Sermon: The Bishop, the Bottle, and the Church

3 May 2015 – Dr. Irene Lawrence: I had about a third of today’s sermon written when a computer error—actually, a pilot error—erased it all. I had a hard time getting back to writing, until I finally realized that I really didn’t want to talk about what I had planned to talk about, but that events in the church we pulling me in another direction. So here it is.

Friday, May 1, was a busy day for the Episcopal Church. A bishop who had left the church to join the breakaway Anglican churches was received back into the Episcopal Church, the nominating committee announced its slate for the next Presiding Bishop, to be elected at our General convention in Salt Lake City this summer, and the Suffragan Bishop of Maryland, Heather Cook, resigned from her diocesan position and in a related but separate event, was deposed—that is, she was de-ordained, what we popularly call “defrocked”; she has been stripped of her clerical status and may no longer function as an ordained person.

I am bothered about former Bishop Cook and her whole context, or at least what has been made public; of course I have no inside knowledge. If you remember, just after Christmas last year, Heather Cook while driving struck and killed a bicyclist, Thomas Palermo. She did not immediately stop, but drove to her home; she voluntarily returned to the scene approximately 30 minutes later, possibly after identification by another bicyclist and a phone conversation with a diocesan official. A subsequent test showed that she had a blood alcohol level of .22. The legal limit in Maryland, as in California, is .08. Ms. Cook now faces thirteen criminal charges, and a trial date has been set for 4 June.

If this were all there is to the story, it would still be a tragedy, but a fairly straightforward tragedy. What is bothering me is the backstory, and the role of the Episcopal Church as a church in the tragedy. The tragedy did not come out of the blue; there were warning signs, which, as far as the public knows, were completely ignored. In several serious respects, the church has failed Ms. Cook, Mr. Palermo, and all those Ms. Cook’s ministry should have reached. Here’s the story.

As far as I know, Ms. Cook has not self-identified as an alcoholic, so I will not use that term of her, but point out that her public history indicates a pattern of alcohol abuse. The most significant event was that in September 2010 she was observed driving slowly and erratically, partly on the shoulder of the road. After she was stopped by a police officer, the officer discovered that one of her tires was completely shredded and by its appearance, she had been driving on the rim for quite some time. She admitted to drinking, and the officer discovered bottles of alcohol in the car, along with a few ounces of marijuana. Her alcohol level was measured at .27. She was charged with two drug charges and DUI; eventually the drug charges were dropped, she pleaded guilty to the DUI, received probation, and, according to one report, spent some time at a rehabilitation facility. There is no public information as to the nature of this program. After meeting the probation requirements, her record was eligible to be expunged.

All this happened while Ms. Cook was still a priest, Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Easton, one of the three Maryland dioceses. But then the Diocese of Maryland began the search for a suffragan bishop, and Ms. Cook was one of the candidates. Ms. Cook herself disclosed her DUI, but the disclosure apparently was only to the co-chairs of the search committee and the Bishop of Maryland. The whole search committee and the Diocesan Standing Committee were informed that one of the candidates had a DUI, but with no details such as when it happened or the blood alcohol level involved. In any event, the Standing Committee presented the final slate of nominees, including Ms. Cook. The Bishop of Maryland had the required consultation with Ms. Cook’s own bishop, who recommended her “without concerns or reservations.” Ms. Cook was encouraged to publicly discuss the DUI informally during the various events that preceded the election, but she chose not to. And nothing was disclosed to the church convention that elected her bishop on 3 May 2014—ironically, just one year prior to her deposition and resignation.

Since all this became public, there have been, as you would expect, many comments on the situation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a large number of them have been simplistically negative, amounting to “hang the bishop” or more generally, blanket condemnations of alcoholics. A few comments have been simplistically positive, “forgive her; she’s sick.” And a large number of the comments in Episcopal Church sources have criticized the election processes that did not strike the appropriate balance between Ms. Cook’s privacy and what the electors should, with twenty-twenty hindsight, have been told. I should emphasize that the search process, including disclosures and non-disclosures, followed explicitly the relevant national church procedures. These procedures, I am sure, are now being looked at on several levels.

