Sunday, January 11, 2015

The "right question" about Bishop Cook and alcohol

I always try to look for the right question.

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. 

32 comments: said...

I am so grateful that "The Right Question" focused on our capacity for covering over addictive systems in the church has been posted. There is in the raising of the questions about the killing of Tom Palermo by the drunk Bishop a shining honesty that has the capacity to begin freeing us to be more human in the church. Many has thrown their integrity aside in a hurling of church Trustees on the baracades surrounding Heather Cook. The theological task must be founded on honesty, exploring who we are & where we are going. This is very different from the Police task. Pax

Thomas E Boland said...

This is all well and good to frame the question this way. For it to have meaning and teeth though, when the Palermo family sues the church, the only response should be "How much do we write the check for?".

Ann said...

Exactly Mike.

dago said...

I began my career as a forensic psychologist. I worked at Cook County Jail in Chicago. I encountered many drug/alcohol addicts, manslaughterers, and murderers. I heard their stories, often replete with horrible childhoods and adolescences marked by chaos and violence. But guess what? They broke laws and paid the penalty. Being under the influence of anything gets you no mercy in a court of law. Nor should it.

Heather Cook drove drunk. Very drunk. While driving drunk, she also texted. She then killed an innocent human being. What's the issue? She will if found guilty, I hope, pay the same penalty under the law as any other person convicted of the same crime. And I don't want to hear a pastoral word about her being a bishop. If found guilty, this woman should go to prison for a very long time. And she should think every day about the horrible thing she has done.

Like a Roman Catholic priest I knew who embezzled over $300,000 from his parish to feed his gambling habit. In court, he wept and blubbered about having 'an addiction' and having gotten treatment and being in recovery. The judge would have none of it and sent him to the slammer. Right on.

This woman: 1) Drove drunk; 2) She knew she was drunk; 3) She knew she had a drinking problem. 4) She knew how to get help for her problem (being a pastor) and DIDN'T. 5) She knew texting while driving was against the law. 6) She, in her alcoholic arrogance, did all of the above anyone. She also had a DUI history. That means that she had to have gone through some kind of counseling previously about her problem. I'll bet you a mitre she SWORE she'd never drink and drive again. So she'll get not one ounce of sympathy from me.

And please don't try playing the "Christian forgiveness" or "corporate guilt" or "But she's a bishop" cards. Yes, the Church has a lot of alcoholic clergy. But guess what? They're just as sneaky as other alcoholics. There is no psychological test to "smoke out" an alcoholic. When you ask them the questions that might lead to a diagnosis, THEY LIE . . . until they break through denial and then they get help. I suspect Ms. Cook's ability to continue in denial is greatly diminished at this point. If she's lucky there will be AA meetings in prison and she can work on her addiction for the next 10 or 20 years.

In the end, people need to be held accountable for the acts they commit. Tough love is the only thing that helps. a "poor Heather Cook, the church let her down" crusade would be nauseating.

Barbara Crafton said...

Nothing in the Dean's essay suggests that understanding the nature of addiction writ large across an entire church means that Bp. Cook should not experience the consequences of her actions.

Anonymous said...

About the question raised of a lawsuit against the church: I'm not sure that victims of accidents related to alcohol impairment generally sue the driver's employer, unless the person's job is driving a bus, truck, taxi, limo, etc.

Homeslice said...

There is a saying that I've heard over and over again since I became an Episcopalian in the 70's.... "Wherever you find 4'll find a 5th" There is a big achohol problem in the church that is systemic. I totally agree with this article!

Anonymous said...

A worthy question to ponder, but should the Church assume we are all addicts, or potential ones, and remove all temptations and opportunities to exercise our God-granted free will?

I'm not a big fan of alcohol and am thankful for no apparent alcoholic gene (in contrast to a few ancestors), but our historic lack of hysteria about this drug has set us apart from other more Devil water denominations, serving to welcome ones sneered at as sinners elsewhere (yes, we're all sinners, but I refer here to being painted as sinful for quaffing the occasional spirited beverage) .

It's a conundrum, but should we advocate prohibition? Have we sound data regarding how many clergy and congregants have turned alcoholic due to alcohol accessibility at our functions, versus those with this addiction or a predilection to it? Will we dedicate a feast day to St. Carrie Nation? In the interest of not alcoholically enabling anyone, do we follow the temperance of other denominations and miraculously change our wine to grape juice? Will our vestries propose, and congregations approve, banning all alcohol from our churches?

I realize the right question was already provided above, however it seems to lead to more questions rather than any right answer.

Anonymous said...

I am a cradle Episcopalian but left after being called a "Jesus freak" and getting sober. I just celebrated 25 years of continuous sobriety.

Mike Kinman said...

