Prayer At Meetings: A World View

Many thanks to Nick H, one of the founders of Children of Chaos, an agnostic  group in Austin, Texas. Nick found this article about a decade ago on a website, Sober Times, that no longer exists.

by the Cyber Sot

One of the many paradoxes of AA is that while we are not a religious organization, nor are we affiliated with one, we sure take our meeting prayers seriously. If you don’t believe me, suggest that your home group change the prayers used at meetings.

Prayer at meetings, specifically the Lord’s Prayer, is a long-running “hot” topic that crops up on a regular basis at AA meetings around the world. To many AAs, the 12 Steps may be, as the Big Book puts it, merely “suggested as a program of recovery,” but the Lord’s Prayer is mandatory.

Here’s what sober AAs – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Shintoists, Mormons, American Indians, atheists and pagans – have to say about it from around the world, from Ireland to India and Australia to New Zealand. Here too are some thoughts about closing meetings with the Responsibility Declaration, a practice that is growing. The Declaration, or Pledge, we will see later, focuses on what AA is all about.

Surveying AA is like counting grains of sand during a hurricane. Instead, this is an e-mail sampling of responses to some fairly simple questions: What prayers do you use at your meetings? Why? They were sent to AAs and groups around the world.

Nowhere in the Big Book does it say “how” to hold a meeting. Instead we have what some people say is “tradition.” Well, we have 12 Traditions, and the prayers we use at a meeting are not in any of them.

There are numerous arguments for keeping the Lord’s Prayer, dating back to the fact that our founders were Christians and that we are, in some respects, a stepchild of the Oxford Movement. But Bill and Dr. Bob pulled Alcoholics Anonymous out of the Oxford Movement because it was more concerned with converting people to Christianity than getting them sober. It was also a Protestant movement closed to non-Christians, and even Catholics.

If you want to hear more of the arguments, bring it up at your home group. Doug C, reports that in New Zealand, “they usually start and finish with the Serenity Prayer and that’s it. No other prayers are used that I’m aware of. That’s probably because in New Zealand in my experience most AAs stress ‘God of their own understanding,’ so other prayers might be regarded as inappropriate. But that’s just my experience.”

Andy K in India says “There are numerous views about what should and should not be read at the meeting. However, one thing we all agree upon (something rare in AA) at meetings in Calcutta is the Serenity Prayer. To the best of my knowledge all the meetings in West Bengal use the Serenity Prayer at the beginning and at the end of the meeting.” Krishna I, of Bangalore, India, says that the Serenity Prayer has been translated into eight other Indian languages, and is used throughout the predominantly Hindu and Buddhist country.

American Indian meetings normally use the Prayer to the Great Spirit.

Myles W. says most groups inToronto, Canada, begin with the Serenity Prayer and end with the Lord’s Prayer, but “some start with the Serenity Prayer and end with the Responsibility Pledge,” also called the Responsibility Declaration.

Use of the declaration is growing

Jay S., a sober Jew in Connecticut, says that “The meetings I’ve been to in Jerusalem open and close with the Serenity Prayer. Here in Connecticut, about one third of the meetings I go to use the Serenity Prayer, the rest the Our Father. If they use the Our Father, I just say a silent prayer while holding hands.”

Maxine U., a sober Jew in New York, echoes the sentiments of P.J., a sober Muslim in Jakarta, Indonesia, when she says: “In some ways the Lord’s Prayer is a political statement. My biggest objection to it is the fact that it is irrevocably attached to a particular religion and AA is supposed to be completely neutral when it comes to religion.” Maxine goes on to say that she would feel the same way “if a Jewish prayer was adopted.”

Another sober Muslim, in Prague, in the Czech Republic, writes that his group opens and closes with the Serenity Prayer, “and there is no controversy.”

“My Personal [repeat PERSONAL] opinion is that no Christian prayers ever have any place at an AA meeting. The Lord’s Prayer is a Christian prayer and a religious prayer. I have nothing against Christians or Christianity. My parents and my sister are Christians and wonderful people. But I wouldn’t feel comfortable facing Mecca and kneeling and pressing my head to the floor at the end of an AA meeting either. That is Islam, not AA. If I want to do religion, I do it on my own time. AA meetings are AA time, and the Serenity Prayer does the job quite well.”

Elena, a former Californian now living in Athens,Greece, says, “We use the Serenity Prayer as well as the Lord’s Prayer. We have an English speaking meeting as well as Greek speaking meeting. Ninety percent of Greeks (like myself) are Greek Orthodox and firmly believe in God and in prayers in and outside of AA.”

Jack H., in Cork City, Ireland, says “I haven’t ever come across any problems with regards to the prayers, but then again Irelandis 100% a Christian country (Catholic and Protestant).” But in that same bath of e-mails, came this reply from non-Christian Bob. B., in Northern Ireland. He says that at one meeting he attends, different members are sometimes asked to lead the Lord’s Prayer. “While I will respect their group conscience, as a non-Christian, I will not join in with the words of this prayer, and if asked to lead, then I would have to decline and run the risk of offending many. “Religion, I believe should not be practiced in A.A. as it is another cause, and certainly in Northern Ireland it has always caused controversy.”

