12 Steps; 12 Traditions; Episcopal Conflict.
Nearly 25 years ago a colleague of mine encouraged me to participate in Al-Anon. That experience was an important piece in restructuring my life. The 12 Steps of Al-Anon and similar groups are neither infallible nor the answer to everything in life. However, they are crucial in breaking the isolation that we wrap around ourselves -- and it is that isolation which is the greatest barrier that stands between a human being and spiritual growth, spiritual maturity, and serenity.
Most people have at least heard of the 12 Steps, whether or not they have studied, understood, or practiced them. But most have not heard of the 12 Traditions, which accompany the 12 Steps. The 12 Steps are practiced by the individual member in a 12 Step group, while the 12 Traditions are practiced by the group as a whole. The 12 Steps are designed to lead a person to spiritual awakening, while the 12 Traditions are designed to keep the group spiritually healthy.
What most people do not realize is that the 12 Steps cannot be practiced alone. Rather, the 12 Steps can lead a person to transformation only within the context of a fellowship, a group of people who share a common life. In other words, the transformation, spiritual awakening, and hope for the individual is dependent upon the health of the group. This is why the 1st Tradition of the 12 Traditions, says, "our common welfare should come first; personal progress for the greatest number depends upon unity."
This does not pit the good of the group over against the good of the individual. This does not say that the group is more important than the individual. Rather, it recognizes that the greatest good for the individual is achieved only when the common welfare, the good of the group, is attended to first and foremost. Whenever any individual places their own perceived needs, desires, wants, or welfare above that of the group, the individual unwittingly harms one's own self even more than one harms the group. It is for the sake of the individual that we must always attend first to the health of the group.
This, of course is utterly counter intuitive!
And because it is counter intuitive, it is not surprising to see many group members behaving in ways that appear to be self-serving, completely unaware that they are harming themselves. Wrapped in their own isolation, they believe they must stand up for their perceived needs, desires, wants, or welfare, usually against someone or some group they perceive to be in error.
It is a very difficult spiritual lesson to learn that the most effective way to serve oneself is to abandon oneself and to serve others first.
The more we practice, understand, and progress through the spiritual path of the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions the more we see how similar they are to the core teachings of Jesus. Jesus relentlessly insisted that the way to serve oneself was to not serve oneself up to serve others. The way to gain for oneself is to give up, and to give to others. The way to seek life was to not seek life for oneself but rather to give one's life for the life of others. This is why Episcopalians pray every morning, "and we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with their lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service…" (BCP, P. 100). This is also why, in Rite 1, we pray "and here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee." (BCP, P. 336). The very heart of Christianity, is that God in Jesus emptied himself, gave himself for the life of the world, and we find union with God by emptying ourselves, giving ourselves for the life of others. In this we do not lose, but gain. In this we do not lose but become victorious. This is our hope.
This is one of the reasons why I relinquished my complete freedom in the nondenominational world and bound myself by solemn vow obedience to a bishop. It was not that I thought, hoped, or believed that bishops were any more infallible, wise, brilliant, or spiritual, than any other person. It was not that I thought, hoped, or believed that The Episcopal Church was superior to any other denomination. Rather, being persuaded of the central message of Jesus, which I had learned more through the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions than I had learned through the preaching and teaching of the church, I believed that my greatest hope for spiritual growth, spiritual maturity, and personal transformation required my living in community and in obedience to others, whether or not they were more infallible, wise, brilliant, or spiritual than I or anyone else. In other words, while one hopes for wise brilliant and spiritual decisions from the ones with whom one lives in community and to whom one submits in obedience, staying in community and submitting to those with whom you may deeply and profoundly disagree is less damaging than breaking community or refraining from community or rejecting those with whom you most deeply and profoundly disagree.
The 4th Tradition of Al-Anon and similar groups says, “Each group should be autonomous, except in matters affecting another group or Al-Anon our AA as a whole." This is very similar to the 1st Tradition. The 1st Tradition recognizes that the good of the individual depends upon the welfare and unity of the group. The 4th Tradition recognizes that the good of the group depends upon the welfare and unity of all the groups as a whole.
My disappointment with The Episcopal Church in the last few years is that it has either forgotten or failed to embrace this reality. Those of us in the center watch with great sadness as both the conservative wing and the liberal choose autonomy over the whole. The conservative wing consistenly pushes for the autonomy of the conservatives, breaking away from the national church, while professing that it is the continuing Anglican Church. The liberal wing consistenly pushes for the autonomy of the national church, risking rejection from the Anglican Communion, while professing its desire to remain part. Both wings are convinced they stand for that which is right and good and just. Both wings are not only convinced of the rightness and moral necessity of their position, but believe that the rightness and moral necessity of their position is of greater and more profound importance than the welfare and unity of the whole.
Our commitment to the welfare and unity of the whole is not dependent upon the whole being any more infallible, wise, brilliant, or spiritual than any part. Rather it is in recognition that gracious restraint, patience, submission even to those we believe are mistaken, and emptying ourselves of the right to demand what we are convinced is right, is the path to salvation for ourselves, for those we care about, and for the whole world.
Most people who participate in a 12 Step group probably do experience some kind of catharsis and new awareness, yet never progress much beyond that. Most people do not really "work the program." Having reached some kind of catharsis and awareness, they prematurely conclude that they have arrived, that they have reached their goal, and this premature conclusion becomes a barrier to their progress toward a spiritual awakening and transformation of their life – and to the spiritual awakening and transformation of the lives of others. The same thing happens in the church. Most people who fall in love with a liturgy, with the music, with program or the people of the church, never really progress much beyond that. They become stuck in the early stages. And sometimes they become very obnoxious and self-righteous about how far they believe they have come, or about what the church should be doing, or about how the church should be doing it.
One other observation: Just as in any 12 Step group the welfare of the individual depends on the welfare and unity of the group, so also in Christianity. The welfare of the congregation must come before the perceived needs, desires, wants, or welfare of any member or clergy. The good of the individual depends on the welfare and unity of the whole. (However, don't confuse the congregation with the institution. The congregation is the group of people. The institution is merely the organizational structure and property USED by the congregation in order to promote its welfare and mission.)
The Lord be with you.