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Anyone fancy a bevvy?

15 February 2013

Alcohol is many churchgoers' recreational drug of choice. And, as Anna Drew discovers, it can have disastrous, as well as beneficial, side-effects


FOR some people, Lent is a chance to take down January's New Year resolutions from the shelf, dust them off, and re-use them as spiritual disciplines. They can read the Bible more, pray harder, give up meat - and (that old favourite) cut back on alcohol. The Church Times YouGov survey last week (News, 8 February) found that four per cent of those planning to give something up for Lent had chosen alcohol.

It is not new for the religious to have conflicting ideas about alcohol. John the Baptist was criticised for living a life of abstinence; Jesus was called a glutton and a drunkard. The two opposing strands continue in Christian life.

The Church celebrates a Messiah who turned water to wine, and who was known to share a glass or two with his friends. Alcohol is the recreational drug of choice for most Anglicans, and they remember Christ's life and death by sharing a liturgical common cup. The Psalms speak of wine as a gift from God "to gladden the human heart". It is a social glue, and something to celebrate, and enjoy in moderation.

On the other hand, church communities often find themselves picking up the pieces when drinking turns bad. Many offer meeting-space to their local Alcoholics Anonymous group, and, although the AA is emphatically not religious, many will find familiarity in the spiritual tone of its language.

As a national pastime, drinking is proving costly to Britain's economy, especially in terms of health care and policing. A YouGov poll in 2011 suggested that 61 per cent of adults in the UK believe that excessive drinking is a problem in their neighbourhood. And figures on the AA website show that, after smoking, alcoholism kills more people in the UK than any other drug - 33,000 people die each year owing to alcohol-related incidents or health problems.

The Church of England has often been a strong voice in the campaign for the tighter regulation of alcohol sales, and, in recent years, has called for an increase in the price of alcohol. Researchers at the University of Sheffield estimate that, over ten years, a price of 40p per unit of alcohol would save the nation £546 million in health-care costs, £140 million in crime, and £80 million in workplace absence.

In the mean time, the personal damage that alcohol can cause is by no means restricted to life outside the Church. And, when clergy find themselves in its clutches, it can be devastating.

IT WAS only when Peter (not his real name) stopped drinking that he realised he was never truly meant to be a priest. "The interesting thing for me is that when I got sober, I began to see how warped my outlook on life was," he says, "and, in fact, that I had become a priest for probably all the wrong reasons. My attitudes, my reactions, and the way I saw other people and events were warped by what I believe are the mental distortions of alcoholism.

"When I was 11 years old, I thought I wanted to be a priest. And, of course, this met with a lot of approval from the grown-ups, and particularly from the parish priest. When I got later on in life, other people invested in this project, and, when I began to have doubts, I thought: 'I can't let them down. I've got to do this.'

"So, when I finally stopped drinking and took a hard look at myself, I thought: 'No wonder you're finding all this a struggle, because you're a square peg in a round hole. You've made the wrong choice.'"

This realisation came nearly 20 years after his ordination, in 1974. Although he believes that he was always an alcoholic, he describes the condition as a progressive illness. "It isn't like one day you're stone-cold sober, and the next you're launched on a career of utter drunkenness. It grows. The quantity of the drink increased, and also the effect it had on me changed.

"You don't see that, as it happens so gradually, and the people closest to you don't see the change that is occurring. They accommodate it in various ways, until the point that they, too, are bent out of shape, because they mould themselves around the erratic emotions and behaviour of the alcoholic."

AT THE height of his drinking, Peter estimates that he could drink one to two litres of spirits a day. "It may seem strange to say, but no one ever challenged me about my drinking. Occasionally, my wife and I would have a row, and then I would have to lie low for a while . . . and I would start again. I was always able to do my duty, but, as my drinking progressed, that was about all I did.

"I said mass every day, and read morning and evening prayer publicly, and that's all I could do, because the rest of the time I was either drunk or hungover."

In 1990, he reached crisis point. "I was drunk, and had a terrible row with my wife and children. Why that day was different from any other, I cannot tell you: it's just a mystery; but I came to the next day and I thought: 'I'm an alcoholic. I need help.'"

He sought that help, and was put in touch with a Roman Catholic priest who was a recovering alcoholic, and who, Peter says, saved his life. He entered rehab, and followed the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step programme, which, alongside counselling, allowed him to learn to live without drink.

And, until that realisation came, he says, no one on this planet could have helped him. "If someone is an alcoholic - rather than just someone who has a drink problem - there's absolutely nothing you can say to them. It's fruitless to try to reason with them. The problems are far, far too deep, because the denial is so strong. Even if you can persuade the alcoholic to agree that he or she has a drink problem, deep down they will be making mental reservations, and therefore they're going to go back to it.

"What the Church can do is try to keep a non-judgemental eye on the alcoholic, and then provide some support when the crash occurs - if it occurs. I think that anything else is just a kind of waste."

Now on a different career path, Peter is happier and clearer about life, although he would never describe himself as an "ex-alcoholic". He says that there is no such thing. "I don't believe that there's actually a cure. I don't believe that I could ever safely have an alcoholic drink, because I think that I would very quickly return to the uncontrolled drinking that I was doing for all those years."

But Peter is clear that it was alcoholism rather than alcohol itself that was his problem. "Drink is not the demon. There are some people who are normal, maybe heavy drinkers, and then - and this is a difference not of degree, but of kind - there are alcoholics. It's not something that you gauge by willpower, because if you are an alcoholic, you have no will, you have no choice - until that moment happens when you realise you desperately need help."

