Monday, April 28, 2014

More-Than-Church: The Fellowship of Bill W

Wil Darcangelo
Dr. Elizabeth Nordbeck - Cults and Controversies
Final Paper
April 28, 2014

More-Than-Church: The Fellowship of Bill W

This paper examines the cultural definitions of the words  “religion” and “church” and the place  in our society of organizations which could be considered by alternative nomenclature.  It will consider that Alcoholics Anonymous8 (and the more than sixty authorized adaptations of its faith-based recovery fellowship doctrine) are part of a category of human faith systems which might be termed “more-than-church.”  Careful consideration of this categorization in light of what our culture defines as “religion” and “church” might give opportunities for other faith-based groups (that may currently exist in the gray area of spiritual recognition and/or clarity) to be understood and acknowledged for the genuine contribution they make in contemporary spiritual life as such.  As well, such novel descriptive terminology might be of use to those for whom words like “church” and “religion” are culturally repellent; preventing participation in an organization which might be of genuine benefit to them.

First things first
Before we unpack the characteristics and history of Alcoholics Anonymous and place them against the cultural context of words like “religion” and “church,” we must first analyze what we mean by the words and the distinctions of our understanding.  Our culture has definite ideas about what we mean when we say “church” and “religion” and these ideas range from the sublime to the stigmatic.  We will first break down the words, look at some theories about their origins, and create a glossary, of sorts, for the purpose of this paper that will help us to define how various spiritual organizations in general might be categorized.

What is “religion?”
The word religion has many interpretations and theories of its origin.  Word usage in 1200 CE indicated a meaning of "conduct indicating a belief in a divine power.”  A usage meaning "particular system of faith" is recorded from c.1300.  Our modern sense of the word is traced back to the 1530s to mean "recognition of, obedience to, and worship of a higher, unseen power."6  Two possible origins of the latin religiƍ (meaning “respect for what is sacred, reverence for the gods”) are the words relego and religare.  Respectively, relego (lego: read, and re: again) means “to read again, consider carefully;” and religare (ligare: bind, connect, and re: again) means “to reconnect” (made prominent by St. Augustine, following the interpretation of Lactantius.)7  Though these theories of course may be arguable, from them we can conclude, for the purpose of this paper, that the origins of the word “religion” might pertain to the organized and respectful observation of, consideration of, and contemplation of the implications of a higher, unseen power from which we might possibly derive, with which we might possibly reconnect, and/or to which we might possibly return.  Or, in abbreviated form, the organized consideration of our relationship to the divine.   These organized divine considerations often (though not necessarily always) include codified beliefs, activities such as rituals and ceremonies that stem from a theological rationale, lifestyle activities, and shared identities.9

What is “church?”  
Does the word church mean an edifice, or a community?  Merriam-Webster defines “church” to mean “a building that is used for Christian religious services”11 and most definitions of the word include a connection to Christianity specifically, though the likely origins of the word do not in any way exclusively restrict its use to Christianity.  The origin of the word is likely from the Greek kuriakon meaning “the Lord’s house.”   But the Greek word ecclesia and the Hebrew kahal were translated in the Bible to mean “church” when they actually mean “assembly.”10  We can conclude that the word “church” is not an exclusively Christian term, nor does it imply Christianity.  Neither does it refer in any way to a building or edifice of any kind.  It speaks rather of an assembly of persons and the usage context indicates the persons are assembled for a spiritual purpose. “There is no clear instance of its being used for a place of meeting or of worship, although in post-apostolic times it early received this meaning.”10   Culturally, however, we view the word “church” to broadly mean a building in which we consider our relationship to the divine.  But anecdotally, it also can have a more ambiguous meaning beyond brick and mortar and even beyond fellowship with other people.  You occasionally hear a person saying something like, “Church to me is communing with nature.”  In this light, “church” can mean a one-on-one moment spent in the presence of the divine.  I would like to suggest that “church” is more about a momentary state of being where communion with a higher power occurs; a state of clarity, understanding and connection.  That moment can occur while walking in nature, eating a perfectly ripened strawberry, viewing a sunset, singing a song, meditating, or even making love.  It is a sensation of divine connectivity and sublime joy.  It is the brief, congregational silence following a hymn or a prayer during worship service where the room itself seems to momentarily hover in a weightless arc before returning to Earth.  

