Alcohol Panel Speaks Directly

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

As a General Convention panel dug into substance abuse issues Thursday, some members wondered whether the committee is dodging the sort of drinking problems that made the committee necessary.

The Special Legislative Committee on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse passed a resolution calling on oversight bodies to ask candidates for ordination about their substance abuse. But a committee member and alcoholic in recovery questioned how much good such a practice would do.

“The last person who’s going to tell you he has a drinking problem is a drunk,” said retired Bishop Gene Robinson. “I’m speaking from experience. … I’m not sure that just addressing this with the people themselves is going to get the results that we’re looking for.”

The committee then considered two new resolutions. One calls for a new substance-abuse task force that would suggest best-practice policies for dioceses and congregations. It would also develop a substance-abuse curriculum. The other resolved to confront “the Church’s complicity in a culture of alcohol” and to “promote spiritual practices as a means of prevention and healing.”

All three resolutions showcased how the Church is trying to respond to the tragedy of December 2014, when police say Heather Cook, former bishop suffragan of Maryland, killed a cyclist and left the scene after driving drunk and texting while driving. In the aftermath, calls have gone up for the church to review its policies for identifying substance abuse among church leaders and making sure they get help.

Yet as the committee parsed words in draft form Thursday, some observed that the church was — at least so far — focusing on external, societal problems and failing to see the log in its own eye.

“To me, this still reads like the Episcopal Church is a city on a hill that’s got everything figured out, and so we’re going to tell the rest of the world how to more properly deal with alcohol and substance-abuse disorders,” said the Rev. Gregory Syler, a committee member from the Diocese of Washington. “Whereas we have a real problem in our own house.”

Syler persuaded the committee to add the words and repent after confront. The committee later added Episcopal before Church to make clear who needs to repent.

Bert Jones also raised objections to the proposal that a substance-abuse task force include people of various backgrounds — indigenous, African-American, gay and lesbian — but not necessarily any whites.

“It seems to me like those are the people that are wanted on the task force,” said Jones, a member of the committee. The list “is not including people who are white. And I’m just wondering why because substance abuse is not something that is only germane to people of color. … There are many white folks who have substance abuse problems.”

Before the committee broke for the day, Bishop Robinson raised the question of whether a new task force might be set up for failure if it takes on a daunting task and must complete it in one year. The committee will hold a hearing on the proposed resolutions Friday.

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