A Reverend at the Agnostic AA Convention
By Joe C.
There is nothing surprising or unhealthy about the debate that we see about speakers, procedures and policies for this inaugural We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Convention (WAFT IAAC). Being the first of this scale, the decisions made are magnified. It’s not just what the impact is in 2014 but also, what is the precedent being set?
Some of us feel an added pressure: the scrutiny (be it reality or perception) that nonbelievers are subject to within AA at large. Some of our fellow AA members are fearful, dismissive or outright hostile towards us. To what extent should we try to win AA at large over? To what extent should this be about us doing our own thing with impunity? These are some of the questions still being debated among us.
We don’t have to get it perfect; in fact we can’t. History decides which decisions will be our good ones and bad ones. Mistakes will happen and they will be our teachers. I have been on both sides of the outcomes of votes I felt strongly about. Everyone gets their say; not everyone gets their way.
I have been involved in AA conference committees off and on from 1977 to the present day. Then there’s Regional Service Conferences, District and Area committees, Public Information, Treatment Centers, and my own home group business meeting. Every committee is a bit different. Serenity is tested as committees see tears, finger-pointing and resignations. Yet, most committee work is warmth, dedication and the foundation of friendships that last a lifetime.
So, should a non-alcoholic, ordained minister speak at an AA convention for atheists and agnostics?
Let’s look at this.
In his unique capacity as long-term Class A (non-alcoholic) Trustee, Ward Ewing has been a devoted friend to AA for a long time. The Chair of our General Service Board is always a non-alcoholic.  Like an Al-Anon and Alateen speaker at an AA conference, circumstances permit friends of AA to our podium.
Does his capacity as AA establishment add insult to injury? Some of us have felt let down or betrayed by, not only the religion we grew up in, but by AA as well. Is it insensitive to our more traumatized members to invite the enemy inside our gate?
In a moment I will let Ward Ewing address that directly. He is sincerely empathetic about the trauma of religious dogma. It isn’t a stretch to think that over the years he’s sympathized with those of us who feel unheard or nearly written out of AA’s accounts of recovery.
The bigger question is what do we want the WAFT IAAC to be? The resistance that some of our fellows have expressed isn’t a personal attack on Ward Ewing. Should our sacred space be limited to just the right type of freethinker? What is our policy regarding the rest of our fellow AAs? Will our door be closed to them? Are they to be observers only or able to participate as welcome, rights-bearing equals? Alternatively, do we want to emphasize that all who come have freedom of expression and no one will be sneered at or looked down upon? We all have our thoughts about these questions but we don’t have a consensus on these issues. It’s hard to imagine that all these questions could be anticipated ahead of time. If we consider WAFT IAAC as a process and not one single event, the group conscience will anticipate as best it can but ultimately adapt to issues that come up and get dealt with – from one conference to the next.
We’ve covered some concerns; let’s look at the upside. There is a certain diplomacy achieved with Ward Ewing as our guest. This makes a statement, a message in and of itself. “Agnostics and atheists welcome the Reverend Ward Ewing” says two things: “Of course we are Alcoholics Anonymous; just ask our friend and GSO Chair emeritus Ward Ewing,” and “For we agnostics and freethinkers, love and tolerance is our code.” It’s not a publicity stunt. We are being the AA we hope for – inclusive and united, better together than divided.
The general AA population won’t blink an eye at a past Chairperson of the Board addressing an AA audience. Neither rule nor protocol is being compromised to invite Reverend Ewing to the microphone. To some extent it ought to garner a higher degree of legitimacy. Of course, we don’t need anyone’s permission or approval to call ourselves an AA group; AA was thoughtfully designed in anticipation of groups just like us. Unity has a plasticity that uniformity could never muster.
Having gotten to know Ward Ewing over the last few years, I can say that he will not preach his brand of salvation. Not because he’s in our house now. Ward Ewing has been a guest in the rooms for decades. He’s a chop the wood/ help with the dishes kind of guest, here in AA. He’s willing to help and open to learning.
What does Ward Ewing have to share that’s so important?
Here’s a little of what Ward Ewing is on record for saying. The first, is from The Grapevine (April, 2010) His topic was “Spirituality and God Talk.”
Many newcomers, if not most, are put off by the talk of God and God’s will and turning one’s will and life over to God as we understand him.
As I listen to people’s stories, I find much of that discomfort comes from the damage religion has done to the alcoholic who is still drinking. Many come bearing loads of guilt that has been reinforced by churches that are all too ready to judge, advise and condemn. However the judgment comes, to the person still struggling with alcoholism, it is fuel for resentment, guilt and despair. Then to walk into a meeting and hear God-talk! …those who do not have a traditional theistic view of God hear language about a god that sounds very traditional. If one is an atheist or an agnostic, it can be difficult to hear all this language. The first premise in theology is that God is beyond human understanding. God is not an object like an apple, or even a person. We who are religious need to be more conscious that we speak of God in allegorical language. We must always welcome those who find this language unconvincing.
