Episcopalians examine alcohol use after fatal drunken driving case involving assistant bishop
SALT LAKE CITY — The top legislative body of the Episcopal Church is reviewing its policies on alcohol and addiction as part of the churchwide soul-searching over a Maryland assistant bishop charged with drunken driving while texting and killing a bicyclist.
Leaders of the Episcopal General Convention, meeting in Salt Lake City, put the topic on the agenda after the criminal case against Heather Cook drew national attention.
The Diocese of Maryland acknowledged they knew of an earlier drunken driving charge against Cook when she was being considered for the position of second-ranked local bishop, but did not disclose the information to local church members before they voted to elect her.
Cook, who has been defrocked, has pleaded not guilty to vehicular manslaughter, drunken driving and other charges.
In committee meetings Thursday, Episcopal leaders discussed updating the denomination’s guidance on alcohol use and abuse, which hasn’t been changed since 1985. Those guidelines suggest clergy and lay people educate themselves on pastoral support for substance abusers in the church, encourage moderate consumption of alcohol and suggest providing both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages at parish events.
“Thirty years has passed. There are certainly new discoveries, new understandings in the field of addiction,” said the Rev. Gay Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, the convention voting body for clergy and lay people. Jennings, who formed the special convention committee on substance abuse, said the review could also look at “how we might approach our selection and recruitment and formation of leaders.”
Committee members said the church must demonstrate it’s taking the issue seriously. At the convention, some Episcopalians are scrapping the usual cocktail parties and replacing them with events that reflect the increased concern about alcohol abuse. The Diocese of Maryland planned an ice cream social as an example of an alternative gathering that doesn’t involve liquor, said the Rev. M. Dion Thompson, a deputy from Maryland.
The bishops are conducting a review of what went wrong in Cook’s case, while a committee is looking at the broader cultural issues with drinking, said Brenda Hamilton, a clinical social worker from the Diocese of Maine and member of the committee.
“How do we speak to ourselves about our own historical culture of alcohol consumption in the Episcopal church?” Hamilton said. “People call us the ‘whiskapalians.’ Those jokes aren’t funny anymore.”
The Episcopal Church, with headquarters in New York City, has about 1.9 million members, and is known for its history as the faith home of many of the Founding Fathers and U.S. presidents.
The General Convention is a legislative meeting where bishops, priests and lay people vote on resolutions that set the course of the denomination for the next few years.
Some religious groups ban alcohol use, such as the Salt Lake City-based Mormon church that dominates the political and social landscape in Utah. But others, including the Episcopal Church, allow social drinking, which often becomes part of parish events and congregational life.
“Alcohol and good food is a gift from God — can be if it’s used appropriately,” said Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the national Episcopal leader, at a news conference. “Like all gifts, when used to excess or misused, it can become destructive and that’s the challenge.”
Many denominations have support programs just for clergy struggling with addiction to alcohol or drugs. Clergy who suffer from alcoholism often say they had been trying to cope with the high expectations of church members, the long hours, and the challenges of guiding congregants through some of their darkest moments, such as the death of a loved one or a divorce.
Cook is free on $2.5 million bail and her trial is set for Sept. 9. In the December accident, prosecutors said she was drunk and texting when she fatally struck Tom Palermo, 41, on his bicycle.