Saturday, April 27, 2013

“So why don’t those people come upstairs to Church?”

Jean Milliken Hague
Jean Milliken Hague
We had arrived for a Thanksgiving service and were surprised to see the church parking lot full. But upon entering the sanctuary, we saw only a handful of people gathering in the choir area. Downstairs and in the parking lot, there were hundreds of young people laughing and drinking coffee. It was an annual gratitude meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Thanksgiving has been said to be the ‘High Holy Day’ for members of 12 Step groups, and people in recovery flock to meetings on Thanksgiving Day. As the above comment shows, members of the Episcopal Church often resent and distrust members of the 12 Step groups that meet in their church buildings.

But are not the members of AA and other associated 12 Step groups already in Church when they gather in our buildings? Are ‘those people’ not part of the Emergent Church that we claim is the future for the Episcopal Church?

If you have attended a meeting based on the 12 Steps of AA, you will recognize a certain liturgy. There are readings from scriptures of the ‘Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions’ and the ‘Big Book’ of Alcoholics Anonymous. The Preamble is read which forms a collect. There is a leader who shares. A concluding prayer, either the Serenity Prayer, the Lord’s Prayer or both are prayed at the end of each meeting. There is even a collection taken!

More importantly, the program of AA and those who seek sobriety in AA openly rely on a Higher Power, which some call God. People in AA may use different terminology for their spirituality but they are still ‘coming to believe in a Power greater than themselves’ for their survival and to stay sober. They seek a ‘spiritual awakening’ and thirst for a ‘conscious contact’ with God. The Rev. Richard Rohr, OFM, a renowned contemporary spiritual leader, has referred to the Twelve Steps as the greatest American contribution to spirituality in the 20th Century. We do often have more people attending 12 Step groups in our rooms than we have worshipers in our sanctuaries. I have even been asked if I could recruit church members from AA meetings.

The dilemma is that no group of AA can ally with any sect, denomination or organization, and we in the Episcopal Church are all of those. The primary purpose of any AA group to is to stay sober and help others to achieve sobriety. Within that mission there is a deep and abiding belief that God will perform miracles daily to help people overcome addiction. Is that not a definition of a community of faith, similar to our own, and one which deserves our respect? Just as Jesus said, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14:2, NRSV), God’s house includes the rooms of AA.

The Episcopal Church is blessed with beautiful buildings and gracious rooms with which we can extend hospitality and respect to members of 12 Step groups. One of the slogans of AA is ‘be responsible’ and so we can expect groups to be responsible with our rooms. For our part, we can be open and welcoming of the multitude of members of 12 Step groups who meet downstairs or elsewhere in our buildings. We have a great deal to learn from those who witness miracles every day.

The Rev. Jane Milliken Hague is Assistant to the Rector at Our Saviour in Silver Spring. She has been active in 12 Step Recovery groups for many years. She recently retired from the Board of the Shalem Institute and serves as a spiritual director and retreat director. 

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