Hundreds of American bicyclists die in collisions with cars each year, but a fatal December crash in Baltimore has triggered some serious soul-searching within the Episcopal Church: The drunken driver, authorities say, was a bishop.
Now clergy and laypeople alike are rereading church policy on alcohol and the consecration of bishops, how addiction is handled and whether the church itself was in any way culpable in the death of cyclist Thomas Palermo, a 41-year-old husband and father of two.
The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, one of two main governing bodies of the 2 million-member denomination, said many Episcopalians are asking why church leaders allowed Heather Cook to be confirmed as bishop last September despite their knowledge of her struggle with alcohol.
"Sometimes a tragedy happens and people move on after a couple of weeks," Jennings said. "This particular tragedy has caused many people to not only look at the issue of alcoholism and other drug addictions but also how we select and elect our leaders, our bishops."
Jennings is appointing a committee to review the church's 1985 policies on alcohol and drug abuse and to propose new resolutions to be considered at the church's General Convention, in Salt Lake City from June 25 to July 3.
In a Feb. 9 letter to lay and clergy members of the House of Deputies, Jennings suggested that church leaders were too timid in the face of Cook's problems. The bishop, 58, now faces 13 charges, including vehicular homicide, texting while driving and leaving the scene of the crime (she later returned).
In 2010, Cook was caught behind the wheel with a blood alcohol level of .27—more than three times the legal limit in Maryland—and pleaded guilty. Some members of the diocese who voted say that information was never disclosed last May when Cook was elected a suffragan, or deputy, bishop of Maryland.
"The church can sometimes confuse secrecy and confidentiality," Jennings wrote to the deputies. "Our desire for reconciliation can sometimes make us reluctant to confront one another in love."
The church's presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, who presided at Cook's consecration last September, has formally restricted Cook's public ministry, directing her to not present "yourself out as an ordained person of this Church in good standing."
How deep is the Episcopal Church's problem with alcohol?
As the church's 1985 carefully crafted policy on the topic shows, it has hardly ignored the issue. Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church—operating independently but alongside the church—helps parishes across the country with clergy or congregants struggling with drugs and alcohol. And the the church's flagship General Theological Seminary in New York is one of the only in the nation to offer a course on how the church can battle addiction.
Church members also have a reputation for indulging.
Episcopalians playfully—and others sometimes not so playfully—call themselves "Whiskeypalians." And they joke: "Wherever two or three are gathered, there's usually a fifth" (of alcohol). But Lutherans too use that joke in reference to themselves. And leaders of most other major denominations, including some teetotaling Baptists, have acknowledged addiction problems among clergy and the laity alike.
Still, Bishop J. Scott Barker of Nebraska said he suspects the problem may be particularly acute among Episcopalians.
"I wonder if we're not using alcohol as a larger system to hide from the hard realities of a church which is under a lot of pressure right now and in decline in a lot of places," he said. Alcohol "is one way to anesthetize yourself in light of larger trends. Just keep celebrating."
The Episcopal Church, once the proud home of political and corporate elites, has seen its membership drop a precipitous 17 percent from 2003 to 2013. And as the church has elevated its progressive wing—ordaining female and gay bishops—it finds itself increasingly isolated within the larger Anglican Communion, the more traditional worldwide family of Anglican churches.
Barker's desire to think deeply and clearly at the church's national meeting this summer, as well as to mark the death of the cyclist, led him to invite other bishops and delegates to join him in abstaining from alcohol at General Convention.
"I'm mindful of the recent tragedy in Maryland, and the chance to make a small witness for delight in sobriety as a bishop of the Church," he wrote last month on the Nebraska Episcopalian website. "I note that in the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska so many wonderful disciples are in recovery and could use some support—and so many parish churches are hobbled by alcoholic family systems long in place."
Shannon Tucker, president of the Tennessee-based Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church, said he's grateful for all the attention lately placed on alcoholism in the church, and for Jennings' intent to keep the problem in the spotlight when the church gathers in Salt Lake City.
But the hard work of battling addiction must also happen elsewhere, he said.
"Passing a resolution and reaffirming the ones we've already passed are great things to do," said Tucker, whose ministry is funded privately. "It has to be the local diocese, and bishops and clergy who decide that they want to join us in our work."
Funding would be nice too, Tucker added. While the church may work hard to face up to addiction problems, and update its policies to reflect current understandings of addiction, it could prove itself by designating dollars for those efforts.
That could happen, Jennings said, noting that the church will consider addiction issues at the General Convention before it passes a budget.
In the meantime, the Diocese of Maryland has formally asked Cook to resign. After posting bail, she checked herself into a Maryland addiction treatment facility. She now awaits trial.
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