Several times a week, my Presbyterian church is the meeting place for people seeking release from the grips of alcohol addiction. These men and women gather in a nondescript room to participate in an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting.
Not far from these gatherings is another meeting. This one is composed entirely of women who discuss a contemporary Christian book. Like many women’s book clubs across America, its members frequently stray off-topic as they indulge in mountains of finger foods. Also, there’s wine — lots and lots of wine.
I can’t help but feel conflicted about the irony of my church opening its doors to the local AA community while also promoting a boozy book club.
This book club calls itself “Women, Wine, and the Word,” and it’s been a mainstay in my church for several years. It draws a spirited group of women from a cross-section of society. What binds them together is their shared Christian faith, intellectual curiosity and a fondness for…wine.
I can’t help but feel conflicted about the irony of my church opening its doors to the local AA community while also promoting a boozy book club. As Presbyterians, we don’t have strict rules about drinking alcohol as do more conservative Christian denominations like Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. These sects of Christianity are hardly alone — other faith traditions like Islam, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and the Baháʼí Faith also discourage or prohibit followers from drinking alcohol.
“Women, Wine, and the Word” isn’t my only brush with church-sponsored drinking. Before I converted to Presbyterianism in my mid-thirties, I was really, really Catholic: I completed 13 years of Catholic school, was obsessed with reading about the saints and was even the first female altar server in my diocese.
Each of the three Catholic churches I joined had no qualms about alcohol. Wine was served at communion while pretty much every social event featured alcohol. As a kid, I remember my parents telling me how drunk people got at the casino-style fundraiser for my grade school. Alcohol was also a mainstay at our parish picnic and at every baptism, first communion and confirmation party.
In my town, many churches derive a significant portion of their operating budget from hosting multi-day festivals. In addition to about a half dozen Catholic churches, the local Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches also get in on the act. No matter which one you attend, you can count on there being no shortage of alcohol. Vodka bars, ouzo, extra-large bottles of imported Polish beer—it’s all there for you to imbibe.
I used to belong to St. Patrick’s Church. To celebrate its Irish origins, we held an annual four-day Irish festival each September. Perhaps no event is more associated with drinking than St. Patrick’s Day, so you can imagine how rowdy things got. Occasionally, the priest (who makes no secret about his love of fine spirits) would even help sling glasses of Guinness.
The older I get, the more I realize how many of my friends and family have disordered relationships with alcohol. Drinking is encouraged by family, friends, and coworkers (not to mention our culture at large). For many, their place of worship is the only place where they could possibly receive a different message. But it seems to me that many of these institutions are either mum on the topic of alcohol or are actively encouraging drinking.
This disheartens me in many ways. So many people could benefit from a different message. After all, many individuals discover or return to their faith during low times like when they’re battling an alcohol addiction. Places of worship often have close connections with AA and social service agencies that help those battling alcohol addiction. This could make places of worship a natural conduit for those looking for help. But that message can too often get muddled when a place of worship promotes drinking.
Many religious organizations are fine with drinking as long as it is not out of control and does not inhibit a person’s ability to be a productive member of the faith community and the larger society. I take a few issues with these sentiments. The first is that some studies contend that a certain percentage of the population is genetically predisposed to become addicted to alcohol. For these individuals, moderation is likely pretty much an impossibility.
Faith institutions can offer alcohol-free events or make events that include alcohol less alcohol-centered, making it clear that drinking or not, all are welcome.
The second issue is that no one seems to have a clear grasp of what constitutes “moderate drinking.” For some, that’s a beer or two on the weekend. For others, it’s a glass of wine with dinner every single night. And yet for others, it’s occasional drinking interspersed with benders at weddings and other special occasions. It’s often more dependent on how you stack up against your peers’ drinking habits than whether you follow any true definition of moderation.
My hope is that my church and other places of worship would be more sensitive to these realities. Faith institutions can offer alcohol-free events or make events that include alcohol less alcohol-centered, making it clear that drinking or not, all are welcome. We need to create an environment where people who don’t want to drink feel empowered to speak up. And we need to respond to them with the understanding and concern for others that our faith requires us to have.
For my part, I’m going to bring soft drinks and juice to the next “Women, Wine, and the Word” and make it clear that I’m not drinking. I’ll also offer to take responsibility for bringing nonalcoholic beverages to subsequent meetings. It’s a small step, but sometimes it just takes one person saying “no” for others to realize that they too can go against the grain — or in this case, the grape.