WHILE many, like Peter, struggle with alcoholism, or heavy drinking, for many others in the Church, alcohol, and the places and occasions where people congregate to drink, present both social and ministerial opportunities that might not otherwise exist. The Revd Paul Filmer found this to be true when, as an incumbent of a rural parish near Canterbury, he found himself doing a monthly shift behind the bar at his local pub, the Plough and Harrow, in Bridge.

For some time, Mr Filmer had been organising a monthly churchmen's meeting in the pub, but the landlord, Chris McClean (who was also a lay minister at the time), suggested that he would meet a wider range of people if he stood on the other side of the bar. "I couldn't refuse the offer, and the rest, as they say, is history," says Mr Filmer, who made quite a name for himself as the "pint-pulling priest". He and Mr McClean subsequently featured on the "January" page of the 2005 Shepherd Neame brewery calendar.

Although there was some initial suspicion and cynicism from some of the Plough and Harrow's regulars, after a few months Mr Filmer found that he earned people's trust and respect. And, of course, there was always going to be an over- lap between his congregation and the pub regulars. He found that churchpeople "were comfortable and approving of this as a demonstration of the church meeting non-churchgoers on their home turf".

These monthly "ears and beers" sessions generated various interesting discussions and requests, including several funerals and baptisms, as well as the barmaid's wedding.

During his shifts, he also found himself the object of a certain amount of speculation. "The first time I made meaningful contact with our local East European fruit-pickers was when they tackled me for impersonating a priest, as back home you would never see a priest in the pub, let alone behind the bar. Our discussion ended with them buying me a pint, and me presenting one of them with my dog collar."

ALTHOUGH alcohol was the focus for this particular ministry, as it was with Peter, for Mr Filmer, drink was not the significant factor - it was all about the community that could be found in the Plough and Harrow. As a general rule, he would not drink during his shifts, simply because of the stamina required to last the evening. Does he believe, however, that this ministry would have been somehow diminished if he had been teetotal? "No. It would be diminished if I say the pub is a no-go area."

For him, the vital thing is the part that pubs play as a focus for communities, especially in rural or isolated areas. "Prince Charles once said that the 'pub is the hub,' which can be true. I would hope that the Church can claim to be a hub as well, and we should certainly aspire to this."

Although he has since moved to another parish, he is already looking for similar opportunities - but only if he can find a pub that fulfils that all-important position in the community.

And, as chaplain to the Kenward Trust (a Kent- and Sussex-based charity, which, among its services, offers rehabilitation to people with drug and alcohol addictions), he is all too aware of stories such as Peter's.

"I hear the heartrending stories of lives and relationships ripped apart by substance abuse, but also of the transforming power of God when we turn to him for help," he says. "I can't think of any church that has a bad reputation on the issue of drink. I suppose the worst that can happen is hypocrisy or intolerance. If we lead by example, and don't stand in judgement on any issue, we will earn the respect of those to whom we minister."



Methodist Church has been commonly associated with the temperance movement. In fact, although Methodism's founder, John Wesley, despised distilled spirits such as whisky, and attacked those who traded in them as "poisoners", he was certainly a drinker, and is quoted describing wine as "one of the noblest cordials in creation".

A reputation for strict abstinence was not grafted on to Methodist identity until the 19th century, when the Primitive Methodist Church identified itself with the "total-abstinence" temperance movement. This was not completely out of character, however, since the commitment arose out of a concern for social justice - something that Wesley himself would recognise in the movement that he began.

During the Victorian era, Methodists noted how social evils, such as poverty and domestic violence, were greatly exacerbated by drunkenness, and the easy availability of strong, cheap alcohol.

By Methodists' helping people to abstain, many lives were im­­proved, and the Government was eventually persuaded to introduce licensed-pub hours, and weaker and more expensive beer (although this may have had more to do with the First World War than cam­paigners).

Although Methodists were never technically required by the Church to abstain from drink, until 1951 they were urged to practise total abstinence as a "privilege of Christian service".

Although there remains today a small but committed group of Methodist teetotallers, few are as zealous as the "Prims", and Methodist attitudes to alcohol have changed dramatically. Methodists are now expected to choose between responsible drinking, and a life of total abstin­ence. Most of them seem to favour the former.

In reality, the average Methodist is probably no different from the average Anglican in his or her drinking habits: Methodists like an after-work drink with a friend, a glass or two over dinner, or maybe something stronger after a particularly tough day. It is not unheard of for a parched Anglican to be denied a beer at an ecu­menical retreat-centre, because there are so many Methodists propping up the bar.

Of more cause for debate than the personal use of alcohol is the question whether alcohol should be served on church premises. Under the Methodist rules, not a single drop may be consumed on church properties (except resi­dential premises). This includes communion "wine", which is always non-alcoholic.

This can be disappointing news for those planning a wedding reception in the church hall, or hoping to wet the baby's head, post-baptism. If an individual church can make the case that a significant part of its mission and activity involves its use as a con­ference centre, then excep­tions can be made.

"Many Methodists do indeed enjoy a drink," the joint public-issues team-leader of the Metho­dists, Rachel Lampard, says. "The culture of responsible drinking is very strong within the Church, however, and the feeling often is that, if it would cause another to stumble, then one should refrain. The belief about keeping alcohol off Methodist premises is firmly held by most, because we want our churches to be a safe space for everyone."

As she points out, concern about the demon drink certainly has not gone away for the Church, which continues to lead the way in national campaigns on consump­tion and pricing. "Our country clearly has a problem with drink. Methodists care about the impact of alcohol misuse on individuals' health and welfare, and the health and criminal justice costs to our country.

"Imposing a minimum price per unit of alcohol won't be a silver bullet to solve all the problems, but research indicates that it will help reduce the most harmful end of drinking," Mrs Lampard says.

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