The right question can lead us down incredible paths of discovery.
The right question can be the first step in breaking decades-long cycles of dysfunction.
The right question can get us into all sorts of trouble … trouble we both fear and desperately need.
The right question is everything.
Since Maryland Suffragan Bishop Heather Cook tragically killed cyclist Thomas Palermo while driving with a blood alcohol level well over the legal limit, all sorts of questions have been asked.
There have been questions about Bishop Cook and her judgment and whether or not she is an alcoholic.
There have been questions about the bishop election process in Maryland and what information should have been disclosed to the electing convention.
There have even been theological questions about the nature of sin and forgiveness.
I have seen countless articles and Facebook posts since that terrible afternoon asking all sorts of questions … good and valid questions. But I have yet to see what I believe is the “right question” … the question I tremble to ask. The question that convicts us all - myself included.
What does this say about us? What does this say about the family system of the Episcopal Church?
I don’t have to dig too deeply in my own reaction to this tragedy to hit my own utter lack of surprise. Not because I know Bishop Cook – I’ve never met her. But because I know my Episcopal Church.
I know that my own Diocese of Missouri had an active alcoholic as a bishop when I first arrived here as a college student in 1986. His name is Bill Jones. I know there was an intervention done at the end of his tenure and that he lives now in courageous long-term recovery but that our diocese has never truly addressed his alcoholism – or the systems of dysfunction that led us to call him, sustained him and did not magically disappear when he left office.
I know that our own Christ Church Cathedral was serving alcohol at Chapter meetings when I arrived here. I know that consumption of alcohol was a central part not just of Cathedral social events but committee meetings. I also know that when we brought Dale Kuhn from Care and Counseling in to do two sessions with the Chapter and two more with the congregation on the topic of addiction and family systems, there was a great deal of pushback and some people left the congregation.
I know that until we named the power of addiction and family systems head on, the three hallmarks of an alcoholic family system – don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel – eerily described a Cathedral congregation that even today still struggles with communications and trust issues and where feelings were often expressed in unpredictable, triangulating and inappropriate ways.
I know that any progress we have made has been from naming our dysfunction and by embracing alternate and healthier ways of being. I also know that we still have a long way to go.
I know that a year ago, I helped preside at the funeral of my friend, the Rev. Doug Nissing. Doug was a brilliant and charismatic priest. He was a loving partner to his husband, Dan. He died at age 52 --literally drinking himself to death. (Hear the Rev. Susie Skinner's excellent truth-telling sermon at his funeral here.)
I know that my experience of General Convention in 2000, 2003 and 2006 was that I had never seen so much alcohol consumed outside of a fraternity house in my life – and that I participated in that consumption. That is was easy to participate. That it was expected to participate. That it was unthinkable to me not to.
I don’t have to dig too deeply in my own reaction to this tragedy to hit my own utter lack of surprise. If I'm honest, the question I ask myself isn't "how could this happen" but rather "how has this not happened more?" Or maybe even, "how many times has this happened that we don't know about?"
Systems exist to perpetuate themselves. It is a natural part of how human beings function in community. In an alcoholic family system, there is often one “active” alcoholic who is the focal point for the dysfunction … but everyone in the system participates in it and has a role in sustaining it.
When the alcoholic is discovered – perhaps through a tragic event like this – the temptation is to make her the “identified patient.” It's not about us. It's about Heather. It's about Bill. It's about Doug. Their own obvious culpability makes it easy for the rest of us to say that they are outliers … they are the problem … and not ask the hard but right question. Not ask the question that makes us tremble. Not ask the question that convicts us all.
The right question is everything. And the right question is this:
What does this say about us?
What does this say about the family system of the Episcopal Church?
I believe our church is an addicted family system. That should be no surprise since our entire culture is an addicted family system. We are addicted not just to alcohol and drugs but to pornography and media and even the dopamine hit we get when we check if someone has liked our Facebook status.
And one thing we know about addictions … we will use every power of rationalization and misdirection we have to defend them, because we are convinced we need them and it terrifies us to the core to have them named and challenged. They are in every way the anti-Christ. They are a power counter to Christ to which we give power every bit as profoundly as we promise to give Jesus. And there is no way we can give our lives to Christ fully as long as they have us in their grasp.
But the good news is we are people of Jesus Christ. And we are people who put our whole trust in Jesus' grace and love. And we are people who believe in Jesus' saving power. And so we are people who need not fear any question -- no matter how deeply it convicts us. On the contrary, we are people who must welcome the hardest and most convicting of questions, the questions that reveal the deepest truths, for we truly believe the truth shall set us free.
There are many questions that Bishop Cook’s killing of Thomas Palermo raises. Good questions. Hard questions. Technical questions. Theological questions.
But I believe there is one question we must ask ourselves if we want a chance to prevent this from happening again … as assuredly it has happened before.
What does this say about us ... all of us? What does this say about the family system of the Episcopal Church?
What do you think?
For an excellent book on addicted family systems and the church read "So You Think You Don't Know One" by Chilton Knudsen and Nancy Van Dyke Platt.