Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Wine to gladden the human heart

Okay, I admit it. I am in danger of becoming obsessed with wine. But at this stage in the Lenten journey that may not be surprising!

However, it is not Lent or the absence of wine that has been dominating my thoughts. Rather it is the attitude of some Christians to wine – and other alcoholic drinks. I am well aware that attitudes and practice within the Christian community has changed over the last few decades. When I first made a clear decision to follow in the Way of Jesus it was in a context in which drinking alcohol was considered to be inappropriate for Christians. For me that represented a welcome break with some of my underage pre-Christian teenage practice which had involved a fair amount of alcohol indulgence. A clean break was – for me – an important part of beginning the road of discipleship.

Not that I stayed ‘tee-total’. Attitudes in the ‘evangelical’ Christian world were beginning to change and more and more people were drinking on occasion. Not in excess – or anything like it. But wine with a meal or a couple of pints of an evening were considered relatively normal by some of my fellow Christians, while others were still adhering to abstinence, and urging everyone else to do likewise!

That said I entirely respect those who do not drink. I have many friends who (for a variety of reasons) cannot drink, or others who choose not to out of personal Christian conviction. And, of course, I completely understand those who give up alcohol for a season as a spiritual discipline (for example, for Lent!).

When I read the Bible I find that it is almost entirely positive about wine etc, while being negative about drunkenness. And in church history we find that Christian ‘tee-totalism’ is a very recent phenomenon. Of course, there were always those who chose to deny themselves wine and strong drink for reasons for personal choice or spiritual discipline. But by and large the Scriptural witness is positive towards wine (it gladdens our hearts!) but negative towards drunkenness.

And when we come to regard our Protestant tradition pre the 19th / early 20th century obsession with ‘temperance’ then we find that the likes of Luther, Calvin and Knox were not slow to use wine or extol its virtues.

But what has really made we wonder recently is a wedding celebration we attended. It was a lovely event and I am delighted that we were there. However, at the couple’s request there was no alcohol served which was fine as far as I was concerned as a) I was driving and b) it is Lent! But I could not help wondering ‘Why?’ If ever there was a time for wine was it not a wedding? But what was even stranger is that the preacher in his address used the drinking of wine with a meal as an illustration of what he wanted to say. So what was all that about?!?

It took me back several years to a similar event when a relative was getting married and again for reasons of the couple’s choice arising out of their personal Christian commitment, no alcohol was served. But the officiant used the Wedding in Cana of Galilee as his theme and spoke of the wedding turning out like a free day in Oddbins?!? But then no wine to toast the happy couple of celebrate their new life together!

And again I ask, ‘Why?’

If people cannot celebrate a wedding (of all things) with a glass of bubbly, but still hear the preachers speak of water being turned into wine, what on earth is going on? Anyone got a clue?

Easter Day cannot come quickly enough!


  1. I don't have the answer although think it may have something to do with the culture here in Scotland, where many have alcohol problems (could be self medication) and many crimes are committed when 'under the influence'.

    I don't drink alcohol because I don't like the taste - all fermented drink tastes like vinegar to me - but I don't mind others drinking alcohol if they do it responsibly.

    Interestingly I remember in the 80's as a young Christian being pressurised by other Christians at social get-togethers to have a glass of wine or other alcoholic drink. I didn't react to this pressure as I wouldn't have enjoyed drinking alcohol but it was not easy being the only one not having an alcoholic beverage.

  2. That is an interesting account Chrys (being pressurised by fellow Christians into having something to drink). I have never faced that personally, but I have heard of others who have. Seems to me to be entirely irresponsible and 'unchristian'.

    Yes I do think the social context of Scotland and our nation's dangerous love affair with the bottle will be a factor. But I sense there is more to it than that... but I am not sure what!

    It was once famously demonstrated (by Walton and Kessell I think in their book on Alcohol) that university students in the States who came from faith backgrounds that were Episcopalian or Jewish (where moderate alcohol consumption is the norm) tended to continue moderate use at university. Those who came from Baptist or Mormom backgrounds (where liquor is not permitted) tended to abuse alcohol at college as did those who came from backgrounds where excessive alcohol consumption was the norm.

    All very interesting...!

  3. I thought you might be interested in what St Benedict says in his rule about ‘The Measure of Drink’:

    ‘Each man has his special gift from God, one of one kind, another of another kind’ (1 Cor 7:7) and hence it is with some diffidence that we fix the quantity of the food and drink of others. But keeping in view the frailty of the weak, we think that half a pint of wine daily is enough for each. Those, however, to whom God grants the capacity to abstain should know that they will have their own reward.

    If, however, local conditions or their work or the summer heat call for more, it must be for the superior to decide, but he must take care that neither excess nor drunkenness overtakes them. For although we read that wine is not at all a drink for monks, yet, since in our days it is impossible to persuade monks of this, let us agree at least about this that we should not drink our fill, but more sparingly, since ‘wine leads even wise men into infidelity.’ (Sir 19:2)

    When, however, local conditions bring it about that the above mentioned quantity is not available, but much less, or none at all, then those who live there should bless God and not grumble. We lay special stress on this that the brethren remain free from grumbling.

    What practical wisdom from a 6th century monk!

  4. sounds good to me - I like the bit "it is impossible to persuade monks of this" and also the exhortation not to 'grumble'

  5. (My friend Pat, from Skye, emailed me this comment...)

    I too have given up alcohol for Lent, and definitely look forward to Easter Day! I have been sticking my nose in my husband's wine glass each time he's opened a bottle during the past 4 weeks .... & I hope it's OK if you just inhale!!

    I broke my abstinence once - in Kinloch Rannoch Episcopal church, at communion. I pray the Lord will approve of my slug of port - which makes a welcome change from my usual C of S Shloer! Dearie me ……….

    Pat, Skye

  6. In answer to the original question, it could just be that the couple in question don't want there to be any possible chance of drunken behaviour at the wedding, thus potentially spoiling the day - particularly, as was mentioned, since this is Scotland, and people don't seem to understand the concept of moderation here.

    I've never been interested in alcohol and I have to confess, I completely fail to see why it's such an attraction to people. But I'm glad other people can enjoy it... in moderation.

  7. Thanks Douglas for that comment. And I agree entirely with you about moderation (and not all Christians - it must be said - are always as 'moderate' when it comes to drinking as they ought to be!). And (as I said in my original blog) I have complete respect for those who choose not to drink for whatever reason. Your surmising that perhaps the couples in question did not wish drunken behaviour to spoil their day would be entirely reasonable in many cases. As a minister attending weddings I have too often seen some pretty awful examples of that! But in the two cases I mentioned, there was very little prospect of that. The guests were mainly family (and in the case of both sets of families at both weddings - not likely to get drunk) or Christian friends. Your suggestion - which would make sense in many cases - doesn't seem to me to explain the decision in these particular ones. So I remain puzzled!