Why am I going on about all this? Ms. Cook might seem to be Maryland’s problem, and/or the national church’s. Or actually, now that she’s resigned and been deposed, maybe she’s just the problem of the state of Maryland’s legal system. Yet she hasn’t been—she can’t be–deposed from her baptism, and I hope appropriate love and pastoral concern are available to her now. At least from the outside, it doesn’t look as if it were available to her before. Why did the church continue to enable her? I find it hard to imagine that no one noticed her drinking—with an alcohol level of .27 at her first arrest, she must have grown accustomed to a great deal of alcohol in order to be functioning at all, however poorly. I suspect that one factor in the church’s lack of responsibility with Ms. Cook was the realization that “outing” her as an abuser of alcohol would likely be the kiss of death to her church career, so the church preferred to close its eyes and believe that her DUI was an anomaly. There is a claim of her inebriation at a small social gathering just before her consecration as bishop; that would have been the best time for “tough love.” Instead, the church apparently did nothing until a tragedy prevented them from ignoring her problem any longer, and then we kicked her to the curb and washed our hands of her after she was already down.

Please don’t misunderstand me; my opinion is that Ms. Cook’s resignation as Suffragan Bishop of Maryland and her facing the state’s legal prosecution are entirely appropriate. I am personally less certain that her deposition is appropriate—it sends the wrong message—but I recognize that a good case can be made for it. But surely the church bears some shared responsibility for Ms. Cook’s and Mr. Palermo’s tragedies, in that it closed its eyes to the complex nature of addiction, which we are just beginning to understand, still incompletely. We in the church, including in the Diocese of Maryland, have a hard time balancing forgiveness and accountability, especially in the case of any chronic condition such as addiction, which may affect a person’s ministry.
We at St. Bede’s probably have no direct involvement with Ms. Cook or with reforming Episcopal Church search procedures. But I think we do have to ask ourselves if we are involved in making a society in which someone can’t admit that they’re an alcoholic without jeopardizing their reputation or their employment, whether they’re clergy or lay. The Episcopal Church in general has a bit of a reputation for hard drinking; we even have some standard jokes about it. In her article in February’s Journal, the Rev. Gia shared her uncomfortable experiences when she declined alcohol at church interviews. I do not think that alcohol is a major issue here at St. Bede’s, but nevertheless, statistics say that among us we have alcoholics or other addicts who are not in recovery, and some who are struggling into recovery as we speak; we certainly have inspiring alcoholics who are in recovery, some for many years. Therefore we should be alert to whether the way we use alcohol in church and in our particular circles of society might interfere with our ministries—for all of us, clergy and lay, are called to ministry in our baptisms—or, even more importantly, whether the way we use of alcohol might interfere with the ministries of our fellows. In a way, we have it harder than teetotaling churches, as our use of alcohol is always a little ambiguous.

A couple of weeks ago, John Oda-Burns reminded us that the Easter season lasts longer than one day, and even past the disappearance of the jelly beans and chocolate bunnies from our Easter baskets. Technically, Easter lasts fifty days, until Pentecost. But that doesn’t mean that we forget Easter and the Resurrection for the rest of the year. One purpose of the season is to wean us, like the disciples, from an over-literal dependence on the human Jesus to a recognition of his continued presence in the church through the Holy Spirit. You may have noticed that the Gospel lessons started out right after Easter with post-resurrection appearances that are rather tangible—literally tangible, in Thomas’s case, or describing Jesus eating grilled fish in some other stories. Yet at the same time he is different from his pre-resurrection appearance; usually he’s not immediately recognizable, he seems to be a gardener, or a beachcomber, or a fellow traveler, and he goes through closed doors or shows up in Jerusalem immediately after leaving Emmaus. And as the Easter season progresses, the lessons move us more and more away from the physically human Jesus into images from the Gospel of John that don’t depend on physical humanness at all—today’s image of a vine, whose branches bear fruit through their unity with the main stem Jesus.

At the same time over the weeks we hear the Book of Acts telling the adventures of the early church coping without the earthly Jesus; even those who knew Jesus personally in the old days, like Philip, know him now in a new way, through ministering to outsiders like the Ethiopian eunuch, through the power of the Spirit. Today, the author of 1 John has the final word: God is love, and we love God by loving our brothers and sisters. The best simple definition that I know for this kind of love is “acting for the good of,” a program not always either easy or obvious. I don’t think that the church always acted for the good of Heather Cook or of Thomas Palermo. In all contexts, but especially in the context of addiction, I pray that St. Bede’s will always act for the good of all of us brothers and sisters.

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