What are the benefits of organized religion?  
One could consider the benefits of an organized religion on society by studying its impact on a community in the following ways:
  • cultural
  • spiritual
  • communal
  • safety
  • identity
  • fellowship
  • debate
  • explorational
  • educational

And though this paper is not intended to be a study of the impact of church and religion on society, it is considering the areas in which that impact occurs and how that consideration helps define which bodies of spiritual assembly in our culture might constitute “religion” or “church” of some form.  When analyzing what constitutes a “religion” or a “church” in our culture we look to the above areas to measure indicators.  Most, if not all spiritual bodies existent in a community touch significantly on all areas.

What’s the difference?
Although it is a somewhat playful exaggeration, we have nearly as many terms and words for “spiritual assembly” in English as the Sami people of the northern regions of Scandinavia and Russia have for “snow” (they have at least 180!).12  Based on the above considerations as well as researched definitions let’s look at the following terms (categories) of spiritual assembly:
  • a church - assembly of persons, or a building in which people consider our relationship with the divine
  • a sect - splinter movement of protest or dissent that emerge from a larger group9
  • a religion - codified consideration of our relationship with the divine
  • a denomination - sub-group within a common category of religious identity9
  • a club - an association of persons for some common object usually jointly supported and meeting periodically.13
  • a movement - a series of organized activities working toward an objective.14
  • a cult - pejorative categorization of movements of religious innovation that deviate significantly in belief and/or practice from the dominant patterns of faith in a particular culture.9
  • an organization - a company, business, club, etc., that is formed for a particular purpose.15
  • a new religious movement - a politically-correct, but ambiguous term describing a culturally recognized religion or spiritual movement that has not, by societal standards, achieved the distinction of being termed a “religion” by dint of its perceived longevity, alignment with societal norms, or general cultural acceptance as such.9
  • a practice - living according to the customs and teachings of (a religion).16
  • a fellowship - a state of being together; companionship; partnership; association; hence, confederation; joint interest.19

Frame of reference: borrowing terminology from the non-profit sector
In the non-profit world, organizations are classified in three ways:
  • non-profit - a charity; an organization that uses surplus revenues to achieve its goals rather than distributing them as profit or dividends.17
  • for-profit - a business; an organization involved in the trade of goods, services, or both to consumers  in exchange of other goods, services, or money.18
  • more-than-profit - a social enterprise; an organization that applies commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being, rather than [exclusively] maximizing profits for external shareholders. Social enterprises can be structured as a for-profit or non-profit, and may take the form of a co-operative, mutual organization, a social business, or a charity organization. ...essentially enterprises that seek independence from both the state and private capital through strategies that create a social economy.19

The nomenclature of “more-than-church”
An additional category befitting an organization that might classify itself according to multiple categories of spiritual assembly (as described above in the section “What’s the difference?”) might be comfortably termed a “more-than-church.”  In the spirit of a “more-than-profit,” as it is described by the non-profit sector, which essentially classifies itself as having a foot in all worlds, a more-than-church would be a spiritual organization which simultaneously occupies multiple paradigms of spiritual assembly while for the most part abstaining from categorizing themselves as any one form in particular.  A more-than-church terminology might also offer a level of comfort to those for whom the terms “church” and “religion” hold a particular stigma due to negative personal experience or a negatively perceived aggregate understanding of what these terms mean.  Such negative perceptions can undermine the usefulness of a spiritual assembly to an individual if the terminology used to describe it elicits a culturally repellant reaction in the individual.  Nomenclature and accuracy of description is important.9

Alcoholics Anonymous: what is says about itself
“Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. There are no dues or fees for AA membership; we are self-supporting through our own contributions. AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.”1  And while they are careful to state that they are not allied with any particular sect, denomination, etc. that does not preclude them from actually being a version of one.  It’s all a matter of perspective.

How the IRS might categorize Alcoholics Anonymous
The following are the 14 categories by which the IRS considers organizations for religious tax exemption status.  We’ll look at each one in the context of Alcoholics Anonymous to see how it fares as a “religion” according to the IRS.

1. Distinct legal existence - Yes.   Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. is a registered nonprofit corporation.

