Bishop Heather Cook, an American Bishop, has recently been sentenced to seven years imprisonment for a hit and run death of a 41-year-old cyclist. The incident has led to much discussion about alcoholism in the church and especially among the clergy. This is an important issue which the church needs to face more realistically than it is at present. Fr Chris offers some thoughts on this important issue:
You may know the jokes about seeing pink elephants, and the popular views about the delirium tremens and hallucination which occur during alcohol withdrawal. In my case, during detox, I didn’t see pink elephants but mice flying around the room and attacking me. It’s a weird phenomenon – you know it isn’t real, but it feels and seems real.
We also often refer to the “elephant in the room” as the thing that we all know is there, but no one will dare to mention it.
For many months, when I was teaching, no one dared to mention my unacceptable level of drinking. I was drinking heavily. “He’s not well” would be voiced to excuse my behaviour, or my absence from meetings.
My own experience mirrors that of my mother, “She’s not well” would go up the cry. I colluded with her, as did my colleagues with me, to enable the drinking to continue. There has been much work, and many pages written, about co-dependency – where it is easier to enable an addict to use a substance than to tackle them about it.
Over the years at Chrysostom’s we have had several people in prominent roles (at least two priests, and a parish assistant) who have had severe and damaging problems with alcohol addiction, and this, I know, has caused upset, misunderstandings, hurt and even anger among the people.
I regret that I did not intervene with my mother before it was too late, and I am not proud to be an alcoholic.
But, I think that openness and honesty is a way forward – certainly for me, and for the Church. We do no one a favour when we cover up someone’s drinking, or when we collude with their problem. The possible repercussions around silence are immense – drunk driving, causing death.
There is an interesting light hearted take by Craig Ferguson at www.youtube.com/watch?v=kI-BhQGwDO8&feature=youtu.be
It has been said, of the Church, that “we are a family who enables, rationalizes, and covers for church leaders who are alcoholic and behaving in ways that hurt our congregations. We have no consistent church-wide methodology on intervention when someone is active in their disease to direct them to getting help or (as a last resort) remove them from their charge” (from a Facebook Post)
When I was in Newbury after my last detox in the “early noughties” we learnt and spoke about tough love. As a Church we have to be brave enough to confront the problem, and the addict – otherwise the addiction will win. We cannot wrap it up, or excuse it – alcohol and substance misuse needs to be confronted and treated.