Monday, May 21, 2012

Alcoholism and the Episco-Baptist Phenomenon

I just got home from a really fantastic diocesan workshop on the role of alcoholism in families, congregations, and clergy life.  This post is a partial-processing of that experience.

All denominations in Texas are functionally Baptist.  That was the observation Stanley Hauerwas made somewhere I can't find just now.  There are in Texas, he contended, Lutheran-Baptists, Episcopal-Baptists, Methodist-Baptists, Catholic-Baptists, and even a few Baptist-Baptists.

If this is true (and I believe that, on the whole, it hits close to the mark) then it follows that - over against whatever imagined distinctiveness a given denomination sets out to achieve - each denomination inadvertently picks up unintentional and unique marks which emerge out of the otherwise homogenous sea of denominational anti-diversity.  Moreover, these unintentional marks are probably more empirically decisive than the ones we imagine for ourselves.

For Episcopalians, the most notorious example of an unintentional mark in the church's common life is our friendly disposition toward alcohol.  If Episcopalians in Texas are really Episcopal-Baptists in terms of congregational polity, interpretation of Scripture, and even worship (which is at the very least plausible as evangelicals continue to discover the liturgy and as Episcopalians - at least in West Texas - regularly seek new ways to re-imagine the words "snake-belly-low") then the lay person floating between the two is left with only this question of practical observation: "Why do/don't you drink?"

Importantly, I think there is a great deal more that distinguishes the Baptist and Episcopal traditions than drinking, but when you dilute all the rest, booze is what's left.  I know a great many individuals who would not find offense in the description of an Episcopalian as a Baptist whose church lets her drink in front of others openly.  Captain Obvious point: Drinking is probably a dangerous reason to prefer one denomination to another.

Two quick things to say in the interest of full-disclosure:

1) I drink, to borrow a favorite phrase of my tradition, "in moderation."  Mostly beer, and only good ones; as a hobby in diversity, I try one new six-pack each week.  Two beers is my limit in a single sitting, and that would indicate a special occasion.

2) I teach confirmation classes, and I unapologetically begin with the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral.  That is, I believe there is a great deal more distinctive about the Episcopal Church than the room she provides for moderate drinking.  (Ironically, the distinctiveness of the Episcopal tradition relative to other Protestant traditions is often our grounding in Jesus' prayer from John's gospel: "that they all may be one.") 

But here we are, in Texas, where everybody's Baptist, and so #2 gets washed away by #1.

[Aside: In a similar vain, how many Catholics does the Episcopal Church attract because Catholics are not permitted to remarry?]

Drinking, which the Episcopal Church permits on good and theologically sound grounds - grounds like the goodness of God's gifts used for God's purposes - is decidedly not the focal foundation for the Anglican identify Thomas Cramner first envisioned.  But that, I suppose, is the whole point: stripped from its grounding in the foundations Cramner did have in mind, all we're left with is the assumption of moral laxity from a Baptist perspective that increasingly makes its home inside the Episcopal Church, just to the extent that there exist Baptists who enjoy moral laxity.

All of this leads me to two goals for the Episcopal Church, which I'll only have space to mention briefly:

1) Don't shy away from your Episcopal foundation!  And don't let the Baptists fool you: you are a far richer tradition than Schlitz Malt Liquor on a Saturday.  If you go to an Episcopal Church and don't feel as comfortable with that foundation as you'd like to, ask a friend whom you suspect of usefulness in this department out to coffee.  I would pee my pants if you asked me.  I love my church because Jesus met me here - long before my first beer.  Most Episcopalians would be honored to share what they have gleaned of God's mercy, love, and presence in and through the Episcopal Church.  (Parenthetically, among other things, you will find there spiritual foundations for recovery from addiction.)

2) Be aware that the world (or at least Texas), without the time for more than sound-byte stereotypes, sees you/me/us (the Episcopal Church) as the Baptists who drink.  Be mindful that this stereotype leaves you/me/us especially vulnerable to abuse of alcohol, precisely because we already have the reputation for doing so openly.  It is more difficult for us to say things to one another than it would be for a Baptist, and it is far easier for us to rationalize our abuse of alcohol on theological grounds.  In this, we must be loving in our care for each other, vigilant in our exercise of Christian freedom, and so formed in the community created by the promises of baptism - the death and resurrection of Jesus - that we can speak or hear the truth with our brother or sister in the crucial moment and - hopefully - long before it.

I say, "long before it," because, honestly, we have a lot to share with one another about the unfathomable and unexpected gift of this new life in Christ, long before we get to drinking.

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