First, a confession (as Great Lent approaches): I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian who lives in Maryland, which by definition means that I know many former Episcopalians. So from the beginning of the sad saga of the DUI Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook, I have heard people trying to make sense of the timeline and trying to discern its impact -- spiritual, political and financial -- on the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.
The working theory: Cook was a legacy case, the daughter of a powerful local priest (a recovering alcoholic who was a pioneer in ministry to alcoholics). It appears that Cook was an effective parish pastor and then, during a decade as an administrator in the quiet and well-bred Eastern Shore Diocese of Easton, her work load pushed her deep into drink. Thus, the horrible 2010 DUI episode involving burning rubber, vomit, a fifth of whiskey and some marijuana.
But she received treatment and the Diocese of Maryland, without letting all of the voters know about that DUI thing, selected her as a bishop. Then perhaps the stress returned? Thus, the strange sermon on bad habits and safe driving and then the fatal collision with a cyclist. She has been charged with criminal negligent manslaughter, using a texting device while driving, leaving the scene of an accident that resulted in death and three charges of drunken driving. Bail: $2.5 million.
But now there is this timeline shocker, care of The Washington Post and several other sources, including former GetReligionista George Conger, who now writes for The Media Project. The Post story opens with this:
The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland suspected that Heather Cook -- now charged in the drunken-driving death of a Baltimore bicyclist -- was drunk during her installation festivities this past fall, a new official timeline shows. ...
The timeline, which the Diocese of Maryland said Monday it had added to its Web site, says the head of the national Episcopal Church was made aware that Cook may have been drunk during her installation celebration. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was the leader of the Sept. 6 service that consecrated Cook, or made her a bishop.
Bishop Eugene Sutton -- who oversees Episcopalians in much of Maryland aside from the D.C. suburbs -- suspected Cook was “inebriated during pre-consecration dinner,” the timeline says, “and conveys concern to Presiding Bishop. Presiding Bishop indicates she will discuss with Cook. Cook consecrated.”
This would -- to say the least -- have been a rather important fact to have included in the giant, but ultimately shallow, "investigation" into the case published this past weekend by The Baltimore Sun.
This scoop has to hurt, for the editors there. And I can't find any evidence of this crucial story in the newspaper that landed in my front yard this morning, either. Maybe that's somewhere in the parts of the online edition that I can't see because I am only a subscriber to the tree-pulp edition?
That long, long feature was very heavy on supportive human voices, but very thin on actual facts about Cook and the diocese. Here's an example, drawn from a lengthy passage on her -- by these accounts -- successful time as a priest:
The Rev. Dr. David J. Robson is the rector, or pastor, of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in York, Pa., where Cook held that position from 1994 to 2004. She presided over and helped lead "a bountiful period in the life of the church," said Robson, one in which she led a significant expansion of Sunday school and youth ministry programs and helped spearhead the construction of a great hall. ...
She was an active leader as an administrator, ... a priest who judged talent well, found the right people for the right jobs, and kept the business elements of the church running smoothly. She also placed a premium on welcoming others, which ... helped attract more families with children and expanded the congregation's numbers so much that St. Andrew's had to build an addition -- a project she helped spearhead.
That's interesting, but something is missing -- actual facts about the life and health of the parish. It sounds like her ministry there was quite effective, but it would have been appropriate to have backed that up with actual statistics about membership, church attendance and even budget numbers.
Why? Because we are talking about a priest who is about to be promoted into lofty positions of leadership, based on her administration skills. And looming in the background is the question that Sun journalists surely asked: At what point did her social life in the Maryland Episcopal establishment show signs of a struggle with alcohol?
Here is one more strange passage from the long, long Sun piece, one that made me place my palm to my forehead in embarrassment for the copy desk:
Cook's father, the Rev. Halsey Cook, made public his struggle with alcoholism in the 1970s while serving as rector of Old St. Paul's congregation in downtown Baltimore. At the time, he was credited with calling attention to what he called a "rampant epidemic in our society."
Heather Cook said she traveled the world -- studying in Canada and England, working as an au pair in Spain, on a kibbutz in Israel, and as a grape-picker in France -- before returning to Baltimore, where she had grown up in a religious family.
Surely, surely this was a simple mistake and not some kind of sarcastic comment on Episcopal life in Maryland? Did the Sun team really need to say that the future bishop had "grown up in a religious family" -- since the previous paragraph (not the mention prominent art illustrating the piece) had noted she was the daughter of a powerful and prominent priest in a high-profile Baltimore parish?
One more point: When is the Sun going to address the other topics that folks in town are talking about early and often? That is this: What is the potential impact of this legal case on the finances of this shrinking diocese? Also, will there be fallout for its leader, Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton, the first African-American to lead this diocese and frequently mentioned as a candidate to be the next presiding bishop of the national church?
UPDATED: And now The Sun has a story up on this development.
Thumbnail image: From the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.