Mireille U., in Belgium, Erik B, in Norway, and Poul in Denmark say the Serenity Prayer is the prayer of choice. Sometimes the Promises are also read from the Big Book. It’s the same in Rome, says Stephen S., who adds, “Once in a while, if a visitor from the U.S.decides unilaterally to use the Lord’s Prayer, we do that. But it is not our choice at all. Strange for the home of the Pope, eh?”

Arthur in Australia writes: “Commonly in Australia, the Serenity Prayer is used to close a meeting, either holding hands or not. The Lord’s Prayer is used by some groups but these are relatively rare in my experience. “I personally don’t participate in these rituals which are not in keeping with my spiritual practice, and while I get odd looks from some people, I haven’t been thrown out yet, and after a while most come to respect my right to abstain from what, for me, would be hypocrisy.

“At times, not participating makes me feel, passingly, a little alienated from the group which is the usual argument used by those against the use of prayers. Today, however, I am a recovered alcoholic and my reason for being at meetings is to spread the message of my E. S. & H. (Experience, Strength and Hope) to the alcoholic who still suffers and if in some ways I don’t agree with rituals the group chooses to engage in that is of minor importance.”

David, in Darwin, Australia, says, “We only say the Serenity Prayer and those who do not believe in a God replace that word with one of their choosing. No other religions are mentioned, and no other religious prayers are spoken. We do however pray for people in the fellowship.”

Joel P, in Tokyo, writes that in the English-language meetings in Japan, “We open with the Serenity Prayer and close with the Lord’s Prayer. We had an Orthodox Jew here awhile and closed with the Serenity Prayer while he was here. He was an inspiration to the group with solid sobriety. His request to change the prayer was a unifying act as we all prayed together.”

As far as Japanese language meetings are concerned, Yukie writes: “Most Japanese AA Meetings in Kanto (including Tokyo) area close with a Serenity Prayer sitting at their seat, not standing hand in hand. But some groups don’t say any prayer at all, to say nothing of Lord’s Prayer. In some area such as Kyushu, almost of the groups in the area don’t. At one group I visited in Tokyo, they omitted “God” from the first line of the Serenity Prayer.”

Carolyn B, of Minneapolis, writes that many area meetings “still use the Serenity Prayer to open and the Our Father to close,” and some use the Responsibility Declaration. “There is one group which opens with the Third Step Prayer (on their knees!) and closes with the Responsibility Statement.” Her home group opens and closes with the Serenity Prayer. “We had a few members who were not Christian and who expressed discomfort with the Our Father as a closing. So we decided that since there are so many prayers available in Alcoholics Anonymous which are unifying, it ill behooved us to cling to one which was divisive, and we voted to stop using the Our Father.”

John P, in Texas, says they use the Lord’s Prayer because it is traditional, “dating to the earliest meetings in Akron and Cleveland. I have never heard it challenged as a practice in Texas, though, as would be expected, the question is sometimes raised on the Left Coast (California).” Claims that use of the Lord’s Prayer has never been challenged are quite common, even though, as we have seen, it continues to be challenged around the world, not just in California.

Jeanne G., a sober pagan in the Los Angeles area, says her home group, Pagans in Recovery, closes their meetings with their own prayer. These responses, and those I don’t have room to quote, show that there is room for variety in AA, but not according to all AAs. I once heard a member declare that he “knows” that if we don’t address God by His “correct name,” He will not listen to our prayers.

Many pro-Lord’s Prayer arguments remind me of my days as a reporter in the ’60s, covering the Civil Rights Movements. I would regularly interview white men and women who just didn’t understand why “uppity” blacks were so upset, and wished that they wouldn’t “rock the boat” by demanding their rights. I heard the same sorts of arguments when I covered the feminist movement, but then they came from men – both white and black.

Telling non-Christians they “shouldn’t be upset” by the Lord’s Prayer, or that they should “learn to live with it because it’s part of the program” shows a certain amount of thoughtlessness, intolerance, self-righteousness and even arrogance.

If you really want the program Bill and Bob started, all members must be like them: white, male, married, never-divorced Christians with specific college degrees – either pharmacists and doctors, like Dr. Bob, or stockbrokers with law degrees, like Bill W. – who were born in Vermont and first belonged to the Oxford Movement.

The foreword to the 1939 first edition of the Big Book says: “The only requirement for membership is an honest desire to stop drinking. We are not allied with any particular faith, sect or denomination, nor do we oppose anyone. We simply wish to be helpful to those who are afflicted.”

Prayers you say in private, or at your Church, are between you and your Higher Power. What you say at an AA meeting affects the entire group. Insulting people with a prayer they do not believe in, or making them feel apart from instead of part of is not “helpful.” It violates the spirit of the 12th Step: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

The message is recovery, not Christian prayer. And the message I want to leave my meeting with is the one spelled out in the Responsibility Declaration: “I am responsible. When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want AA always to be there. And for that, I am responsible.”

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