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Advice that stirs up guilt

15 January 2016

Angela Tilby queries the Government’s new advice on alcohol

THE Government’s new advice on alcohol — that there is no safe limit — came just as January abstainers were getting into their stride. I am not abstaining (I never do), and I was reasonably content with the old advice (although my weekly consumption usually exceeds it).

The new advice, however, comes in a different tone of voice, which seems designed to cause maximum anxiety. Who can enjoy a drink, when every sip might lead to cancer? And, of course, we are still in the realm of probabilities. The actual figures show that most people can drink quite a bit more than the recommended amount without coming to harm. Even if you do get cancer, you will never know for certain whether it was the second gin that caused it. But some will worry about it endlessly, and probably drink more as a result.

The new guidance seems intended to demonise alcohol in much the way that trendy diet advice demonises particular food groups. Some may argue that excess drinking needs a new campaign of temperance, and that drink is indeed a demon that wrecks lives. But the new guidelines are not directed at the problems of genuine addiction — more at the everyday drinking that many innocently enjoy.

Of course, there is a slippery slope, and regular drinking can become excessive. But the “no safe limit” quotation is the one that is going to stick. It will not only cause panic, but stir up waves of disapproval from the virtuous teetotallers.

I think that the current attack on alcohol arises from a Manichean view of matter, in which particular foods and drinks are pronounced good or evil, and people are judged pure or impure solely on the basis of what they ingest. This is a distortion of faith: Jesus pronounced all foods clean (Mark 7.19).

Unlike some other religions, Christianity does not ban alcohol or other intoxicants or impose dietary rules. The Bible sees wine and strong drink as part of life. Drunkenness is a risk, but it is also mildly comic, and sometimes plays a part in God’s purposes, as when the merry slumber that overcomes Boaz gives Ruth a chance to slip into his bed.

The point of alcohol is that it is a natural tranquilliser. Like all drugs, it can be dangerous, but its capacity to relax and give pleasure can surely be received as a gift of God. Wine “maketh glad the heart of man” (Psalm 104.15), and is associated with the unrestrained joy of God’s Kingdom.

I will not be changing my drinking habits any time soon, but I do not look forward to the nagging guilt that will now accompany my first (but probably not only) glass.


The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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