Drinking deep

When I was a young man, some forty plus years ago now, the evangelicals of the Church of England were, as a tribe, rather abstemious when it came to alcohol. My training incumbent was teetotal. He wasn’t unusual. Lots of evangelicals might have had a half pint of shandy on a very hot day, or a small sweet sherry at Christmas. But that was about it. There was a general cultural disapprobation of many things that other people took for granted: drinking, smoking, the cinema, sport on Sunday, friendship between the sexes in the young. Pleasure, in general, was suspect. And alcohol fell into the pleasure category.

This was not simply a throwback to puritanism, though those cultural roots were long and strong, but had, mixed in, the desire not to engage in activities that would diminish one’s spiritual aliveness and alertness. Not a bad motive. It was, however, developed into a very powerful set of cultural assumptions. If you came to faith in that tribe, then you didn’t ignore its assumptions without people making their disapproval clear very quickly.

That world of cultural assumptions has shrunk almost to nothing. Evangelical Christians, like other Christians, think nothing of drinking alcohol. They may have better brakes on their consumption than some others, but they imbibe. And their social media postings reveal that this is a normal part of their lives. Preparations for trips to festivals or conferences are often advertised with comments about packing a bottle of something for the event. The Jesus Arms at Greenbelt is a highlight of that festival (though I am not trying to align that place with evangelicalism!). This change took place when the movement decided to emerge from its ghetto in the late 70s and 80s and took over the Church of England. I think it almost happened unnoticed.

I have drunk alcohol most of my adult life. I was raised in a home where my parents drank wine and spirits and beer – but all rather sparingly. Drink was something for weekends and special days, not for every day. I had sips of my mother’s gin and tonic. I had wine with water on French holidays. I learnt to like beer in my early teens. I was very tall for a fifteen year old and had no trouble getting served in pubs from that age. I drank with my friends. I never drank alone, and I have never had any difficulty with feeling that I needed to drink alcohol. For the last eleven years I have been a cathedral lay clerk, part of a notoriously boozy culture. I have often been tipsy and occasionally drunk. I hate the feeling of being drunk and have tried to avoid it. I am not sanctimonious about drink and drinking – there is a lot of pleasure to be had in it. I enjoyed it at weddings and parties. I loved a pint or several after a big sing. Gin and tonic after a stressful day in chaplaincy was very welcome.

But around the beginning of the year I started to think again about it all. I was reading more and more that suggested that the health benefits of moderate drinking were equivocal to say the least. There was clear evidence that drinking up to the recommended limit – even the newly reduced one of fourteen units a week for a man – increased the risks of contracting seven different types of cancer significantly.

So I decided to stop drinking alcohol altogether. I am nearly seven months into this choice. A number of things stand out for me. I am very lucky in that I feel no need to drink alcohol. I am by nature a very non-addictive personality. This is simply good fortune. So I can take things or leave them. And the effect of leaving alcohol has been that I have lost a significant amount of weight. I realised I was drinking the equivalent of an extra day’s calories each week. I feel better. I have been on pub crawls with drinking friends and had a great time. People get boring when they get drunk, so I probably go home earlier than I would if I was aiming to be the last man standing, but in other respects my socialising has not been affected. I have been to weddings and special birthdays – occasions when I thought I might want to drink, but I haven’t, and they have been just as much fun as ever.

I am not saying to myself I will never drink again. I have not taken any public or private pledge. But I like being sober. My decision co-incided with discovering that my cholesterol levels were raised slightly and thinking that I needed to take more active steps to stay healthy for the sake of my children and grandchildren as well as myself. I wondered what they would say about it. But my decision has been strongly welcomed by my nearest and dearest.

And today I read in the Lancet that: “The level of alcohol consumption that minimised harm across health outcomes was zero (95% UI 0·0–0·8) standard drinks per week.” The report from which this quote is drawn is a massive study that crosses continents and weighs mountains of evidence and data. I notice pushback already on social media. I have not even begun to reflect here on the danger and the damage to a society which is alcohol friendly to say the least. That evidence is all around us – but if we aren’t falling-over drinkers, or addicted, or facing premature liver failure, or working in hospital A&E departments, then we can easily turn a blind eye.

It is time the church in all its forms started to think again about attitudes to alcohol. I wouldn’t want to see a return to the cultural apartheid of evangelicalism from the 20s to the 60s, nor to the social pressures of the temperance movement, nor to the self-regarding piousness of both. But church culture is more likely these days to accept drinking alcohol cheerfully and rather unthinkingly. I hope the recent medical evidence changes this. Alcohol is a very dangerous drug. Most people can use it in moderation. Some can’t. The science now suggests that, overall, drinking it does you no good. You might expect churches to be, at least, rather cautious and equivocal about its use. But that will only happen if there is an open and extended conversation about drinking. That has yet to begin.