I tried to get an AA group to stop reciting the Lord’s Prayer at the close of every meeting and instead recite something more inclusive, like the Serenity Prayer. The group declined my suggestion, and a few group members suggested that if I joined them in saying the Lord’s Prayer, it would provide a good opportunity for me to learn tolerance. It was also suggested that if I didn’t like the Lord’s Prayer, I might “be more comfortable” in another meeting. The word “Jews” was mentioned. Still, no drinking on my part.
I moved from New York City to a university town in the Midwest ten years ago to accept a year-long teaching position. One of the first things I did upon arriving was to locate the area’s AA meetings. I wanted support in my 15-year-long abstinence from alcohol. I wanted to meet like-minded souls. I wanted to battle my tendencies to isolation. The usual reasons people attend AA meetings. I found a large group that met on Saturday mornings. It was filled with professors, farmers, businessmen, students, lawyers (I know this because I got to know them). There were single people, married people, straight people, gay people. Everyone there was sober. All were there to stay sober, and to help others maintain their sobriety. The meeting served cookies and coffee. What was not to like?
I discovered the answer at the end of the first meeting. That’s when we stood, joined hands and together (except for me and God knows who else) recited the prayer that begins, “Our Father who Art in Heaven.”
On my fourth Saturday morning, at the same meeting, I raised my hand and said that um, I was new here, and I was happy to be at the meeting and I was wondering if there was a mechanism by which the group might address the notion of closing prayers, because being Jewish, I felt sort of uncomfortable saying a Christian prayer, and maybe we could discuss something non-denominational. Fully cognizant of my newcomer status at that particular meeting, not to mention in that particular state, and equally aware of the AA traditions that call for kindness and that warn against the dangers of self-righteous anger, I was polite. At least I thought so.
I saw one of the lesbians roll her eyes.
“Here we go again,” said a former district attorney.
“That should be addressed at a business meeting,” said the group leader.
“Okay,” I said. When in Rome and all that, I thought.
“That sounds good. When does that happen?”
“Do we have to discuss this now?” a downtown merchant asked with, it seemed to me, an unnecessary tone. But maybe I was being oversensitive.
As it turned out, in order to get any topic discussed at a business meeting, the steering committee (which met at a member’s house for lunch once every two months) had to agree by a majority vote to raise the topic.
Might it be all right if I attended that steering committee lunch? Shrugs all around. I baked cookies (I like cookies), drove to the house of the man who was hosting the steering committee and made my case. Respectfully and with great solicitousness, I might add.
“This might make some members uncomfortable,” I was told. “We’ve been doing it this way a long time,” I was told. “This issue has come up before, and we’re doing just fine with the Lord’s Prayer,” I was told.
I asked if it would hurt to have the matter brought to a vote at the next business meeting.
Well, one of the regular steering committee members said, there would have to be adequate time to research the topic, and members would need to be informed that a vote was coming up and….
It took six weeks before the business meeting.
At that meeting, I made my case—sensibly, quietly, respectfully, I thought—and then the discussion began.
First a redneck raised his hand. (Literally, the guy had a red neck. I thought he was a farmer.) A definite vote for Jesus, I thought.
“I’ve looked at this prayer and I don’t see any mention of Jesus or Christianity,” he said, and I gritted my teeth. And then he surprised me.
“But I’ve been singing in church choirs for twenty five years, and at every church service, they say this prayer. If that doesn’t make it Christian, I don’t know what does. I like the prayer, but I think we should have one that’s acceptable to all religions.”
What a mensch, I thought. And I vowed to never again judge a person or presume to know his thoughts by the color of his neck.
Next up was a former nightclub owner and self-described feminist.
“If we’re going to take out the Lord’s Prayer, then why don’t we just change every Him to It and He to She in the Big Book when it talks about God? Because I think that would be right, but you don’t see me calling business meetings to vote on the topic.”
“That’s a separate issue and I don’t disagree, but…”
“Neville, you’ve had your say, why don’t you let other people talk!”
Then, an anthropology professor. I didn’t need to worry about his vote. Here was a man of ideas, dedicated to rational discourse and fundamental fairness.
“Look, I don’t like it when people talk about how they hate Catholics here, but I stand it because I believe in the group,” he said.
I couldn’t keep quiet. “But the only people here talking about how they hate the Catholic Church are people who grew up Catholic, and Catholic-hating doesn’t have AA’s imprimatur while reciting a prayer together does, and it’s coercive and….” Dirty looks all around. (Using a word like imprimatur had been a tactical blunder. A newcomer told me later that I was already seen as a pushy east coast outsider. Throwing around four syllable words didn’t help my case.) “Neville, please, everyone knows how you feel, will you let other people discuss this?”
I crossed my arms, was silent.
“You know,” the lesbian said, "I’ve learned more about Jews in the past two weeks than I care to know, and more than I ever want to learn again.”
I think my jaw fell open.
What I thought was “You’re a lesbian! If anyone should be standing up for the rights of the minority, it’s you.” What I also thought was, “you awful anti-semitic Midwestern harpie.”
“We all need to learn acceptance,” the group leader said, “and Neville, this seems like it might be a perfect opportunity for you to practice just that. We all do things we don’t like, but we don’t all refuse to…”
“Move to close discussion.”
