By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

The two presiding officers of General Convention said Tuesday they would not push to change its culture of social drinking, despite charges of drunken driving and manslaughter against a now-deposed bishop.

At a press conference, House of Deputies President Gay Clark Jennings urged cocktail-party hosts to heed current rules by making non-alcoholic beverages available. Jennings said she hopes partygoers will drink “in moderation and responsibly.”

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said the Episcopal Church rarely regulates behavior and would not do so in this case.

“We depend on education and formation in the church … to guide people in making their own decisions about how to live an ethically appropriate life,” she said. “That’s a very challenging thing when it comes to alcohol. Jesus himself was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton because he enjoyed parties with friends.”

Since January’s indictment of Heather Cook, who was defrocked in May as Bishop Suffragan of Maryland, the Episcopal Church’s culture of routinely serving alcohol at church events has faced increased scrutiny. Particular attention has turned to General Convention, where nightly cocktail parties are abundant.

The Rev. J. Scott Barker, Bishop of Nebraska, vowed in February to steer clear of alcoholic beverages for the duration of Convention.

“I’m mindful of the recent tragedy in Maryland, and the chance to make a small witness for delight in sobriety as a bishop of the Church,” Barker wrote in an open letter.

As Convention convenes this week, signs of what Jennings calls heightened sensitivity to the issue are dotting the landscape. Newly formed committee on alcohol and other drug abuse will consider the first changes to church policy on substance abuse in 30 years. The committee will consider whether vestries, committees on ministry, and standing committees should ask aspirants for ordination about substance abuse.

“Events this past spring involving addicted clergy have indicated that search and evaluation committees for ordination may consider addiction a moral failing rather than a disease,” says the explanation for the resolution, which was proposed by the Very Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh, dean of St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland, Maine. “We, as a church, need to become better equipped to face the issues of addiction in those seeking ordination.”

Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church will distribute No Thank You buttons at General Convention for all who wish to abstain or show support, according to House of Deputies News. On June 29 the Diocese of Maryland will host an ice-cream social rather than a cocktail party.

Convention leaders say time will tell whether those gathered at Convention adjust their drinking habits.

“We’ll see how it plays out in these two weeks,” Jennings said.

Image of gin and tonic by cyclonebill of Copenhagen, Denmark, via Wikimedia Commons

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