2. Recognized creeds (set of fundamental beliefs; guiding principles) and forms of worship - Yes.  The Twelve Steps that define the fundamental methodology of achieving sobriety.22

3. Distinct/definite ecclesiastical government - Yes.  Considering the definition of ecclesiastical to mean “of or relating to a church especially as an established institution”20 and the definition of church to mean an “assembly of persons,” AA does have a clearly defined governing structure that defines questions of finance, public relations, donations, and purpose.21  Each group is self-governing, but their governance is strictly ordered nationally by the “Twelve Traditions” and internationally by the “Twelve Concepts” written by AA co-founder Bill Wilson and published in 1946.1

4. Formal code of doctrine & discipline - Yes.  The doctrine is the same as the recognized creed listed above, “The Twelve Steps.”  The only forms of “discipline” required is a reminder for the group to remain faithful to the Twelve Traditions and Twelve Concepts in its running of the group. When a group wishes to go maverick, for example, by doing such things as insisting on using outside literature in meetings or trying define for their particular group the term “higher power” to mean a specific spiritual person such as Jesus Christ, they are in danger of becoming unsanctioned as a recognized group of AA. If an individual of a group, such as the group secretary, is taking inappropriate actions, it is handled by the group internally according to the same doctrine.

5. Distinct religious history - Yes.  If we define “religion” according to the description above (meaning a codified consideration of our relationship with the divine), the codification of AA’s spiritual practices goes back to the first version of Alcoholics Anonymous (also called “The Big Book”) in 1939.

6. Membership not associated with any other denomination or group - No, but...  Members make their own decisions about whether or not to belong to any other spiritual assembly and outside membership does not preclude participation with AA.  However, this is also true of other organized religions who have recognized religious tax exemption status.

7. Organization of ordained ministers - No, but...  There is no trained group leadership in AA.  It maintains a revolving volunteer leadership on the group level.  However, his same leadership structure has not precluded other groups like the Quakers (who do not have ordained ministers) from receiving religious tax exemption.

8. Prescribed preparation or study for ordination of ministers - Possibly.  While there are no ordained ministers, and hence no training for such, there are workshops offered by the national organization regarding the leadership of individual groups as well as on other subjects pertaining to the success of the individual AA groups.

9. Ministry selected after preparation - No, but… There is no formal ministry in AA, but as in the instance of the Quakers, ministerial leadership is not a requirement for religious tax exemption.

10. Schools for preparation - No.  Beyond workshops and seminars, no formal school or training is required.

11. Literature of its own - Yes.  AA prides itself on the variety of its self-published literature and uses it to the exclusion of all outside publications.

12. Established places of worship - Yes.  Insofar as group meetings constitute “spiritual assembly” and that these meeting locations, dates and times are listed on the organization's website.

13. Regular congregations - Yes.  Similar to the way Roman Catholics are members of one specific church but are able to travel and attend mass in ways that are universally prescribed by the Vatican, AA participants typically attend the same meetings in the same location(s), but when traveling are able to attend other AA meetings that are governed by the same Twelve Concepts prescribed by AA World Services, Inc.

14. Instruction for youth & newcomers - Yes.  AA (and their associated family organizations, Al-Anon and Al-Ateen) produce publications that are the backbone of their instruction for newcomers, families, and children of alcoholics as well as for those who are alcoholics themselves.

Additional information regarding the governmental classification of AA as a “religion”
While AA might not be formally recognized as a “religion” by the United States government, it has implied a form of religious equivalency in litigation.  “United States courts have ruled that inmates, parolees, and probationers cannot be ordered to attend AA. Though AA itself was not deemed a religion, it was ruled that it contained enough religious components (variously described in Griffin v. Coughlin as, inter alia, "religion", "religious activity", "religious exercise") to make coerced attendance at AA meetings a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the constitution. In 2007, the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals stated that a parolee who was ordered to attend AA had standing to sue his parole officer.”23

Of the 14 IRS guideline points listed above, AA maintains 8 “yes,” 1 “possibly,” 3 “no,but...,” only 1 “no,” and a court decision implying near-religious status.  In summation of these, if AA were to apply to the IRS for recognized religious tax exempt status, it would likely be granted.

The Spirituality of AA
Attending AA meetings was a mystical experience for me.  I found that there was a level of spiritual acceptance and exploration one does not readily experience in traditional church.  These people live their spirituality.  There was nothing hypocritical or dogmatic about it.  They acknowledged their human shortcomings and handed them over to God in a way that, in my view, comes across as no more than rhetorical lip service in traditional churches.  

