Sam Shoemaker's Church: 12 Step Recovery and Anglican Spirituality

03/01/2012 7:20 AM | Anonymous
This article was written by Member Donna Gaines who graciously gave us permission to post this article with originally appeared in The Anglican: A Journal of Anglican Identity

Volume 37, Number 1, pp 12-16

Winter 2008

A clean and sober Anglican Priest once said, “Every addict fights the devil every day to keep his soul.” While we are no strangers to hell, we are also living proof of God’s graceundefinedundeserved, unearned, and uncalled. For anyone in Twelve-Step recovery, living clean, sober, or abstinent one day at a time is a miracle. Addiction is a spiritual, mental, physical and emotional disease. It has no cure. Having survived hopeless misery, isolation and desperation, people in recovery have witnessed God’s mercy first-hand. Regardless of how we understand God, we come to believe that no human power could have relieved our suffering, but that God could and would if he were sought.

Mine had been a lifetime of alienation, self-loathing, fear and cross-addiction. My spiritual journey has taken me from an unhappy suburban childhood, through a troubled, delinquent youth on the streets of Rockaway Beach, Queens--speed addiction, glue-sniffing, food, sex, work and alcohol binges---to a place of completeness and joy. Faith is non-linear, process-oriented and mysterious. So is recovery. For a long time, I figured it was serendipity. Eventually, I understood it as grace.

My name is Donna and I am a sociologist. In the beginning, Twelve Step recovery promised me a life beyond my wildest dreams. At first, I imagined the cash and prizes; fame, fortune, True Love, a big house, and new toys. But I already had some of those things when I bottomed out and I was still miserable. It seems God had a very different plan for me. I became an Episcopalian.  The more diligently I sought through prayer and meditation to improve my conscious contact with God as I understood him, the closer I moved towards the Anglican Communion.

Most people who surrender to Twelve Step recovery midlife don’t convert to Christianity, and even fewer become Episcopalians. Given my background, Buddhism’s Eightfold Path and Four Noble Truths would have seemed the more logical choice. But eleven years later, here I am living a completely different life. For an urban bohemian, a former yeshiva girl, a tattooed, gun-toting woman of letters with a rock & roll heart, that’s a life beyond my wildest dreams. I had no plan, I just followed my instincts and they brought me here. Only afterwards did I realize that an Episcopal Priest, Father Sam Shoemaker, former Rector of Calvary Parish Church in New York City was the critical link between my two spiritual communities.

Alcoholics Anonymous, a world-wide self help movement with over two million members was founded in Akron, Ohio in 1935 by a stockbroker named Bill Wilson and a physician, Dr. Bob Smith. Since then, the seminal Twelve Step program of recovery has been adapted to address an exhaustive list of compulsive behaviors and addictionsundefinedeverything from cocaine to cluttering, codependency and over-eating. The intellectual and cultural history of Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is a complex web of affiliations, interdisciplinary, it integrates knowledge from medical science, psychology, philosophy and theology.

Bill Wilson had credited another physician, Dr. William “Silky” Silkworth, with defining alcoholism as a disease, not a moral failing. Step One requires admitting complete powerlessness over this substanceundefinedas with any allergy. Recovery offered a daily reprieve, not a cure. Medical science had no answers or solutions for this disease. Wilson attributed Step Two, the belief that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity, to William James and Carl Jung.  This was not a religious conceptundefinedit was grounded in philosophy, psychology and psychiatry. 

In 1902, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, James famously suggested “The only cure for dipsomania is religiomania.” Jung echoed this in 1961, in a series of now-famous correspondences with Wilson regarding a hopeless drunk named Rowland H.  Jung speculated the craving for alcohol was a “low level” expression of the spiritual thirst for wholeness---one that could only be satisfied by union with God.  Spiritus contra spiritum, Jung noted, the Latin term for alcohol is "spiritus." The highest religious experience and the most depraving poison were inextricably bound up in the human psyche.