I do not think prohibition is the answer. For one, it doesn't work. Secondarily -- and more important -- the goal is health. Alcohol can be used in moderation and in line with healthy ways of being. As in all things, we need to live an examined life. What is the role of alcohol in our individual lives and in our common life? Is it used to build up or to divide and destroy? Where is Christ calling us?

Hobart said...

I respect the courage of this post as a congregational and diocesan pastoral leader. I am a retired UCC clergy (Eden '75) in Ohio who was led to your post via Facebook. I wrote a similar column to my church 15 years ago. It did not sit well and some left our congregation. Anne Wilson Schaef wrote about this in Christian Century 25 years ago "The Church as an Addictive Organuzatin." Her book "The Addictive Organization" fleshes it out more. Rabbi Ed Friedman brings help to it too in "Generation to Generation." Schaef article link

Catharine Phillips said...

Thank you. I believe you are asking the right question.

Catharine Phillips said...

Thank you. I believe you are asking the right question.

Hobart said...

Schaef article link

marc said...

This is a well written and thoughtful piece, and I agree. I agree that she is most likely an addict, that she has hit bottom, and she must face the consequences of her actions under the law.

And yes, it sheds light on how the Episcopal church culture enables alcoholism.

Beyond that, though, there is an additional aspect which is far-reaching for the church, and I have not seen it commented much in the Episcopal blogs: credibility, and the appearance of hypocrisy, not of Ms Cook but of the church. The lay world has many misperceptions about the church, but fundamentally expects churches to continue to hold a moral high ground, so as to be credible and viable in guiding congregations and society-at-large on issues larger and more nuanced than those governed primarily by secular law. They presume that church leaders will be successively more credible on this the more senior they are.

Ms. Cook was the opposite. She was less credible. Indeed, her behavior was profoundly flawed, and abhorrent, not only for Christians but for everyone. An addict? Likely. Someone worthy of forgiveness -- yes, though for many that will be a monumental struggle. But for the church: it has not clearly acknowledged this deep flaw in the behavior of its senior leader. Look at social media -- in numerous cases parallels are being drawn to sexual abuse scandals.

If the Episcopal church is to retain credibility, it must meet these issues not only head-on, but also quickly.

I have always drawn a clear distinction between the person and the behavior. We must look for reconciliation and forgiveness of the person. What I have not yet seen is a clear condemnation of the behavior -- it's not just unchristian, it's abhorrent and we need to say that.

Randall Curtis said...

Great post. I get so disgusted when some Episcopalian tells the joke that, "Wherever there is 4 Episcopalians there is alwasy a fifth." It often sounds as if we are proud that we drink so much.

GraceCan said...

This is an excellent article that I hope receives wide distribution--with the author's permission, of course. It makes important points and also raises important questions.
First of all, why would it be problematic to ban alcohol from church functions? I was vicar of a church where that was the policy, and except for a few couples choosing to hold their wedding receptions elsewhere, there was no complaint. There are many other churches with the same policy, and it doesn't seem to detract from their ministry or their social events.I did services at a conference with a priest who used non-alcoholic wine and said that's all he ever used, out of concern for those who might be alcoholics. Is there not even scriptural injunction about causing our brothers or sisters to stumble?
My granddaughter was recently married in a large Baptist church.At the reception they served apple cider, lemonade, iced tea, water and coffee. When it came time for the toasts, we had sparkling cider in champagne glasses. It was a joyous occasion with music, dancing, laughter and terrific fellowship. I doubt if anyone even thought about the fact that there was no alcohol available.
I have always cringed when folks of other denominations refer to us as "Whiskeypalians."
Return to Prohibition? Of course not--it simply doesn't work. Remove alcohol from church or diocesan functions? Why not?

Stephanie Maley said...

And amen. Well said. Thank you for writing this.

kathySchl said...

Thank you for asking the right question. What is the practice currently in Episcopal Churches about offering A grape juice chalice as "The cup of Salvation?

Donald Higdon said...

This format is insufferable and repellent. If you really expect to attract readers with it, you're kidding yourself.

The Rev. Carlyle Gill said...

I think this is a fabulous article and poses just the right question. Thank you for helping us to look at ourselves.

Sue Stromquist said...

I do believe the right questions are starting to be asked. As in any family, when there is a huge problem we need to do some checks and see if anything needs to be changed. But there are three things I know for sure 1. I am an alcholic with 20 years sobriety; 2. I am a lifelong Episcopalian 3. If I want a drink, I will find one no matter where I am; if I don't think they will be serving, I will make some provision to have it. Most addicts know where their next drink is coming from.

Anonymous said...

