us to examine where we are and where God was calling us to be."
Ironically, the story behind Cook's replacement in the Baltimore diocese underscores the issues involved. The Rt. Rev. Chilton Knudsen, appointed assistant bishop after Cook's departure, is herself a recovering alcoholic who told NPR a "social drinking culture" exacerbated her problem.
"Social drinking is a part of the culture we live in," the Rt. Rev. Knudsen said. "And for some of us, circumstances lead us to do a little more social drinking and a little more social drinking and a little more social drinking until the active alcoholism is triggered. I was working as a parish priest with lots of people who had alcoholism, and I began to see myself in the beginning pieces of their stories."
Helping the addicted
Bishop Knudsen isn't the only Episcopal clergywoman who's confronted the issue personally. The Rt. Rev. Taylor, whose ministry is based in Asheville, North Carolina, said he has been "in recovery for 25 years" from alcoholism. He said the new guidelines would "have a practical effect on practices throughout the (Episcopal) church."
Of the three resolutions, the guidelines on how, when and where alcohol may be served are the most specific: alcohol dispensing must be monitored and those showing signs of intoxication "must not be served." At such functions, one adult must not drink and oversee the activities, and food should always be served when alcohol is available. Non-alcoholic alternatives that are "appealing" must be "offered with equal prominence," the rules state. And no alcohol should be served at church business meetings.
While the Cook incident focused national attention on the alcohol question within the Episcopal Church, the denomination has tackled addiction issues formally since the late 1970s, said the Rev. Lane, who has been in recovery for 33 years.
He said the denomination's Recovery Ministries, a group dedicated to helping individuals and congregations address the problem, holds annual retreats and offers addiction recovery resources for congregations.
He said the ministry was started as part of the church's budget, but now depends on volunteer workers and donations.
The Rev. Lane applauded the new resolutions.
"I think it was an exciting, new, invigoration of the church's awareness and response to alcohol and substance abuse, both within the church and in our communities," the Rev. Lane said. "It's a start, but it's a great start."
The Episcopal Church, along with other "mainline" Protestant denominations, the Roman Catholic Church and the major American branches of Judaism, allows its members to consume alcohol.
There are other faiths, such as Islam, Southern Baptist Convention, The Salvation Army, Seventh-day Adventist Church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that proscribe alcoholic beverages.
But whether a faith's tenets ban booze or not, religion has long played a role in helping members with alcohol addiction. The Rev. Lane noted that it was the influence of an Anglican lay movement, the Oxford Group, and its American leader, the Rev. Sam Shoemaker, that helped Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson develop the program's "12 steps."
"The early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done and working with others straight from the Oxford Group and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and from nowhere else," Wilson once said.
That spiritual aspect — which today encourages AA members to turn their lives over to God "as we understand him" — resonates with other spiritual communities offering help to addicts. There are, for example, several Roman Catholic ministries, such as The Calix Society and The 12-Step Review, which offer recovery resources adapted to both the 12-step tradition and Catholic teaching.
Lt. Shawn McDaniel and her husband lead The Salvation Army's Adult Rehabilitation Center in Las Vegas, which offers a free six-month residential program for men and women addicted to drugs or alcohol. Along with education about addiction, personal counseling and work therapy, she said the Army's emphasis on spirituality is a key element.
"We see addiction as a disease of the spirit, the mind and the body," Lt. McDaniel said. "When we introduce the spiritual component, we can address all those things."
She said people in the program go to chapel twice a week, and Bible studies are also held. Most of the Army's adult centers have onsite chaplains who can offer individual counsel for those who realize their addiction has a spiritual component.
But, Lt. McDaniel said, "we don't force conversion" on participants. Instead, they offer turning over one's will to God, through Jesus, as an option. "When people find that surrender, that's when the lights really come on for them," she said.
Email: [email protected], Twitter: @Mark_Kellner