Theology on Tap? ‘Sober Spirituality’ explores church drinking culture

Theology on Tap? ‘Sober Spirituality’ explores church drinking culture

Photo by Veeka Skaya/Pixabay/Creative Commons

Photo by Veeka Skaya/Pixabay/Creative Commons

(RNS) — When the Rev. Erin Jean Warde first became sober, she was totally comfortable with the “private sober life.” But, she jokes, God didn’t exactly respect her boundaries.

After being invited to preach at a clergy vow renewal service in the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma, where she served as rector, Warde felt the Spirit prompting her when she learned of multiple clergy struggling with their relationships to alcohol.

“I got into that pulpit, and literally for the first time in my life outside of a sobriety community that I was privately in, I talked to the diocese about my choice to quit drinking,” Warde told Religion News Service over a recent video call. “That really started this pronounced shift in my ministry.”

On April 18, Brazos Press will publish Warde’s debut book on a topic she never planned to talk about publicly. “Sober Spirituality: The Joy of a Mindful Relationship with Alcohol” is a hope-filled invitation to reconsider the narratives that society, individuals and even religious communities can tell us about alcohol.

Erin Jean Warde. Photo by Katie Wolfe & Gab Owermohle

Erin Jean Warde. Photo by Katie Wolfe & Gab Owermohle

A one-time Baptist saved at a Hell House (a haunted house-style attraction hosted by churches to frighten people of hell), Warde found a more expansive faith in the Episcopal Church. But she also stumbled into a culture where many social events revolved around alcohol — “theology on tap” gatherings, men’s groups meeting at breweries, even the open bars at Episcopal conferences.

Now a spiritual director, recovery coach and speaker living in Austin, Texas, Warde works to de-stigmatize not drinking, remind everyone she encounters that they are inherently beloved and, for those who choose sobriety, invite them on a journey that isn’t one-and-done but is a “long obedience in the same direction.”

RNS spoke to Warde about the drinking culture she found in the church, common myths about alcohol and where she’s encountered resurrection in sobriety. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How was your exit from fundamentalism similar to the crisis you experienced when you stopped drinking alcohol?

I joke that I deconstructed before it was cool. Deconstruction is this experience of the scales falling from our eyes and having to reckon with what we trust around us. Who is our community? Who are we? And we’re left with the intense question of, but what do I believe? How do I want to be in relationship with God? And for some people, they don’t want to be in a relationship with God. In terms of alcohol, it was very similar. It’s this question of, what is the truth about how this beverage is affecting my mind, body and soul? What is happening communally around this? How might society be encouraging people toward toxic relationships with alcohol? And leveling with the core question of, who am I in this? How has this shaped my identity, and do I want that to shape my identity? And then finally discerning my way through the question of, with all that I know, how do I want to be in relationship with alcohol? And for me, the answer to that question was that I did not want to be in relationship with alcohol, but I wanted to be sober.

What were some of the ways the church made it difficult for you to have a mindful relationship with alcohol?

“Sober Spirituality” by Erin Jean Warde. Courtesy image

My book is written out of a spirit of sharing the wisdom I’ve learned in sobriety, but it’s confession in equal measure. I was a part of the alcohol culture in the church. For me, it was very difficult to be that person and then think, I actually don’t want to function in this way anymore. When we are in a culture or a community that begins to conflate alcohol use, drug use, any of that with identity, we start to create something that’s very difficult to separate. For example, language like, we’re “Whiskeypalians.” Or as Episcopalians, you know, wherever there are three or four, there’s always a fifth. That was a joke that was made a lot. And it’s much harder to tease out an identity than it is to tease out an action or a habit or a substance. The identity of the church is not actually about alcohol, it’s about the absolutely mind-boggling love of God. When we conflate something like alcohol with that identity, we cheapen it. In the way that we numb ourselves with alcohol, we numb the message and the beauty of the church when we conflate the two.

What is one of the biggest myths about alcohol you’d like to debunk?

That alcohol brings with it this sense of joy. I really struggled with the idea that I’m funnier when I’ve had a couple, or that alcohol is what makes a really good party and it’s important to community. The reality is that alcohol is a depressant. And so alcohol actually explicitly works in contrast to your joy. It is literally a downer. And often in our relationships, it’s actually what is fueling disconnection. I can spend all night talking to you, but if at the end of it, I don’t remember what was said, did we connect? What I have found in my life is, I’m much funnier and much more joyful when I am present. When I’m in front of you, I’m really in front of you. The flip side of that also being that what I thought was fun in the evening was definitely not fun in the morning. Does your fun have a price to pay on the other side of it? And if that is the case, is that fun?

What should churches consider when offering wine during the sacrament of Communion?

I am not setting out to ban all Eucharistic wine, but I do wrestle with the fact that we have made accommodations for things like gluten free wafers, but not for people that are made ill by alcohol. There are also people who are not in addiction or recovery who don’t drink. It’s not just about sobriety. It’s about a greater awareness of the fact that we profess this is the table where we feast with God. And we numb the gift and beauty of that when we make a table that is not really open to everyone. In order for it to really be a foretaste of the banquet we await in the deeper presence of God, you should be able to offer it to all those who desire to receive it.

How have you encountered the resurrection while changing your relationship with alcohol?

I really didn’t realize the extent to which that depressant was actively working in my mind and my body and my soul. It was a way of life. It was in taking breaks from drinking that I began to notice, oh, wait a second, I’m not as depressed. So not even that large, profound, big, you know, Christ trampling down death kind of resurrection, but a really quiet resurrection. Jesus appearing on the way and just saying hi, and then knowing it is him.

I was able to begin showing up to myself and getting to know myself, and being able to start to feel for the first time in my life the most palpable and intense awareness of the Holy Spirit. I had not been able to receive the clarity of the Spirit, I believe, because of that numbing. I also had to figure out, what do I really like to do? A lot of recovery coaching is also figuring out your hobbies, because drinking takes up a lot of time. And then you have to fill it. So letting those be playful times. I got really into comedy. But really, the resurrection was coming alive inside of myself, loving myself in a way I’ve never loved myself before. It was because I was able to really feel that love of God that I was able to receive some of that and show some of it toward myself.

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