Pastor James Howell knew he had a problem on his hands when several teenagers arrived at a church dance drunk and had to be taken from the church by ambulance to be treated for alcohol poisoning. Starting in 2009, he urged his flock at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, to give up drinking for Lent and donate the money they would have spent on booze to a "spirit fund."
To date, Myers Park has raised more than $34,000 for local substance abuse programs, and seven parishioners have sought treatment for alcoholism.
"It isn't that alcohol in and of itself is bad; Jesus drank wine," Howell said. "We emphasize the role it plays in our lives." Part of that discussion, Howell and others have found, involves acknowledging a fact that some Methodists prefer not to talk about: some Methodists drink--even if many don't like to admit it.
From teetotaling Baptists to Episcopalians who uncork champagne in the parish hall, alcohol use can be tricky for religious groups to deal with--especially during holy periods or holidays.
There are no rules on alcohol for Catholics during Lent, although Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are mandatory days of penance and abstinence. Muslims--those who drink alcohol at all--are called to abstain from it during Ramadan. But to celebrate Purim, Jews are encouraged to drink--and for many Christians Christmas Eve includes spiked eggnog.
Unlike prohibition-minded Mormons or Catholics who belly up to the bar on St. Patrick's Day, Methodists--the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination- took a more ambiguous stance. Now the denomination's General Board of Church and Society is following Howell's lead and is pushing a churchwide Alcohol Free Lent campaign.
The 7.8-million-member UMC has long had a love/hate relationship with alcohol. For decades the denomination--at least officially--strongly supported temperance. The father and son who founded the Welch's grape juice company were not only good Methodists but also savvy businessmen who saw a huge market in pushing juice for communion to temperance-minded churches.
In the years since, Methodists have trended toward a more liberal stance. While the UMC still encourages abstinence, in 2008 the church's Social Principles were revised to allow for "judicious use with deliberate and intentional restraint, with scripture as a guide."
The result has been a somewhat uneasy relationship between Methodists and the bottle.
"We are very uncomfortable acknowledging that Methodists drink," said Cynthia Abrams, a minister who works on alcohol, addictions and health-care issues for the Washington-based social policy agency. …