By Matthew Townsend
The Committee on Alcohol and Drug Abuse launched into deliberations Wednesday morning on the nature of addiction and how the Episcopal Church addresses alcohol use and abuse in the wake of drunken driving and manslaughter charges against Heather Cook, the Diocese of Maryland’s former suffragan bishop.
The committee debated topics ranging from the definition of alcoholism to whether the Church should attempt to encourage or mandate changes within its culture. The larger question of just what addiction is — and whether it is a spiritual disease — also came to the foreground.
Deputy Jane Freeman, LISW, of the Diocese of Ohio cited the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ removal of terms like abuse as part of psychology’s own changing views on addiction.
“I’m wrestling with defining alcoholism as a spiritual illness,” said the Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Bishop of Ohio. Hollingsworth said he considers addiction a physical illness with spiritual consequences. “There’s a difficult line in the church between disease and sin,” he added, wondering if a spiritual disease constitutes sin.
The Rt. Rev. Porter Taylor, Bishop of Western North Carolina, however, said that resolutions needed further affirmation of the spiritual component of recovery. “Recovery allows us to grow in our faith,” he said. “The church has an enormous debt to the recovery movement, and that needs to be acknowledged.”
A deputy from the Diocese of Easton, the Rev. Kevin Cross, observed that the spiritual component of addiction involves separating an addict from others — and from God. “We understand the impact of addiction on spirituality is that gradually a substance takes the place of relationships,” he said. “Recovery is the restoration of healthy relationships.”
Ultimately, the committee shifted from questions about the nature of addiction to precisely what the church should do — and how any such actions could be effective.
The Rev. Greg Syler, deputy from the Diocese of Washington, said he’d like to see language about formation within a resolution — that priests in the field who suffer the stress of isolation and tight budgets may be more vulnerable to addiction. He said addiction raises the question of “how we live and work with our communities on the ground, which are changing rapidly.”
Bishop Taylor asked how Cook’s criminal trial may affect future hiring in the church. “We’re here because of the incident in Maryland,” Taylor said. “Anytime a candidate for office in the Episcopal Church owns up to addiction or alcoholism, this could be an impediment.”
This is not the first time General Convention has addressed the issue of alcohol use in the Church. Cross said he was startled by the number of resolutions passed by General Convention since 1979 — good resolutions, but with little effect or implementation.
“We’re still the ‘Whiskypalians,’” he said, expressing his hopes for a different future.
Image: Bishop Mark Hollingsworth speaks about the nature of addiction Wednesday morning. • Matthew Townsend photo