Life after the DUI bishop: Deseret News listens to Episcopal voices talk alcohol

I imagine that faithful GetReligion readers noticed that in the past I have paid very close attention to the story of the DUI Episcopal Bishop in Maryland -- now simply Heather Elizabeth Cook, after she was defrocked.

It was, after all, a local story since I was living in Maryland at the time. This was also a story with the potential to have a strong impact on regional and national leaders in the Episcopal Church, even if Baltimore Sun editors didn't seem all that interested in that side of things.

With the trial ahead, it is also clear that this story is not over. Several Maryland Episcopalians and former Episcopalians kept raising an interesting question: If it is true that Cook was drunk AND texting, might she have been doing church business on a work cellphone when she struck and killed that cyclist? If so, what are the implications for the shrinking Maryland diocese?

Then there is the issue of the Episcopal Church and its love/hate relationship with alcohol. This is the stuff of cheap humor (insert joke about four Episcopalians here), but it is also a serious topic linked to substance abuse and people in power looking the other way.

So during the recent Episcopal General Convention in Salt Lake City, the Cook case made it impossible for church leaders not to talk about alcohol. To their credit, it appears that they took this issue fairly seriously. With gay-marriage rites in the news, however, the coverage of the topic was light.

Thus, I want to point readers toward a major feature story on this topic that ran in The Deseret News. It is somewhat awkward to do this because it was written by former GetReligionista Mark Kellner, who now works on that newspaper's national religion desk. But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Besides, how can you pass up a story with an anecdotal, on-the-record lede as devastating as this one?

When the Rev. Canon Mary June Nestler fielded calls about the Episcopal Church's General Convention in Salt Lake City this summer, she wanted to tell visitors about "the beautiful mountains or our wonderful people."
Instead, the conversations often turned to booze. Can you buy alcohol in Salt Lake City? Is it OK to have a cocktail in your hotel room? Could you drive into Utah with alcohol from another state?
"Our whole diocese found it curious that so many questions came in" relating to alcohol consumption, the Rev. Canon Nestler, executive officer of the Episcopal Church's Diocese of Utah, said. Part of it she credited to Utah's reputation of having complex liquor laws, but the questions also "said something about our (Episcopal) church" and the leadership's comfort level with alcohol.

Yes, you sense a summary paragraph of facts coming. Here it is:

That same church leadership took action at the end of June to address alcohol consumption among members and clergy. Specifically, delegates representing the 1.8 million member denomination enacted resolutions on how and when alcohol is to be served at church functions and that the church "confront and repent of (its) complicity in a culture of alcohol, denial, and enabling."
A third measure called for those evaluating candidates for ordination to ask prospective clergy whether they have issues with substance abuse.

Cook is mentioned, but not spotlighted, in this story. I think that is a crucial point, since her case made headlines -- but it is not typical of the more chronic cases behind the scenes. The multiple-DUI bishop, the daughter of a famous priest who also struggled with alcoholism, was simply the painful case that made the elephant in the sanctuary impossible to ignore.

This was pain inside the family and everyone knew it. Period. Let's end with this crucial section:

The strain of the Cook case was apparent during legislative discussion of the matter, the Associated Press reported. A member of the church's committee on alcohol and other drug abuse, Brenda Hamilton of the Maine diocese, told the news agency, "People call us the 'whiskapalians.' Those jokes aren’t funny anymore."
The Rt. Rev. G. Porter Taylor, who heads the Western North Carolina diocese, said "the Heather Cook incident was a call for us to examine where we are and where God was calling us to be."
Ironically, the story behind Cook's replacement in the Baltimore diocese underscores the issues involved. The Rt. Rev. Chilton Knudsen, appointed assistant bishop after Cook's departure, is herself a recovering alcoholic who told NPR a "social drinking culture" exacerbated her problem.
"Social drinking is a part of the culture we live in," the Rt. Rev. Knudsen said. "And for some of us, circumstances lead us to do a little more social drinking and a little more social drinking and a little more social drinking until the active alcoholism is triggered. … I was working as a parish priest with lots of people who had alcoholism, and I began to see myself in the beginning pieces of their stories."

There is much more here to discuss. Here is my main question for religion-beat professionals: Do you need to localize this story? I think the answer to that is rather obvious.

Please respect our Commenting Policy