Thought for the Day - The Reverend Lucy Winkett
The government’s consultation on whether to impose a minimum price for a unit of alcohol has done what it was intended to do; galvanised a public debate on the place of alcohol in British society. The figures are striking: in 2010/11, it’s estimated that 1.2 million admissions to hospital were alcohol related* and it’s now socially acceptable, in a way it wasn’t even 10 years ago, to be excessively drunk in public. So called “binge drinking” has become a commonplace phrase and now “preloading” has entered the public vocabulary; drinking large amounts of cheap shop bought alcohol before a night out, as the club is more expensive. This isn’t a new debate of course. In a highly influential report entitled The Bitter Cry of Outcast London of 1883, “drink” as it was called, was identified as a major element in the poverty of many of London’s citizens. In describing the attraction of the pub, the author wrote; with its brightness, its excitement and its temporary forgetfulness of misery, it is a comparative heaven to tens of thousands. They could not live if they did not drink, even though they know that by drinking they do worse than die.
The heartbreaking descriptions in this nineteenth century report of child poverty, and of children who were carers for their siblings illustrate the tenacious hold that the use of alcohol had particularly on urban life, and the current manifestation of city centre public drunkenness is the simply the latest. Visible excess is only half the story though as statistics are also being made public about the quieter heavy drinking that happens at home in front of the television or the habitual glasses of wine and beer after work.
In the past, religion’s contribution to this debate has been from a moral standpoint about the questions of poor behaviour that are encouraged by the loss of inhibitions. But the truth is that Christianity has a complex relationship with alcohol, from the beautiful story in John’s gospel of Jesus turning water into rich and special wine, to the brewing of beer by monks and the central sacramental act of billions of Christians around the world when they sip fortified wine from the same cup at the Eucharist.
It is perhaps a sign of our times that this debate has been highlighted not so much by a moral anxiety as a medical one; it is the strain on the NHS that’s the issue. We are it seems, a society less at ease with ourselves than we could be; for example, taking the edge off social interactions with a drink to alleviate our fear. Moralising judgements don’t help here; but recognising that we medicate our misery by taking alcohol will raise deeper questions about who we are and who we want to be.
* (The Government’s Alcohol Strategy March 2012)