The fascinating aspect of their view of God is the creative way they circumnavigate the potentially repellant descriptions of God promulgated by most organized religions.  In AA one’s “higher power” can be literally anything from a lightbulb, to the light that dances on the surface of the water at daybreak.  In Chapter 4 of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, entitled “We Agnostics,” even the feelings of those who have rejected God for of a variety of reasons are validated.  The book offers atheists, agnostics, and those who have a contentious relationship with a higher power, practical ways to re-envision God as any object, idea, natural occurrence, or even as the meeting group itself.  It makes a fascinating suggestion that since the group is comprised mostly of people who have already overcome addiction, those sober people are, for all intent and purposes, a power higher than themselves who have not yet overcome addiction.  It gives people permission to access the divine in ways that are not repellant to them.  It gives them a crucial spiritual foothold.  In this way, it reminds us of the one sheep that got away in Jesus’ parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7).  Each individual sheep is not only valuable, but worthy of special care when lost and celebration when found.  The once lost sheep is not judged for having been absent, it is rejoiced over for having been found.

The “Big Book,” as it is often called, also has a unique quality to the style of writing not seen in other spiritual doctrines.  It is entirely conversational.  It speaks directly to the reader in the exact same way that a friend might speak to another friend in need: consolingly, understandingly, comfortingly.  It listens with empathy and empowers through common understanding.  Reading the Big Book was like listening to a wise friend speak about matters that affect us at our core.

Using simple ideas to represent a higher power at first often eventually leads religiously-adverse participants over time to more complex forms of understanding about the Creative Source that more closely resemble a traditional view of a covenant with God; something which would have been abhorrent to them at the start of the process.

Charismatic Leadership: “I’m a friend of Bill W”
Oft-repeated sayings of AA include, “One Day at a Time,” “Easy Does It” and “I’m a Friend of Bill W.”  These aphorisms succinctly state both the larger ideas of living in the present, the 24-hour philosophy of taking sobriety one day at a time, and the origins of the AA fellowship: Being a friend. These erudite sayings are often seen on the bumpers of AA members worldwide.   Being a “friend of Bill W” is bumpersticker-speak for “I’m a member of AA.”  When Facebook was still in its infancy, Bill Wilson (even 33 years postmortem) was way ahead of the curve, already possessing more than 1.8 million “friends.”2  

Like many charismatic leaders of spiritual movements, Bill Wilson launched his organization based on a moment of spiritual awakening.  At one of his lowest moments with alcohol addiction he had a sudden and startling moment of supreme spiritual clarity. It was during his fourth stay at Towns Hospital in New York for alcohol addiction. “According to Wilson, while lying in bed depressed and despairing, he cried out, ‘I'll do anything! Anything at all! If there be a God, let Him show Himself!’ He then had the sensation of a bright light, a feeling of ecstasy, and a new serenity. He never drank again for the remainder of his life.”3  He realized he was powerless over his addiction and that he needed to place his trust in a higher power.  

Energized by his conversion moment, he began spreading the message of sobriety through spiritual transformation to other alcoholics to varying degrees of success.5  Through eventual conversations and collaborations begun in Akron, Ohio in 1935 with AA co-founder Dr. Bob Smith (an alcoholic who was part of AA’s philosophical predecessor, the Oxford Group), they together realised that the key to not only achieving sobriety but maintaining it was relationships.  It was not only about accepting a higher power into their lives, but in sharing their stories with one another that prevented alcoholics from returning to the bottle.5 Fellowship and accountability was the remaining key; the final element that was absent from the otherwise successful Oxford Group philosophy.  

Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith wrote the doctrine of Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism in 1939.  Over time, the movement grew to enormous proportions.2  In 1999 Time listed him as "Bill W.: The Healer" in the “Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century.”3  Compelled to succeed from a very early age, he was captain of the football team, president of his class, and 1st chair violinist in the school orchestra.  Bill W. was both an unwitting charismatic leader and a diagnosed compulsive.5  It was this compulsion to succeed at everything he attempted which drove him to continue promoting the philosophy of AA; a drive which has benefitted millions of alcoholics worldwide.

As a prophet, Bill W. was perhaps recalcitrant, but his followers continue to virtually worship him.  They still pilgrimage to his home, camp there, and place medallions, flowers, and pray for him.4  Ironically, when all was said and done, all Bill Wilson really wanted was to be just a member of the club he founded... instead of its icon.  Contrary to the egos of most spiritual charismatic leaders, Bill W. retained a sense of humility to the very end.5

The views of three AA participants
In preparation for this paper, I decided to interview three local AA participants from various backgrounds to see what they thought of the comparison of AA to “church.”  This is not a random survey, nor does it provide an empirical perspective on the views of all AA participants.  But it does give insight to how some members might view their spirituality with regard to their participation.

