Temperance was a wheelbarrow issue for the churches at one time in its life. A wheelbarrow issue is something on the agenda that everyone is pushing, if not in one direction then in another. The wheelbarrow has moved on. No guesses for what it is today.

I found Geoff Troughton’s talk last week interested me on what happens to a wheelbarrow issue when the wheelbarrow pushers have moved on and the wheelbarrow is rusting in the garden.

At one point temperance was not in the wheelbarrow. One hundred and fifty years ago British Baptists were advertising whiskey in their national periodical. I do not endorse this, whiskey reminds me too much of the smell of varnish that I do not enjoy it. (Don’t ask about my varnish-drinking habit!)

Then the issue of temperance and alcohol reform began a public issue for protestant Christians. It took upon the fervour of revivalism. This comment made me wonder if the current touch-paper issue for Christians will also become historic dampening as society continues to evolve.

Church practice adjusted to preclude the consumption of alcohol on church grounds and the replacement of sacramental wine with grape juice.  Sacramental wine revived during the war period when grape juice was restricted.  The Presbyterian Bookroom offered a light wine.  I wonder who bought it?

Temperance was once considered a progressive position, including leading free-thinkers in the nineteenth century.  It was a faction in the church and lead to the creation of new parishes, whether by moderates or teetotalers.  Perhaps it could be compared to the charismatic movement in more recent history in that effect.  One leading Presbyterian, William Salmond, published a tract against it, Prohibition: a blunder.  It was funded by liquor interests, including Speights.  Some things don’t change.

Society changed.  Temperance and the Six O’clock Swill became unfashionable.  Temperance and alcohol reform was absorbed into the Public Questions Committee, a suspect group in the eyes of evangelicals and conservative Presbyterians.  With the demise of Public Questions there is no champion for Temperance.  The submissions to the Alcohol Reform Bill was widespread but naive, not thought through or presented with depth.

I wonder if that has ramifications for the leadership debate simmering in the national church at the moment.  It may be that it will not go away or be resolved for an inclusive church.  If temperance can still be an issue although we don’t know why or articulate it then I doubt the church will become an inclusive body at the national level.  It may allow exceptions and become more tolerant as society progresses one way or another.  But I think it has taken its position on sexuality and this has become historic.

Geoff Troughton’s paper to the Presbyterian Research Network can be read here.

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