I didn't realize how hot this issue apparently is for some Wesleyans. Of course I've always assumed that the Wesleyan base was so opposed to drinking that this was a non-issue except for some of the larger churches with members who didn't come from a Wesleyan background. I've been fine with some of these churches just fudging on the issue with their members and otherwise just letting a sleeping dog lie.
In my opinion, it would be a sad statement if our church had anything like a split over an issue like this one--a sad comment on both sides! God has not commanded us to drink or not to drink, but he has commanded us to be of one spirit. When the Episcopals and Methodists are divided over things like homosexuality among the clergy, we would prove to be petty Christians if we split over drinking!
If those who would stay would be the ones with the right attitude (not the ones who won--whichever way), I'd be more than happy for the divisive on both sides to leave.
The truth issue
Ironically, there is widespread agreement on what the Bible teaches on this issue, although the most conservative element in our church would still deny it. Drunkenness is not stomached at all in Scripture. Even here, I personally don't think that the Bible has in mind one time of getting drunk. I'm not saying this to allow for one night of drunkenness. I'm just saying that a drunkard in the ancient world is surely not someone who gets drunk once but someone who is habitually drunk.
But that's really irrelevant. We are pretty well agreed across the denomination that Christians should not get drunk. It's a bad witness, it puts a person in a state where they are more susceptible to temptation, etc... "Strong drink is a mocker..."
Yet we should assume that all the biblical figures drank wine except when the Bible explicitly tells us otherwise. The Nazirites were just a small group within Israel. One of the things that distinguished them from the rest of Israel is that they did not drink. The implication is that most everyone else did. Yes it was more dilute than ours today, yes the water could use some purification, but it was alcoholic and you could get drunk off it.
Jesus distinguishes himself from John the Baptist as someone who drinks, while JB does not (JB came not drinking, you said he had a demon; I came drinking, you say I'm a drunkard). Jesus turned the water into alcoholic wine. Paul tells Timothy to drink a little wine for his stomach's sake, and so forth.
So there really is little debate on the truth issue. Alchohol is not prohibited in Scripture, only drunkenness.
Elephants in the Room
Some might be upset that the general board did not flat out OK drinking in the Australian church. Don't blame the board. If a proposal had been brought to let the Australian church find their own way on these sorts of things, it would have been approved. If even the briefest of studies had been done in preparation to present to them, it probably would have been approved. If that is sticking in anyone's craw, pull it out. Drinking was not the problem there.
I know the conservative wing of our church can be frustrating to the boomers and emergents out there. But that doesn't give anyone the right to be hateful or dismissive of them. They carried this ball for decades, there's a history here, and the Bible does command us to respect our parents. They are our parents on the level of principle, and God is not pleased when we throw them away, even long after we have inherited the power.
That doesn't necessarily mean that we don't change things. But it does mean that we are accountable for how we treat our elders. This is one of the major blind spots of the coming generation. I wonder if we will see a steady rise in hate crimes toward the elderly in the next few decades.
Another blind spot is submission when we don't agree. There is a time to work for change, maybe it is now. But these things are never just about truth. In fact, they're always more about people than truth. This is a mistake I could see both sides making. On the one side is the stubborn conservative who has so wrapped his/her faith around a particular cultural understanding s/he won't listen to what the Bible actually says. Then there is the stubborn progressive who would sink the whole ship in the name of truth. Both these types shouldn't be in leadership for their lack of wisdom.
There are a couple anti-drink smoke screens I might mention.
First, sometimes people split hairs over how much you would need to drink before you are drunk. Since you don't know, don't start.
This is a bizarre argument to me. For one, I think the Bible is really adressing the drunkard, the person who is continually drunk, what we would call an alcoholic or the older generation called a "wino." But one time drunk does not a drunkard make, and I can't imagine the biblical authors giving you anything but a strange look with this "is it two, is it three drinks." This argument seems a left over from our overactive introspection period.
I do think there are lots of good reasons never to get drunk. Do you think people sin more when they're sober or when they're drunk? Do you think a person's moral resolve, his or her restraint in saying a hateful or flirtatious word increase or decrease with each drink?
And as someone who did my doctorate in England, all the evangelical Christians I was around drank. They drank sherry before high meals, red and white wine with the meals and port after the meals. I can honestly say that I never saw a one of them I would consider drunk. The chaplain of the college was as holy as anyone I have ever met (yes, even among the entirely sanctified in the WC). He drank, always reasonalby. I can't think of any time when he was drunk.
Where to Go
First, the Wesleyan Church already allows alcohol for medicinal (or machine--ha!) purposes. Given the spate of studies showing that moderate drinking of red wine is good for our health, Wesleyans can technically already drink red wine moderately. Not sure I can make that argument for beer or other forms.
The worst thing would be if we split over something like this. Surely we wouldn't be that stupid. If this is really that big of an issue in our church and a resolution is going to come up, I hope the generals will commission a study.
The most important thing to me is our attitude. The biggest question in this debate for us Wesleyans is not what the Bible prohibits or allows on this issue. It's not the truth question. The most important question is always the attitude question. Can we change our current status and maintain the right attitude throughout the process? If we can't, then we have to ask how it helps the kingdom to change the rules. Does it help win more souls to Christ? Does it help the church mature in the faith?
If we can change the rules and maintain the Spirit of Christ in the process, then I'm with you. But if we don't care about anything but making it easier for us to do something that gives us pleasure and all else be damned because we're right and the Bible allows for what we want (don't even pretend that drinking is a biblical command and that you're fighting for God here!)... THAT has nothing to do with Christ.
And just some small changes in how we formulate membership and the issue disappears as a matter of the people attending our churches.