Should UCC clergy use plants or chemical substances to facilitate spiritual or mystical experiences?
In the UCC's Northern California-Nevada Conference (NCNC), a study group of the Committee on Ministry has been considering whether it is ethical for clergy to use, or encourage lay people to use "entheogens." These are substances like mushrooms, ecstasy, peyote, methamphetamines, LSD and ketamines, which some people say can be a life-changing and direct experience of the divine.
After two years of study, the group said "No," and the Conference board of directors agreed. At its November meeting, the board voted that "the use of entheogens by UCC-authorized ministers or those with in-care status, or guiding others in their use, be considered unethical conduct which may jeopardize one's standing or in-care status..."
The Northern California-Nevada Conference is believed to be the first UCC conference to consider this issue.
In the fall of 2000, the Conference received a few isolated reports that UCC ministers (as well as ministers of other denominations) were using entheogens or guiding lay persons in their use. The Committee on Ministry formed the study group, which then consulted with experts on the subject, including a psychiatrist and two psychologists. Four persons who have used entheogens and/or led others in their use were interviewed.
The study group's six-page report, "An Exploratory Study of the Use of Entheogens," includes a section on "a theological perspective on entheogens." While accepting the importance of peak religious experiences and the validity of some people's spiritual encounters as a result of entheogen use, it concludes, "We question the wisdom of trying to control, manage or manipulate a manifestation of the divine."
Highlights of the report
It is new. Entheogens are not well-studied
It is illegal. Use of all entheogens is illegal, except peyote, which federal law only permits under particular prescribed conditions. The drug must be part of a recognized Native American Church worship ritual conducted by an authorized "Road Man." At present, no UCC minister qualifies as a Road Man.
On the subject of illegality, Conference Minister the Rev. Mary Susan Gast explained, "While we in the UCC have a history of civil disobedience in matters of justice, and some people may see this as a cause, illegality becomes an issue when an authorized minister is leading or present in a situation where entheogens are being used, and exposes those in her/his care to that situation. There are legal aspects also for a local church whose pastor may be leading members or non-members in illegal drug use without the knowledge or support of the congregation, thus exposing the congregations to possible legal liability."
It is dangerous. An individual using entheogens risks physical and psychological harm. Some of the drugs have intricate and sometimes dangerous interactions with specific physical conditions. Ministers are not medially trained to assess the risk or to respond to a physical emergency.
It is unethical. The committee concluded: "Guiding others in the use of entheogens, especially parishioners or seminarians, is a misuse of clergy power and violates the Ministerial Code of Ethics." Personal use of entheogens, because of the risk of personal harm and abuse, also violates the Ministerial Code of Ethics.
Use of entheogens may cause an authorized minister to lose his/her standing. This policy applies not only to ordained ministers with standing, but also to commissioned and licensed ministers, and to persons in care, who might lose their in care status.
The Rev. Sally Brown, who chaired the study group, explains, "The reason for Ômay' is that we don' t want to lock ourselves into a black and white policy while research is under way. Nor do we want to open the door to becoming proactive religious police.
"On the other hand, [the Committee on Ministry] did want our clergy and congregations to know that clergy use of entheogens was so serious it would automatically trigger a consideration of standing.
"[The Committee on Ministry's] current stance is that there are gray areas, so we should consider each case on its merits."
Research is good, like current federally-sponsored research. The report endorses more serious research into entheogens.
The Rev. Deborah Streeter is editor of The Pacific, the Northern California Nevada Conference edition of United Church News.
Copies of the full report are available from the Northern California Nevada Conference, 21455 Birch Street, Hayward, CA 94541-2131; phone 510-247-8990.