I distinctly remember the time, thirty-five years ago, that Barry Phillips stood up in a meeting of the sixth form and told us about the dangers of alcohol. Barry was a florid and eccentric little man, a much-loved figure around the school. He looked after the library, and taught a few periods of lower-school history. We seemed to know already that he was a bit of a boozer. But when he gave us an insight into the causes and consequences of his alcoholism, it was surprising, not least because it was entirely undramatic.
It began when he was a young teacher in a boarding school in Ireland in the 1960s. A sherry before lunch. A gin before supper. A few pints, a few times a week. It was nothing uproarious or seedy, not at all extraordinary. It was just how professional young men lived. Just how things were.
But without his noticing, the habit turned to necessity, and before long he was left wriggling on the hook of a substance over which he had less and less control. His end was predictable, and unhappy.
I think of Barry as we give thanks in church today for the good gifts of the earth, among which surely we number both grain and grape. Yet I can hear him warning us how easily things go wrong, how we shouldn’t be taken in. Of course, it’s hard to say these things without sounding stuffy. Booze has burrowed its way into our civilisation, and it’s going to be hard to shift it.
Some are perhaps recalling that the Bible is chock-full of references to ‘wine that maketh glad the heart of man’, and that Jesus’ first miracle was to turn gallons of water into fine wine. But we can’t translate such stories lock, stock and oak barrel into our own culture and use them to sanction a substance which leads so many to ruin. For the Bible is also full of stories of escaping slavery, of receiving God’s gift of freedom to enjoy a truly abundant life, focused on serving God and neighbour. Calling into question our relationship with a drug that’s become such an old family friend might be a challenge, but it could be the first step on a long march to freedom that many people need to take. Harvest might be a good time to begin.