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A bicyclist dead, the Episcopal Church takes a hard look at alcohol

Heather Cook, photo courtesy of Episcopal News Service

WASHINGTON (RNS) Hundreds of American bicyclists die in collisions with cars each year, but a fatal December crash in Baltimore has triggered some serious soul-searching within the Episcopal Church: The drunken driver, authorities say, was a bishop.

Now clergy and laypeople alike are rereading church policy on alcohol and the consecration of bishops, how addiction is handled and whether the church itself was in any way culpable in the death of cyclist Thomas Palermo, a 41-year-old husband and father of two.

Heather Cook, photo courtesy of Episcopal News Service

In 2010, Heather Cook was caught behind the wheel with a blood alcohol level of .27 — more than three times the legal limit in Maryland — and pleaded guilty. Photo courtesy of Episcopal News Service

The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, one of two main governing bodies of the 2 million-member denomination, said many Episcopalians are asking why church leaders allowed Heather Cook to be confirmed as bishop last September despite their knowledge of her struggle with alcohol.

“Sometimes a tragedy happens and people move on after a couple of weeks,” Jennings said. “This particular tragedy has caused many people to not only look at the issue of alcoholism and other drug addictions but also how we select and elect our leaders, our bishops.”

Jennings is appointing a committee to review the church’s 1985 policies on alcohol and drug abuse and to propose new resolutions to be considered at the church’s General Convention, in Salt Lake City from June 25 to July 3.

In a Feb. 9 letter to lay and clergy members of the House of Deputies, Jennings suggested that church leaders were too timid in the face of Cook’s problems. The bishop, 58, now faces 13 charges, including vehicular homicide, texting while driving and leaving the scene of the crime (she later returned).

In 2010, Cook was caught behind the wheel with a blood alcohol level of .27 — more than three times the legal limit in Maryland — and pleaded guilty. Some members of the diocese who voted say that information was never disclosed last May when Cook was elected a suffragan, or deputy, bishop of Maryland.

“The church can sometimes confuse secrecy and confidentiality,” Jennings wrote to the deputies. “Our desire for reconciliation can sometimes make us reluctant to confront one another in love.”

The church’s presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, who presided at Cook’s consecration last September, has formally restricted Cook’s public ministry, directing her to not present “yourself out as an ordained person of this Church in good standing.”

How deep is the Episcopal Church’s problem with alcohol?

As the church’s 1985 carefully crafted policy on the topic shows, it has hardly ignored the issue. Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church — operating independently but alongside the church — helps parishes across the country with clergy or congregants struggling with drugs and alcohol. And the church’s flagship General Theological Seminary in New York is one of the only in the nation to offer a course on how the church can battle addiction.

Church members also have a reputation for indulging.

Episcopalians playfully — and others sometimes not so playfully — call themselves “Whiskeypalians.” And they joke: “Wherever two or three are gathered, there’s usually a fifth” (of alcohol). But Lutherans, too, use that joke in reference to themselves. And leaders of most other major denominations, including some teetotaling Baptists, have acknowledged addiction problems among clergy and the laity alike.

Still, Bishop J. Scott Barker of Nebraska said he suspects the problem may be particularly acute among Episcopalians.

“I wonder if we’re not using alcohol as a larger system to hide from the hard realities of a church which is under a lot of pressure right now and in decline in a lot of places,” he said. Alcohol “is one way to anesthetize yourself in light of larger trends. Just keep celebrating.”

Read: (RNS) Churches on alcohol and leadership, a sampling

The Episcopal Church, once the proud home of political and corporate elites, has seen its membership drop a precipitous 17 percent from 2003 to 2013. And as the church has elevated its progressive wing — ordaining female and gay bishops — it finds itself increasingly isolated within the larger Anglican Communion, the more traditional worldwide family of Anglican churches.

Barker’s desire to think deeply and clearly at the church’s national meeting this summer, as well as to mark the death of the cyclist, led him to invite other bishops and delegates to join him in abstaining from alcohol at General Convention.

“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,” he wrote last month on the Nebraska Episcopalian website. “I note that in the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska so many wonderful disciples are in recovery and could use some support — and so many parish churches are hobbled by alcoholic family systems long in place.”

Shannon Tucker, president of the Tennessee-based Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church, said he’s grateful for all the attention lately placed on alcoholism in the church, and for Jennings’ intent to keep the problem in the spotlight when the church gathers in Salt Lake City.

But the hard work of battling addiction must also happen elsewhere, he said.

“Passing a resolution and reaffirming the ones we’ve already passed are great things to do,” said Tucker, whose ministry is funded privately. “It has to be the local diocese, and bishops and clergy who decide that they want to join us in our work.”

Funding would be nice too, Tucker added. While the church may work hard to face up to addiction problems, and update its policies to reflect current understandings of addiction, it could prove itself by designating dollars for those efforts.

That could happen, Jennings said, noting that the church will consider addiction issues at the General Convention before it passes a budget.

In the meantime, the Diocese of Maryland has formally asked Cook to resign. After posting bail, she checked herself into a Maryland addiction treatment facility. She now awaits trial.

KRE/MG END MARKOE

About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)

11 Comments

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  • The Episcopal Church will take a ‘hard look’ at not one bloody thing.

