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Conference 2017: Response to Alcohol question

Appendix 1

Introduction

Conference 2016 referred the following memorial to the Council on Social Responsibility;

“ In the light of recent medical reports on the impact of the consumption of alcohol on health, the Representative Session of the Belfast District Synod requests Conference to ask the Council on Social Responsibility to re-examine
the effects of alcohol use, and recommend guidelines as to the practice and response of the Methodist community.”

Alcohol Facts and Figures

Some key statistics around alcohol use in Ireland the United Kingdom are listed below. They outline harms associated with alcohol misuse, and will cause concern to the interested reader. The recent UK Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines on low risk drinking are listed in the reference section below, and these note that the previously reported health benefits of regularly consuming a small amount of alcohol have been over-estimated

Most of us know someone who struggles with alcohol abuse and as social use of alcohol has become more common in evangelical circles, it could be someone within the church or within your family. People often ask, how do you help someone in this situation? Am I over reacting?

Here are some simple guidelines;

Alcohol Advice

The Bible leaves us in no doubt about drunkenness – it is forbidden (Rom 13:13; Gal 5:21; 1 Pet 4:3). Every reference to drunkenness is either with disapproval or is part of a tragedy (e.g. Gen 19:32; Deut 21:20). 1Cor 5:11 lists drunkenness as one of the sins for which excommunication may be the necessary act of church discipline. Christians who acknowledge the Bible as their sole rule of faith and practice must never be drunk.

The definition of drunkenness may vary – the boys on a night out will have a different standard from the officer from traffic branch!

While drunkenness is forbidden, all use of alcohol is clearly not. One preacher said that Paul’s suggestion for Timothy to ‘use a little wine for the sake of his stomach’ meant that Tim was to use it as a rub! His interpretation is surely wrong!

Nevertheless, those who argue for total abstinence have some reasonable scriptural arguments. The journey to the promised land was alcohol free (Deut 29:6). Priests on duty were to be tee-total on duty (Lev 10:8f). There were those who would choose not to use alcohol, Daniel and his friends; the Nazarite (Num 6) – John the Baptist was one such. In Rom 14 Paul makes a very powerful argument that in love for a brother or sister it would be better to refrain from something legitimate rather than cause the brother or sister to stumble.

Alcohol and the Methodist Church

In times past Methodist ministers were required to preach a sermon at least once a year on temperance. We might wonder how often that was observed in the past but it is certainly not common now. One minister who has preached on the topic, not every year, but at least once in each circuit to which he has been stationed observed that the most frequent comment after the sermon was, ‘it’s a long time since we heard a sermon on that subject.’

For those who would like to better understand the history of Irish Methodism’s attitude to alcohol the November 2008 edition of the Methodist Newsletter will provide very helpful and interesting reading. For our purposes here only a very few and brief points will be made.

The editorial in that edition begins with this,

“There was a time when one of the things which people knew about Methodists was that they were against ‘drink’; indeed for some it was about the only thing they knew about the successors of John Wesley. It was not a bad reputation but it is one which is no longer reflected in the personal habits of a very large proportion of Methodist members.”

The attitude to alcohol has shifted several times in our history. In the time of Wesley, ale and wine were commonly consumed (in moderation) while distilled spirits (gin in particular which was cheap at the time) were roundly condemned.

Through the 19th century temperance became a more important issue for many. The word temperance is a ‘slippery one’ because to many it means moderation but to others (such as the Irish Temperance League, founded in 1850) it meant, and still means, total abstinence. At the end of the 19th century the Conference removed permission to use port wine in communion and insisted on the use of unfermented grape juice; communion should be accessible to everyone including those susceptible to addiction (We do not think that any conference sanctioned the use of Ribena!)

Into the 20th century the temperance / abstinence position still held sway though with less vigour. This is illustrated by the steady decline thorough the first part of the century in membership of the Irish Methodist Band of Hope.

Still, up until recent decades candidates for the Irish Methodist ministry were asked at the start of the process, “Do you use alcohol or tobacco?” If the answer was ‘yes’ they did not go on in the process. The present candidating process does not require this question to be put to candidates.

It is not known what proportion of Methodist ministers and members in 2017 drink alcohol. We might safely assume that it is a higher proportion than a generation ago. We might wonder if anyone now would say that Methodists ‘are against drink.’

Some would pose the question ‘has the pendulum swung too far?’ In our present society where the adverse medical and social effects of increasing alcohol consumption are causing ever more concern, the following recommendations are made for the prayerful consideration of all Methodists.

Recommendations
It is recommended that all Irish Methodists;