Episcopal leaders respond to fatal drunken driving case
Salt Lake City — The Episcopal Church's top legislative body is reviewing its policies on alcohol and addiction as part of a churchwide soul-searching over a Maryland assistant bishop charged with drunken driving while texting and killing a bicyclist.
Leaders of the Episcopal General Convention, meeting in Salt Lake City, put the topic on the agenda after the criminal case against Heather Cook drew national attention. Cook, who has been defrocked, has pleaded not guilty to vehicular manslaughter, drunken driving and other charges.
In committee meetings Thursday, Episcopal leaders discussed updating the denomination's guidance on alcohol use and abuse, which hasn't been changed since 1985. Those guidelines suggest clergy and lay people educate themselves on pastoral support for substance abusers in the church, encourage moderate consumption of alcohol and suggest providing both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages at parish events.
"Thirty years has passed. There are certainly new discoveries, new understandings in the field of addiction," said the Rev. Gay Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, the convention voting body for clergy and lay people. Jennings, who formed the special convention committee on substance abuse, said the review could also look at "how we might approach our selection and recruitment and formation of leaders."
The Diocese of Maryland acknowledged they knew of an earlier drunken driving charge against Cook when she was being considered for the position of second-ranked local bishop, but did not disclose the information to local church members before they voted to elect her.
Committee members said the church must demonstrate it's taking the issue seriously. At the convention, some Episcopalians are scrapping the usual cocktail parties and replacing them with events such as ice cream socials that reflect the increased concern about alcohol abuse.
The bishops are conducting a review of Cook's case, while a committee is looking at the broader cultural issues with drinking, said committee member Brenda Hamilton, a clinical social worker from the Diocese of Maine.
"How do we speak to ourselves about our own historical culture of alcohol consumption in the Episcopal church?" Hamilton said. "People call us the 'whiskapalians.' Those jokes aren't funny anymore."
The committee discussed a possible resolution that would call on the church to confront its complicity in a culture of alcohol by advocating for public funding for prevention, intervention and treatment.
The re-examination of alcohol policy isn't about implementing prohibition or kicking out members who are addicted, Hamilton said. It's about encouraging responsible use and compassion for those struggling with substance abuse, she said.
"Where is the moderation in the middle that God calls us to?" Hamilton said.
The church of about 1.9 million members has its headquarters in New York City.
The General Convention is a legislative meeting where bishops, priests and lay people vote on resolutions that set the course for the next few years for a church known for its history as the faith home of many of the Founding Fathers and U.S. presidents.
Some religious groups ban alcohol use, such as the Salt Lake City-based Mormon church that dominates the political and social landscape in Utah. But others, including the Episcopal Church, allow social drinking, which often becomes part of parish events and congregational life.
"Alcohol and good food is a gift from God — can be if it's used appropriately," said Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the national Episcopal leader, at a news conference. "Like all gifts, when used to excess or misused, it can become destructive and that's the challenge."
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