I lost, 8-6. I walked out of the meeting. I called my AA sponsor in New York City, told him the whole story, told him the one place I had counted on to help me with the anxiety and despair that had been at the root of much of my drinking alcohol was now causing even greater anxiety and despair.
“Well,” he said, “probably 95 percent of AA meetings in the United States close with the Lord’s Prayer, every place but New York City and Los Angeles, so if you travel, you’re probably going to have to get used to the practice.”
“Yeah, but isn’t….”
“Relax,” he said, and I didn’t. It seemed beyond my capabilities at that moment. Then he continued. “The members who voted against your proposal are stupid, and they’re wrong.”
“Yeah!” I said. Maybe I shouted. “Yeah!” What a great sponsor.
“Which makes your challenge to behave with grace and dignity in this situation even greater.”
“Hmmmm,” I said.
He suggested I go to another meeting and talk about my experience and my feelings. I found such a meeting. It was called “the out-of-towners.”
“I think they mean 'Jews group,'” one of the members told me afterward. He said they had all been through something similar with most of the groups in that town. That’s why they started their own.
I’m back in New York now, saying the serenity prayer (except in one meeting, which not so incidentally conducts itself with a ‘steering committee’ that makes it nearly impossible for anyone who wants to make a change in the group’s conduct to bring such a suggestion to a general vote). And I’ve been thinking more about The Lord’s Prayer, AA, the history of humanity, intolerant lesbians, my own inclination toward feeling victimized and related topics.
Here’s what I’ve come up with:
The literature of AA is remarkably clear and remarkably ambiguous on virtually every subject, subject to interpretation and disagreement positively Talmudic in intricacy. One subject upon which I believe every AA member would agree is that the organization ought not to endorse any particular religion. A closing prayer to Allah, for example, would be frowned upon. I’ve never heard or read much debate about that.
Another self-evident truth: The Lord’s Prayer, while never mentioning Jesus Christ or anyone allegedly rising from the dead, is nevertheless a Christian prayer. Municipalities and school districts have have recognized this, and stopped endorsing its recitation. It’s regularly said in Church. Jesus taught it to his disciples!
“Jews do not say this prayer. If a Jew attends an AA meeting where it is recited, he does not have to leave, but he should not recite it along with them. The reason is easy to understand: Its source is what is called "The New Testament". The existence of the Jewish People is predicated on an eternal pact G-d made with Abraham and later with his descendants at Mount Sinai. A "New Testament" implies that this pact was somehow annulled. By reciting a prayer from a context that undermines the existential foundation of his people, a Jew feels that he is surrendering his unique identity to the ideology of the majority culture. It seems to me that this runs contrary to the aims and goals of AA, which looks to strengthen each member's identity as a unique individual, with his own meaning and purpose in life.”
So, given two fairly simple propositions (AA shouldn’t endorse a particular religion; The Lord’s Prayer is Christian), why do AA groups still insist on saying it?
Here’s the best I have come up with:
*Because this is the way it’s always been done. The recovering alcoholics I know are notoriously resistant to change. At one time, anyone who suggested banning cigarette smoking in meetings, or daring to mention drug addiction, would be sneered at and voted out. Happily, times do change.
*Because Bill said we should say it. Bill Wilson did indeed write a letter in 1959 in response to an AA member who asked about the Lord’s prayer. Wilson wrote that “the arguments of its Christian origin seems to be a little farfetched” and declared that “It does not seem necessary to defer to the feelings of our agnostic and atheist newcomers” (no mention of Jews, Hindus, Muslims or any other religion here). Finally, the co-founder of AA pronounced, “The worst that happens to the objectors is that they have to listen to it. This is doubtless a salutary exercise in tolerance at their stage of progress.”
Bill Wilson was pretty definite on this topic. He was also pretty definite on recommending the use of LSD to aid alcoholics in their recovery (he took it). He also did not attend meetings in the last years of his sobriety, regularly cheated on his wife, hit on female newcomers and on his deathbed screamed at his nurses to bring him whiskey. Bill Wilson was a great man who accomplished great things. He was also a flawed human being. He was wrong about the Lord’s Prayer.
*Because of an idea—real and/or imagined—that changing from The Lord’s Prayer to something else would cause discomfort in some members. It probably would cause discomfort in some members. So what?
“Alcoholics Anonymous is not a hotbed of mental health,” I’ve heard. “It’s sick people trying to get better,” I’ve been told. “If you can’t find an AA business meeting, just look for the place where people are screaming and throwing chairs over whether they’re going to serve oatmeal or chocolate chip cookies,” people say. I find these sayings reassuring. They tell me that I’m not the first person to be upset at fellow AA’s behavior. AA members tend to be self-righteous, easily wounded, and prone to ugly outbursts. I include myself in that category. I’m working on that.
After I vented at the “out of towners" meeting, I went back to my Midwestern Saturday morning meeting, and continued to attend. I shared, I tried to help others, I stewed a little, but I didn’t drink. The people who voted to keep the Lord’s Prayer were stupid. And they were wrong. But I tried to behave with grace. I think they did, too.
Neville Flance is a pseudonym for a writer and AA member