UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

Alcohol at church

the first step is admitting we have a problem

By David Wilson

It's a cold mid-winter day, so maybe that's why my thoughts drift back to a long and hot night three summers ago at the United Church's 38th General Council in Wolfville, N.S., when a group of commissioners passed up a golden opportunity to fix a long-dysfunctional part of church life. They faced a daunting package of proposals that night. Buried among them was one from London Conference asking the church to develop a policy on the consumption of alcohol at church functions.

As if the mere mention of the a-word caused them discomfort, the commissioners gave the proposal their cursory consideration, then rejected it and moved on to other matters. It was late when they wrapped up their business, and by then some tempers had frayed. Many commissioners did what people often do after a long day and made a beeline for one of downtown Wolfville's livelier taverns to unwind with other commissioners.

What's wrong with this picture? Why can the United Church have passionate, faith-filled discussions on all manner of justice, ethical and theological questions, but shy away from an open discussion of something as relevant as a policy governing use of alcohol on church premises? Why pretend that alcohol is not on the church radar when the overwhelming majority of members, leaders and decision-makers, like the overwhelming majority of Canadians, consume alcohol -- and consume it moderately and responsibly?

By rejecting the London Conference proposal, the Wolfville commissioners endorsed the status quo, which is more of a nod and a wink -- an understanding -- than it is a policy. In practical terms, the understanding is that individual congregations can make up their own minds on whether alcohol can be consumed on church premises; some allow it but most don't. Broadly speaking, it's also understood that the United Church and alcohol don't mix, that talking openly and frankly about alcohol just isn't done, regardless of what the majority of members do in their own homes and on their own time.

Where does this lead? To congregations that won't host wedding receptions for members because the bride and groom might want to serve drinks to their guests. To ministers who have to look over their shoulders when they go to the liquor store (can't be too careful, might run into a parishioner). To leaders forced to uphold practices they don't believe in or follow themselves.

The United Church's continuing squeamishness about alcohol is largely inherited from predecessors and earlier generations who were profoundly and legitimately disturbed by the social and personal cost of alcohol abuse. Make no mistake: alcohol abuse still exacts a terrible price on some families and communities, and no one should ever pretend otherwise. But the truth is, most people who drink alcohol don't abuse it.

The United Church is currently trying to interest non-churchgoers in giving the United Church a try. Research has shown one of the biggest obstacles is the perception that congregations sometimes preach one thing and practise another. A little more honesty in its stand on alcohol isn't going to fill the United Church's empty pews, nor should it, but coming clean on its contradictions would be the kind of action that might help build a little trust.

The responsible thing for decision-makers to do the next time they're asked to look at alcohol and the United Church would be to take the task seriously. I think there should be a next time, and if at the end of the day the decision-makers feel like a drink, they should go and have one.


Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!

Announcement

New Observer editor and CEO, Jocelyn Bell. Photo by Lindsay Palmer

New editor named

by Observer Staff

Promotional Image

Editorials

David Wilson%

Observations

by David Wilson

A perfect send-off

Promotional Image

Video

ObserverDocs: My Year of Living Spiritually

by Observer Staff

Anne Bokma left the Dutch Reformed Church as a young adult and eventually became a member of the United Church and then the Unitarian Universalists. Having long explored the "spiritual but not religious" demographic as a writer, she decided to immerse herself in practices — like hiring a soul coach, secular choir-singing and forest bathing — for 12 months to find both enlightenment and entertainment.

Promotional Image

Society

November 2017

Trump country

by David Macfarlane

A northern Alabama county voted almost unanimously for Donald Trump in 2016. One year later, the writer, together with photographer Nigel Dickson, travels there to try to understand why.

Faith

November 2017

Involuntary pilgrim

by David Giuliano

The return of a tumour sets David Giuliano on a path he calls his ‘Camino de Cancer’

Faith

October 2017

A tale of two cancers

by Catherine Gordon

One year after the writer discovered she had breast cancer, her sister in California received the same diagnosis. They both recovered, but their experiences were worlds apart.

Society

November 2017

Trump country

by David Macfarlane

A northern Alabama county voted almost unanimously for Donald Trump in 2016. One year later, the writer, together with photographer Nigel Dickson, travels there to try to understand why.

Faith

November 2017

Involuntary pilgrim

by David Giuliano

The return of a tumour sets David Giuliano on a path he calls his ‘Camino de Cancer’

Faith

November 2017

Grey matter

by Trisha Elliott

Is consciousness just a function of the brain — or something more?

Promotional Image