Saying that the Episcopal church should do more than investigate the Heather Cook case alone, a national leader has called for a review of the way bishops are selected and the church’s policy on alcohol and drug abuse.
Rev. Gay Clark Jennings’ statement, published yesterday, acknowledges the questions that have reverberated in Episcopal circles in the wake of the news that Cook, a recently-consecrated bishop in the Maryland diocese, fatally crashed her car into a bicyclist in Baltimore while allegedly drunk and texting, initially leaving the scene of the crash.
Four years before, while a church official in Easton, Md., Cook was arrested on DUI and drug possession charges. Last week, her superior, Maryland Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton, revealed that just two nights before her consecration, Cook appeared to be inebriated. Her September 6 consecration ceremony proceeded as scheduled.
“Many people in the church have struggled to understand better how our systemic denial about alcohol and other drug abuse in the church may have contributed to Bishop Cook’s election and confirmation as a bishop even as she seemed to be struggling with addiction,” wrote Jennings, president of the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies, which is composed of representatives from clergy and the laity.
“Many Episcopalians are asking what people in positions of authority in the church knew about her history of addiction and driving while under the influence of alcohol,” Jennings wrote.
“They are also asking why the electors in Maryland and the bishops and standing committees who consented to her election were not made aware of this information, some of which is a matter of public record.”
[UPDATE: Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori today placed additional restrictions on Bishop Heather Cook as part of the ongoing Title IV process. “You shall not exercise or engage in the ordained ministry of this Church in any respect, shall not participate in any functions of the House of Bishops, and shall not hold yourself out as an ordained person of this Church in good standing, until such time as all matters relating to you that are pending before a panel of the Disciplinary Board of Bishops shall have been finally resolved.” Previously, Cook was asked to resign as an employee of the Diocese of Maryland. The press release from Schori’s office includes a new allegation, “misrepresentations you allegedly made to persons in the Diocese of Easton and in connection to your candidacy for the episcopate.”]
Upcoming Episcopal Convention
With Cook facing charges of automobile manslaughter, driving under the influence of alcohol and leaving the scene of an accident, the criminal case is moving forward. The national church’s so-called Title IV investigation of the bishop’s conduct is also underway.
But Clark Jennings’ remarks seem aimed at the church’s upcoming general convention to be held in Salt Lake City this summer. (Conventions are held every three years.)
Jennings points to a pending resolution calling for changes to the process for selecting bishops and says it is “very likely that other resolutions that address the need for transparency and accountability in bishop searches and elections will come before the convention as well.”
“Long before this crisis, many people in the church understood that the process no longer serves us well in some instances. I have served as consultant to six bishop search committees, and I concur,” Jennings said. “The seeming failure of the process in Maryland lends new urgency to the discussion.”
Jennings also says she will appoint “a House of Deputies special legislative committee on alcohol and other drug abuse to review the General Convention’s 1985 policy on alcohol and drug abuse.”
“I believe firmly that people who experience addiction can be called by God to lead our church,” she says, lauding the “leadership and pastoral gifts” of her own bishop, noting that he has “spoken and written openly and powerfully to us about his many years as a recovering alcoholic.”
“I also know that the church can sometimes confuse secrecy and confidentiality,” she wrote, “and that our desire for reconciliation can sometimes make us reluctant to confront one another in love.”
Views from the Pews
With the Episcopal Church thrust into the harsh glare of international media coverage in the wake of the crash, clergy and laity have been hotly debating the need for changes in governance and leadership, as well as calling for a rethinking of attitudes to alcohol abuse.
“Can a consecration train be stopped?” asked John B. Chilton, in a post on the influential website, Episcopal Cafe, which reminded readers of two derailed bishop candidacies.
In 2000, the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta canceled the consecration of Robert G. Trache eight days before it was scheduled, with diocesan officials citing ”a lack of disclosure in personal financial and family matters” as the basis of their decision. (Trache later sued the diocese.)
That same year, Rev. James MacKenzie resigned as bishop-elect for the Diocese of Eastern Oregon. MacKenzie acknowledged publicly that he had engaged in inappropriate e-mail exchanges with four women.
“Those who continue to trust the search/call process for Bishops and Rectors TEC clings to are caught up in magical thinking that is at the core of our decades old decline into irrelevance,” one commenter on the post wrote. “We need leaders that beauty contests and elections will never produce.”
There has also been soul-searching on the subject of Episcopal church drinking.
Bishop J. Scott Barker of Nebraska publicly declared he would not drink alcohol during the general convention in Salt Lake City and asked for others to support him.
“I’m mindful of the recent tragedy in Maryland, and the chance to make a small witness for delight in sobriety as a bishop of the Church,” Barker wrote. Some praised his gesture, while others called it “sanctimonious.”
Beer-Drinker’s Guide to God
Still others found “tone-deaf” this announcement about activities planned in Salt Lake City as part of a celebration for the Episcopal Relief and Development Fund:
“Just to sweeten the pot, here is an incentive: Deputy William Miller of the Diocese of Hawaii, author of ‘The Beer Drinker’s Guide to God,’ will host a beer tasting at the Beer Hive Pub in Salt Lake City during General Convention for the deputation that raises the most money in the campaign.” [After some raised concerns, the event/prize has been renamed “An Evening with Bill Miller” Jennings said in a statement on the House of Deputies webpage, adding
and Miller adds: “I want to assure deputies that the Beerhive is an established, well-regarded Salt Lake City restaurant and pub with a full food menu and range of non-alcoholic beverages.’]
The promotion was singled out for criticism by Rev. Anjel Scarborough, of Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Md., writing on her blog that it violates a church policy, approved in 1985, that liquor should not be publicized as an attraction of a church event.
“I do not advocate banning alcohol outright,” Scarborough wrote, “however, it is time to acknowledge our family’s alcohol problem: from our church’s reputation as ‘Whiskey-palians,’ to the many jokes about alcohol in the Church, to our systemic enabling of actively alcoholic leaders who continue to damage themselves and the people in their charge.”