Alcohol and the Church

The Rt. Rev. Andrew M.L. Dietsche, Bishop of New York, sent this pastoral letter to the people of his diocese on March 21:

As has become widely known, a priest of our diocese and cathedral, the Reverend Diane Reiners, was arrested by police in Jersey City while allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol. As this came in the wake of the Heather Cook arrest in Baltimore, it has received more than the usual media scrutiny. And as Diane is known and loved in our diocese, this news has been received with much sorrow and regret among her brother and sister clergy, the people of the cathedral congregation, and her bishops.

Because this has received so much public attention, and following the events in Maryland, many in the diocese have asked for some word from me. Diane and I spoke by phone last weekend while I was at the spring meeting of the House of Bishops, and while I do not intend to communicate any of the specifics of our conversation or of the course we will now follow, my care and respect for her as her bishop meant that I wanted to wait until I had seen her face-to-face before saying anything more widely.

The ordained people of the church have taken vows to pattern their lives that they might be a “wholesome example” to the people of the church. I think that all clergy have discovered that to live by what we call “the higher standard” will sometimes be hard, but I believe that the church has a right to expect that its priests, deacons and bishops will be accountable for the decisions they make and the things that they do.

I am convinced that genuine pastoral care must honor and respect both civil and canon law, as well as the trust placed in clergy by the church. But at the same time to treat all people with compassion, genuine caring, and the provision of resources to promote health, recovery and the abundant life. Pastoral care is all about the health that happens when accountability and compassion are held in tension, and it is my strongest conviction that everything we do as a church we must and will do in truth and in love. I promise you that Diane, and all who turn to the church in need, may count on that.

The church is blessed to count among its number a great many lay and ordained leaders, and bishops, who have faced the illness of alcoholism or addiction in their lives, come to recovery, built strong patterns of stability in their lives, and become for all of us icons of what the redeemed and transformed life can be. Some recovering priests in our diocese have offered themselves right now as helps to clergy who may need assistance to begin to move into their own sobriety. I invite members of our churches who are struggling and suffering with these matters to seek out the counsel and guidance of their priest, and I invite clergy in the same need to contact Canon Jeanne Person. She will hold everything in confidence. But know, my dear friends, that you may also come to me or to Bishop Shin. There will be no judgment and nothing to fear; only compassion and care and help.

Even before the events of this week, following the deep concerns in the church regarding the case of Bishop Cook, Canon Person and I had been making plans to devote some time at our priests conference this spring to talk about issues of alcohol and addiction. It will be a time for us to listen to one another, to learn from one another, to review guidelines for the responsible use of alcohol in the church, and to become equipped to more effectively talk about these things in our churches.

I know that at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the desire of God that all people live in freedom. Together we can face the disease of alcoholism without fear and with honesty, and break the isolation and shame on which addiction feeds. That is the radiant example we can set, the witness we may make within and beyond the church.

Pray now and in these days to come for our sister Diane, and pray that by the grace of God the church may become and always be places of learning and integrity, love and health, safety and hope.

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