When talking to another about alcoholism, the suggestion of singular worldview is neither humble nor helpful. Ward goes on to describe how his own brand of freethinking might separate him from other spiritual leaders:
I am an ordained Episcopal priest and head of one of our denomination’s theological seminaries. I only ask that you not assume I am identical with every religious leader you have ever known. I have serious difficulty with the idea of defining who’s in and who’s out; we can’t see into the soul of any human being. But the greatest difficulty I have with the institutional church is with the claim of knowing the truth.
Anyone who has studied theology knows that ‘truth’ has changed dramatically over the ages. This claim to know the truth plays a central role in the churches’ developing a view of us versus them. At its worst it has led to witch hunts, inquisitions and persecutions; at its best it leads to hypocrisy and arrogance. I believe it is this claim that encourages within religion the desire to control and the spirit of perfectionism.
Ewing suggests that arrogance is unbecoming in Alcoholics Anonymous. The same standard would be true from Intergroup Offices as it would be for you and me. He defines Higher Power “within the AA Fellowship means simply that which keeps one sober.” Ewing concedes that “religion and spirituality have been issues for the Fellowship” but that “the spirituality of AA has remained pragmatic.”
Later in 2010, Ward Ewing attended the International Convention of Alcoholics Anonymous in San Antonio Texas. He then embarked on a tour of Regional AA forums around The USA and Canada. He shared with AA members that while he appreciates that many AA members in the southern USA are deeply religious, he would prefer if we could keep religion out of AA. Ward was surprised and a little bit shocked to see us reciting the Lord’s Prayer at the world conference in San Antonio. “Is this not sending the wrong message to the world?” Ward asked.
I assure you that Rev. Ewing will greet us with nothing to attack or defend. Ward’s experience, strength and hope includes extensive experience with the inner workings of our General Service Office. Ewing was a tremendous advocate for a new spirituality pamphlet that would include the stories of atheists and agnostics. It was as heartbreaking to him, as it was to many of us, that this would-be pamphlet draft got sent back for revision in 2013 instead of sent to the printer on route to literature tables in AA around the world.
For those of us who prefer a harmonious and inclusive Alcoholics Anonymous, Ward Ewing is a better advocate for us than if Sam Harris joined AA. Which of the two men would have more credibility with our fellows who would rather show us the curb? It’s great that we can unite in solidarity but when our message resonates with AA at large, tensions will diminish and more alcoholics will be reached.
A word about our new and current Chair – Terrance Bedient comes from an employee assistance background, not theology. As a professional, Bedient was introduced to AA in 1975. Mr. Bedient is well acquainted with Ward from working together through the years. As is the custom of AA’s lowest ranking officer,  during critical issues the new Chair will draw upon the experience of the Board Chair emeritus, such as Ward Ewing. In the Fall 2013 editions of AA’s Box 4-5-9, Bedient shared with AA, “The key issue facing AA is membership growth and engagement.”
If we are the gracious hosts that I expect we will be, and should Ward Ewing have a positive experience at WAFT IAAC, I expect he will be reporting to Mr. Bedient that a good way to “increase growth and membership engagement” is to reach out to AA’s nonbeliever population.
Just me typing out-loud, that’s all. I say hate the game not the player. Shall we judge others by their stripes or by their deeds? I think it’s great that the committee asked Ward Ewing. I think it’s exciting that he agreed. Time will tell but my gut-instinct is that we will find a friend in the Reverend Ward Ewing.
If you don’t share my enthusiasm, take some time to listen to Ward Ewing talking to delegates, DCMs and GSRs a few year ago: Unity Day 2011.
 From the alcoholic and non-alcoholic Trustees to choose from, AA has always picked a non-alcoholic. One of the reasons for this is there would and could be no Fellowship-wide embarrassment if our Chairperson got drunk. Secondly, non-alcoholic Trustees can have their picture in the media without violating our own Traditions. This is a big deal to reporters at times like the International Convention. Non-alcoholic Trustees bring a dispassion or objectivity to each issue that our alcoholic Trustees can’t muster. As Ward Ewing himself has said, “The AA Trustees seem to line up pretty quickly on one side of the issue or the other. Non-alcoholic don’t have a horse in the race; we are one foot in—one foot out, on each issue that comes up.”
 The Chairperson of the General Service Board is considered the trusted servant at the very bottom of AA’s inverted triangle of service, serving all above, from the board to the conference, to the committees and AA groups and members.