While I feel compassion for all concerned in this debacle, a man is dead because Bishop Cook chose to drive drunk, and her miter should in no way exonerate her from paying the penalty for what, in effect, is a repeat offense.
As for the problem of church functions being awash in alcohol, how does this serve the purposes of the Great Commission? There is a simple answer to this, although it requires the will; dioceses and churches need to ban alcohol at church functions. Thirty years ago at the church where I serve as priest my predecessor, with the approval of the Bishop's Committee, banned alcohol from church functions; in the thirty years since, the number of members who have received DUIs as a result of participation in church functions has been precisely zero. If anyone left the church as a result of that decision then it was the price that had to be paid to reduce the dysfunctional nature of this particular church.

D. Dyson Gay said...

In the microcosm of the immediate question, that of the dreadful traffic incident and how it played out, the author is pretty harsh on self and the rest of us. Look at three of the activities of Christ Church Cathedral on its website...formation, back to basics and weekly prayer. This incident involving Bp Cook involves personal responsibility, and the apparent lack thereof.

Yet, on a macro level, the Church at large is indeed subject to examination, for many actions and failures to refrain from actions. Corporate level alcohol problems in some persons are a symptom, but not the root, in my view. Nor is the attribution of general culpability to the church at large a solution.

Which may lead us again to the three pursuits mentioned on the Cathedral site. Formation, back to basics and prayer.

Anonymous said...

Well said. I too worked in the Corrections System. I know enabling behavior. The Church does it well. We are quick to forgive and forget. We use the cloaks of privacy to avoid facing issues in our parishes and dioceses. Forgiveness is the result of repentance. Repentance is taking responsibility for one's behavior and changing that behavior. Repentance and forgiveness do not mean that there are no consequences for behavior.

agedcheddar said...

I am a priest and retired prosecutor. An employer certainly can be sued for the wrongdoing of its employee. It's called "respondeat superior", and dates back centuries in English Common Law. As to " forgiveness" Barbara is absolutely right: it does not absolve the guilty from responsibility. Jesus' sacrifice for our sins doesn't excuse us from the need to repent, reform and suffer the consequences of our misconduct: it means that the misconduct, however egregious, does not break the relationship.

Whit Johnstone said...

"Beyond that, though, there is an additional aspect which is far-reaching for the church, and I have not seen it commented much in the Episcopal blogs: credibility, and the appearance of hypocrisy, not of Ms Cook but of the church. The lay world has many misperceptions about the church, but fundamentally expects churches to continue to hold a moral high ground, so as to be credible and viable in guiding congregations and society-at-large on issues larger and more nuanced than those governed primarily by secular law. They presume that church leaders will be successively more credible on this the more senior they are."

Actually, I find that the Episcopal Church is being praised for our transparency and willingness to hold our leadership accountable. We actually began to press canonical charges against +Cook before the secular criminal charges were filed, which some people considered a refreshing change.

TheRevMagoo said...

Good piece, Mike. I've been sober for 21 years, a priest for 13 of them. I'll never forget my bishop telling me in my discernment process that it would be entirely up to me whether or not I wanted to tell others about my disease. I was stunned. I mean, I get and respect the whole anonymity thing (though I choose to be open about my recovery and see it as part of my ministry) but I can't imagine how anyone in recovery can share the story of their spiritual journey without talking about their experience of working the 12-steps and the transformation--ie. resurrection!--that resulted. As the saying goes in AA, "We're only as sick as our secrets." That certainly applies to institutions as much as it does to individuals.

Jim said...

In my house, I am hearing the question with 2 subtexts: do we minister to each other in ways that facilitate moderation and do we provide professionals, including clergy, adequate avenues to help when they need it?

Both are valid avenues of inquiry, neither offer any exoneration for Bp. Cook or any other impaired driver.

What I think unfortunate is the breast-beating "oh ho guilty are we" over-reactions. No we do not need to become a chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. No, we do not need to switch to Grape juice for all communicants. (We might want to offer it as an option.)

Seeking what is most constructive is a good thing. Recognizing our addictive behavior in our own lives, parish lives, and diocese, is a good thing. But any good thing can go too far. I read some of the social media responses to this tragic event, as going way too far.


Bindy said...

The event involving Bp Cook involves personal responsibility, indeed.

Mother POS said...

Thank you, Dean Mike. Another member of the Episcopal clergy was arrested yesterday in NY for driving under the influence. Unless parishes and dioceses start talking about the alcoholism in our systems, it will take a very long time to become healthy. Probably not in my lifetime. Hope God will work differently.

alia52nalie said...

Honestly I too believe that you are doing right thing by asking this question. There is no harm in it and I see it in every prospective nothing wrong in it. Even I saw many DUI cases on Bishops when I worked with a DUI attorney Los Angeles for couple of years.