With Heather Cook’s indictment comes an awakened mindfulness and concern. Her problems and its consequences have brought me to question and reexamine my own behavior. I have a history of using alcohol. It has been a help when I was shy about dancing or going out. As someone who is socially insecure, I have used alcohol to bolster my courage at a party. I also enjoy a drink at home before dinner. And of course, there is beer and the Super Bowl.
Heather has been the occasion for me to reexamine these patterns. And she has also brought up the many ways that alcohol has been a less than healthy dynamic in my experience of the Episcopal Church.
I learned about sipping sherry in seminary. I discovered that social drinking was required at most of my interviews for positions in the church.
The first clergy conference I attended as an ordained person was in North Carolina. The conference was entirely funded by a gift to the diocese at no cost to the clergy or parishes. We arrived to be welcomed by an open bar serving hard liquor. We all acted like we were at an all you can eat buffet trying to get our money’s worth. At dinner there was a large bottle of wine at each table. Out came the shrimp. Then they served the prime rib. Then we enjoyed the dessert, drinking all the while. Then they lowered the lights and the bishop addressed us. Many of us slid down in our seats and either fell asleep or passed out.
Fast forward one year to the next conference. No open bar. There was wine on the table. The shrimp was served, followed by dessert. No prime rib. Then the bishop spoke. He reminded us we misbehaved the prior conference and these were his steps to address our adolescent behavior. In an ironic way, it was my first experience of being called to accountability by my bishop regarding alcohol use.
In Louisiana the Mardi Gras traditions were occasions for liberal partaking of alcohol. So much so that some took it upon themselves to fast from alcohol (and sex) during Lent. It certainly put extra drama into the Great Alleluia of the Easter Vigil. But it also made people mindful of the role alcohol played in their lives.
Over the years, I have led vestry retreats where nearly every attendee brought a bottle of hard stuff for the social hour. I have been at conventions where the afternoon session ended as people nearly stampeded to the bar, and others met in small groups in hotel rooms for drinks before dinner. And I have supported serving wine before dinner at midweek Lenten Series Programs.
When Heather’s tragedy began to sink in, I was discomforted. I was angry at her irresponsibility and its consequences. I was angry at the Nominating Committee and the Standing Committee and the Diocesan Bishop and now the Presiding Bishop. I was one of those who voted for her at the electing convention. But I refused to accept any responsibility and kept putting it elsewhere.
Yet she has been the occasion for me to ask myself some hard questions. What do I drink and why? When do I assume I am OK to drive and is that assessment correct when I am the one making it and I have been drinking? Am I dependent on alcohol? So initially I just stopped drinking altogether. I was going to prove that I was OK. And I was. But was this like the many diets that have never become new lifestyles? And was it even necessary?
Now I am mindful when I drink. What am I doing and why? It is still a source of pleasure and socialization. But is has a darker side I dare not ignore. Drinking at home in the evening when I’ve no place to go is one thing. Drinking at a party or a restaurant when I have to drive home is another. And am I drinking because I want to or because I need to or because I feel pressured to?
I was recently instituted as the Priest in Charge of a parish in Maine. The event included a luncheon after church. The bishop’s guidelines stipulated that since people would have driven some distance to the event and had to drive home, no alcohol was to be served. I consider this good leadership.
On Saturday coming we will host an afternoon open house for the parish and for a House Blessing. As we put together the shopping list, we considered wine and decided not to serve any. We saw this as our first opportunity post Heather to make decisions about alcohol and church. And I will let people know why we made this decision.
I will continue to use alcohol. But Heather has made me mindful of this substance and its consequences. In most cases it will be OK. But sometimes its risks just won’t be worth it. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “If eating meat sacrificed to an idol causes another to stumble, I won’t eat meat again.”
This is the new mindfulness and awareness in my life, and if I had to give it a name, it would be . . .