    A set of someones was bound and determined to put Heather Cook in the suffragan bishop’s chair and they concealed her offenses from the diocesan convention. You look at Cook’s work history, and you grasp for an explanation. What was her appeal (or minimal utility?)?

    You see, were the Episcopal Church to ‘take a hard look’, they would see that their clergy is a great collecting pool of mediocre people. They got from here to there by being an organization so unserious that a person with something to bring to the table would not devote his life to it.

  • “After posting bail, she checked herself into a Maryland addiction treatment facility. She now awaits trial.”

    Hope all things concerning Heather Cook work out for good.

  • As a Celestial Torah Christian which places me in the New Age Gnostic Christian camp I am happy with my religious sacrament, the one that actually heals people and doesn’t cause brain and liver damage that sends people to early graves as well as making quite a few go berserk every day and hurt someone. I’m talking about the New Age sacrament, cannabis indica and sativa herbal essences that wake up your brain’s potential for spiritual consciousness whereas alcohol dulls it and is so easily abused by its users. Wine and alcohol was for the Piscean Age of Christianity and that’s over with. New Age began officially, all Aquarian Age astrological differences melded together into one event: the ending of the Mayan long calendar, the ancient world’s most accurate one, on Dec. 21st, 2012. The Collective Unconscious tops mechanical stellar calculations which for the Age of Aquarius are all over the time map so thus the merging of them into one date that unites them all spiritually.

    Most of you in traditional Pauline Christianity’s religious splits are on the wrong side of the Aquariana Divide that separates the two types of intoxicant sacraments and their Piscean Age and Aquarian Age beliefs about God and the Spirit of Christ. Organized religions give way to “spiritual, not religious” classification which is really the Gnostic Solitary Path of personal spiritual relationship with God and the Spirit of Christ. So, toke up and don’t cause harm to other people or yourself when you get stoned, that’s the statistical difference between the two religious intoxicants.

  • Art Deco, thank you for this comment. The community of Episcopalians in the Diocese of Maryland has been shattered by the killing of Tom Palmero by Bishop Heather Cook. The resulting lies and cover-up by our Bishop Eugene Sutton and his hiring of media spin doctors has struck deep at our faith. Perhaps read this excellent article by the Baltimore Brew: https://www.baltimorebrew.com/2015/02/12/i-could-have-stopped-cooks-ordination-bishop-says-but-it-would-have-caused-an-uproar/ and particularly look at the comments by two sincere Episcopalians: ligthningrod and Benjamin A. Carey, MD.
    In the aftermath of the death of Mr. Tom Palmero, we have seen in Maryland and in the leadership right to the top with Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, a growing culture of denial. PF Jefferts Schori and Bishop Eugene Sutton are now publicly blaming and ostracizing Bishop Heather Cook. At the same time, the Episcopal Church is supporting Heather Cook secretly through the Episcopalian Pastor Mark Hugh Hansen in Easton, Maryland.
    Heather Cook is, no one argues the point, fully responsible for her drunk driving and the killing of Mr. Palmero. She decided, time and again, to disdain the value of the lives of others (including children) and repeatedly drive so intoxicated with liquor and illicit drugs that she would eventually (and did) kill someone. She never chose to stop her drunk driving in order to protect others. She never did anything to take control of her licentious life and stop being a threat to others. There is ample evidence.
    Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori and Bishop Sutton (and others) knew of her alcohol and drug abuse. They were not directly involved in the death of Tom Palmero, but they were in positions to stop enabling Heather Cook and even to get her help, which is what their ministries as priests and bishops requires of them. They failed in their ministries, if not criminally, at least as leaders of the Episcopal Church. And this was no small failure. They knowingly put a drunk whose life was out of control in a position of leadership and ensured she had plenty of money to buy alcohol and drugs.
    They provided her housing and a job that required her to drive, again knowing she was a drunk and had no interest in stopping. Two days prior to laying their hands on Cook and making her a bishop, they sat and drank with her and with her “companion” (the deposed [defrocked] priest but still an Episcopal pastor, the flamboyant bigot and denial of the authority of bishops, Mark H. Hansen).
    All that is bad enough, but they have made it far worse with their lies, with hiring Daniel J. Webster and his wife’s firm, Meredith Gould, to create spin and lie to the American people, and to shove the skeletons deeper into the Episcopalian closet. The “misrepresentations” Jefferts Schori lays at the doorstep of Heather Cook also belong to her very own public statements, as well as those of Sutton.
    Ultimately the failures in leadership and outright wrongdoings of Bishop Jefferts Schori and Bishop Sutton are nearly as bad as Heather Cook stepping on the gas pedal, running an innocent man over, and leaving him alone to die on the side of the road. As Melissa Huber her below so correctly states, the failures in the ministries and leadership of Jefferts Schori and Sutton are egregious. They need to be held accountable, they need to step down from their leadership positions, and they then need to ask the members of the Episcopal Church and the American public for forgiveness.
    If they fail to do this, it will be a failure of every Episcopalian living in and promoting a culture of denial within their church. This is all so shameful for good Episcopalians.
    If they fail to do this, it will be a failure of every Episcopalian living in and promoting a culture of denial within their church. Shameful.

  • I hope that Heather Cook gets all the US justice system is able to give her in punishment for her crimes. May she ask for forgiveness from her jesus in due time.

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