Questions for Interview participants:

1. Do you attend traditional church regularly?
2. How often do you attend AA meetings?
3. What type of meeting do you usually attend? (open speaker, Big Book meeting, 12 & 12, business meeting, discussion meeting, etc.)
4. Do you receive spiritual sustenance from participating in AA meetings?
5. Do you feel a sense of fellowship and community?
6. Do you feel that you have a greater connection with a higher power as a result of your participation?
7. How do you feel that this experience compares with attending a traditional church?

The participants each attend church differently, one sporadically, one semi-regularly, and one regularly.  Attendance at AA meetings reflected the same.  The types of meetings they attended all varied, but each attends more than one type of meeting.  When it came to questions 4, 5, 6 & 7, their answers were virtually unanimous.  I will quote one interview participant in particular (who is a retired UUA minister of Jewish background) to represent the whole:

4. Do you receive spiritual sustenance from participating in AA meetings? Absolutely.

5. Do you feel a sense of fellowship and community? Yes. It is the only place I can walk into a room full of strangers and know we will be able to identify with each other and be honest.

6. Do you feel that you have a greater connection with a higher power as a result of your participation? Yes. At my first meeting over 25 years ago, I said to the woman who invited me to accompany her, “What’s up with that banner that reads ‘But for the Grace of God’? I did not think I believed in God at that point. I had no higher power. It was only through AA I reconnected with the God of my understanding. For about 12 years trees were my higher power (and the universe in general). On my tenth AA anniversary I applied to div school.

7. How do you feel that this experience compares with attending a traditional church? I find more spiritual substance embodied in AA with less inessential conversation, far less church politics and snarkiness. When folks come to AA their lives are often at stake. That is not the case in most mainline protestant congregations or Jewish denominations or Unitarian Universalism. That sense of the stakes being high means people focus far more on what truly matters. it’s not just about lip service, reciting the 12 steps or the Lord’s Prayer. It’s about changing one’s entire outlook, inward view and behavior. Also, there is a level of candor I experience nowhere else. In AA people of all religious stripes and no stripes come together and share a common narrative (The Big Book) and organizational history if you will. Many people travel to the shrine of Bill W’s homestead and place their medallions on his grave. The organization is self supporting through its own contributions, though individual meetings and groups voluntarily contribute to the General Services Office (comparable to a congregation giving money to its conference or district). The head office offers resources and support but not intrusion so AA has congregational polity.

In these words, quite reflective of the opinions of each of the interviewed subjects, it is possible to see how one, wishing for spiritual sustenance in the ways typically offered by traditional churches, receives that sustenance through alternative spiritual fellowship.  It shows that while the answer to the overt question Is AA a religion? would be an emphatic No, the stated benefit of religion is most definitely experienced.

Conclusion: Psalm 23:5 - my cup runneth over…
An overflowing cup in the context of God’s grace might look something like “perfection... plus a little bit more.”  In other words, everything we need for salvation, plus something extra.  In the context of a “more-than-church” we might consider organizations who could be placed in this category to be ones of recognized traditional value while also providing an additional benefit that a traditional spiritual organization does not typically offer.  Alcoholics Anonymous is, for all intent and purposes, a style of “church,” plus a little bit more.  It offers ongoing spiritual sustenance to its membership in ways that align with traditional spiritual assemblies in nearly every way, with the additional benefit of helping them to avoid behaviors which cause them direct harm and over which they feel powerless.  It is for this reason that Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. could be accurately categorized using the nomenclature “more-than-church.”

1. Alchoholics Anonymous website,
4. these anecdotes come from two of the interviewed participants.
5. Bill W., film, director/producer/writer Dan Carracino, distribution Page 124 Productions, 2012
8. Alcoholics Anonymous® is a registered trademark of Alcoholics Anonymous World Service, Inc.
9. Nordbeck, Elizabeth, lecture: “Four Challenges We Face as We Think About New Religious Movements,” February 3, 2014
12. Robson, David, Washington Post article, “There really are 50 Eskimo words for ‘snow,’” Jan 14, 2013
22. Wilson, Bill, Alcoholics Anonymous (also known as “The Big Book”), New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 4th edition, 2001, p 59-60

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