On Changing St. John’s Alcohol Policy

Nicholas Beasley
Sept. 16, 2021

I supported creating a new alcohol policy for St. John’s, one that would allow for the controlled serving of beer and wine on St. John’s property. Two policy alternatives were created by a committee that reported to the Vestry, working from guidelines from the denomination and diocese and other congregations. One policy added new safeguards to serving alcohol off campus. The other policy also allowed for the serving of beer and wine on St. John’s campus. Members of that committee were Jim Barber, Michael Burkett, Mike McCauley, Lee Rambo, Ann Ruderman, and me. Adopting either fuller policy would have offered us a safer environment for serving alcohol. Adopting the policy that permits serving alcohol on campus, as the Vestry did in September 2020, increased our opportunities for on-campus parish life gatherings, better reflects the celebratory practice of most members of the parish, and normalized our rather incongruous policy of serving alcohol at many St. John’s gatherings but never on campus. I hope that the new policy will not be cause for pain or dissension at St. John’s. Some of my thoughts, from summer 2020, on the wisdom of changing our policy are below.

Wine and beer are longstanding parts of the festive life of Christians and were non-controversial, when used in moderation, before the temperance movement of the nineteenth century. The Psalmist invites us to thank God who “cause(s) the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart (Psalm 104:14-15). Those verses are typical of the Bible’s witness on alcoholic beverages, which tends to treat wine as a gift of God, another food item, to be blessed and enjoyed. Wine is even part of the new creation, as Isaiah, saw it: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” Other verses suggest that a lack of wine indicates a failure of God’s favor. Obedience to the covenant would result in fruitful ground for the Israelites (Deuteronomy 28:4, 11), but disobedience would result in vineyards that produce no wine (Deuteronomy 28:39). The Israelites were warned that a foreign nation would come and leave them with no “grain, wine, or oil” (Deuteronomy 28:51). We all remember what the Lord’s first miracle was, at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. Parish Ales (especially on Pentecost) were organized throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period in England, fundraisers for the repair of church buildings. At the same time, the Bible speaks clearly of the dangers of drunkenness and offers cautionary stories of overuse.

Some contemporary context is helpful as well. Serving wine and beer a few times a year is typical of Episcopal churches like ours, of similar size, in cities, with demographics such as we have. The churches I have served (two very large ones: Christ Church Greenville, St. George’s Nashville and two smaller ones: Holy Trinity, Decatur (GA), and Resurrection in Greenwood) all allowed wine and beer to be served on campus a few times a year. Admittedly, there are plenty of Episcopal churches that do not serve alcohol at parish events. Not many of them, however, would remind you of St. John’s in their culture, social style, and size. My friends among the clergy are usually surprised to hear of our former policy.

We need more joyful gatherings and often express a desire to know each other better. With an updated alcohol policy, St. John’s can expand its parish life gatherings and bring some existing events back to our campus, making them easier for attendees to access and for parish groups or the congregation to manage. Many have noticed that the gated entry at King’s Grant and other aspects of the clubhouse facility are less than ideal for church events. We might discover new ways to engage with our neighborhood and community through events we host, like a concert on the patio or a Mardi Gras gathering. Serving wine and beer carefully, a few times a year, would enrich the life of the church by removing one factor that hinders our gathering on campus at certain times. Alcohol is served at St. John’s events regularly, but none of these are held on our campus. There is thus a disconnection between the culture of hospitality in our parish, which is rich, and our on-campus policy. This has struck some of us as inconsistent.

Arguments against changing the alcohol policy at St. John’s can be grouped together under a few headings: respect for parish tradition, concerns around overuse, concerns about alcoholism, and liability. All are important and should be considered and respected.  

Parish tradition seems to be the liveliest, most pressing, of these concerns. We are hesitant to change this policy because we are hesitant generally to change as a church community. St. John’s worships in traditional ways, is largely composed of members in traditional families, and our theological orientation is more traditional as well. Wisely, we have recognized that every chance to change is not an opportunity we are called to embrace. Yet we can also sense the potential downside to this reluctance to change. God’s mission must be carried out in an ever-changing world. There will be times when we have to embrace a change in means or media to serve a timeless message and mission. Failing to do so can impair our ministry and limit the good work that God means to do through us. We have to change and grow while we live. Our average Sunday attendance shrunk by about 40% between 2008 and 2018. We won’t use alcohol to grow our parish, but we need to make changes and take risks in our ministry. This may be one of them, as well as a chance to clarify our values, decision-making, and leadership habits.

Some admirable element of respect for our elders is present in this debate. The Revs. Ken Morris and John Barr are remembered as faithful rectors of St. John’s who established and maintained this policy. Church members who shared times in ministry with them may well feel the importance of honoring them by maintaining certain aspects of the status quo. It seems telling that early in the Rev. Alan Avery’s time at St. John’s the Vestry adopted the no-alcohol policy by resolution, making Mr. Barr’s pastoral policy a church policy, one established by the Vestry. A change in the policy would requires attention to these previous generations of clergy leadership and those who love them. Yet, recognizing the necessity of change and growth, on many fronts, might require it. St. John’s is too large of a parish to focus on its clergy as bearers of identity, as smaller congregations might. We need to be guided by the convictions of the wider current leadership of the church. Rodger Stroup, our clerk and archivist, has pointed out the frequency with which this issue has been raised over several decades; it might be time to put it to rest.  

Overuse is a concern for any individual or institution that serves alcohol. Churches that serve alcohol must develop and follow policies that minimize the possibility of overuse of alcohol. One of the dangers of our present situation is that we have alcohol at quasi-church events like the Men’s Oyster Roast and their Steak Dinner and various guild gatherings, in brown bag or BYOB fashion, in which there is no control of who is served and how much anyone is served. Alternative beverages are provided but perhaps not with the care that they might be under an alcohol policy (there are usually “equally attractive and accessible” requirements). Accompanying food of sufficient variety and interest is not always present for social times before meals. Though I have not observed it, our current events with alcohol are more likely to result in overuse than events with designated bartenders and controlled serving of beer and wine, guided by a parish policy. I defer comment on related liability concerns to the lawyers but imagine we would be better off with a policy and appropriate insurance coverage than we are now.

Alcohol addiction is a devastating condition that destroys lives and relationships. It should be admitted that some churches or church groups have developed cocktail-party cultures that normalize regular, excessive use of alcohol. Care must be taken to avoid such developments. St. John’s isn’t doing much now to promote recovery options and considered consumption of alcohol. The new alcohol policy would require us to be more intentional about facing the problem of addiction and providing resources to face it. Some would argue that church events should be a place apart from alcohol for those in recovery. There is great Christian charity in that argument. We do also have to recognize, however, that those in recovery must maintain their sobriety in a variety of settings in which alcohol is served and that they are already either doing so at St. John’s events that serve alcohol off campus or are avoiding those events. Again, the new policy does not initiate serving alcohol at St. John’s events; it allows those events to be on the church campus, with new levels of care and control by the church.

I want the life of St. John’s to be joyful, connected to our real lives, connected to our neighborhood and community. Wine and beer have historically been seen by Christians as a certain kind of food, part of the generous provision of God, to be enjoyed in moderation. Like all gifts, they need to be used carefully but as part of the goodness in his creation that God has blessed. I hope that our new policy creates a safer, healthier environment for our parish family on the few occasions when we do include beer and wine in our hospitality, such as the Oyster Roast, Steak Dinner, and a few possible new events, such as a stewardship kick-off dinner or a Mardi Gras fundraiser. We will take great care with those events and others and will not allow alcohol to become a persistent presence at our more regular parish gatherings.