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