Bill Wilson attributed the remaining Steps to Father Shoemaker and the Oxford Group. Shoemaker became the Rector of Calvary Parish Church in New York City in 1924. There, he ran the Calvary House, headquarters for both the Calvary Mission and the Oxford Group, an evangelical movement that aggressively promoted universal spiritual principles. Today, the room that once hosted the Oxford Group at Calvary hosts Twelve Step meetings.

In  Courage to Change,  A.A. historians  Bill Pittman and Dick B. trace the Christian roots of A.A. specifically to Shoemaker, who was not himself an alcoholic. Prior to the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, both Wilson and Dr. Smith had sought rehabilitation at Calvary Mission. In 1955, at AA’s 2nd International Convention in St. Lewis, Wilson formally introduced Shoemaker. Although others had a hand in the sauce, Wilson publicly acknowledged Shoemaker’s contribution,  “It is through Sam Shoemaker that most of AA’s Spiritual Principles have come.”  By 1963, in a personal letter to Shoemaker, Wilson specifically conferred co-founder status. 

Wilson also claimed A.A.’s practice of self-examination, the acknowledgement of character defects, the act of making restitution for harm done, and the ideal of service came from “the Oxford Group and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America.”  Even Wilson’s now-famous “hot flash” white light hospital room conversion--- the episode that ended his drinking career forever---was attributed to Wilson’s foundational experiences with the Oxford Group and Father Shoemaker at Calvary Mission.

At the time of publication of Alcoholics Anonymous, in 1939, A.A. was not affiliated with the Oxford Group. Still, the groundbreaking ‘big book’ of the Twelve Step recovery movement encouraged members to make good use of religious teachings. In Appendix V, “The Religious View on A.A.,” the anonymous authors included praise from a Roman Catholic priest and from the Episcopal magazine, The Living Church. Ever careful not to alienate skittish newcomers in recovery from bad (dysfunction) religion---those unfortunate souls stained by punitive socialization experiences, refugees from warped God concepts---the founders specifically excluded any mention of the bible, the Oxford Group or Jesus Christ from Alcoholics Anonymous

By design and intention, the A.A. concept of a Higher Power affords members maximum autonomy and creativity in conceptualizing the Divine. This inner process of self-discovery is highly individualistic, encouraging experimentation and whole-hearted seeking, suggesting “Take what you need and leave the rest.” According to an Episcopal priest, the Reverend Dr. J. Christopher King, “A Higher Power is our best working definition of God at any given time.” This is a flexible construct, suggesting gradual reliance upon a power greater than ourselves---a God of our own understanding.  Developing a relationship with a Higher Power is an innovative enterprise. No dogma, no rules, no pressure, only gentle suggestions.

 Basically, a Higher Power can be anything or anyoneundefinedas long as it isn’t you. And you don’t even have to call it God. It can be a turtle, a tree, a Harley Davidson, Aphrodite, Joey Ramone, the planet Jupiter or the power of the collective---the fellowship itself.  A Higher Power can also be the ideal of social justice, liberty or universal love. The hope invested in a child, or in generations rising. Based on universal principles such as forgiveness, love and selfless service, right action, surrender, and personal responsibility, the program is compatible with almost any religious or spiritual tradition. The Twelve Step recovery movement is spiritual, but not religious.

In 1955 Shoemaker also addressed the convention in St. Lewis. Though he had inspired the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, looking out on a congregation of thousands of sober A.A.’s and their families, he remarked, “As I lived and moved among these men and women for three days, I was moved as I have seldom been moved in my life.” He witnessed alcoholics deeply engaged in bloody,

messy, daily life and death battles against the bottle---all shapes and sizes, rich and poor, young and old, of every color, of any faith. Strangers, pulling each other up from drowning, like true fishers of men and women.  In these anonymous alcoholics Shoemaker discerned the passion of the First Century. He saw

people fully engaged, completely present and committed to loving God and neighbor in the most profoundly personal way.  Shoemaker hoped to bring some of that back into the institutional church, in effect, to reclaim the healing ministry of Jesus. As Wilson himself once remarked, “The church is not a museum, it’s a hospital.”

In “What the Church Has to Learn from Alcoholics Anonymous,”  Shoemaker outlined five points. First, “Nobody gets anywhere until he recognizes a clearly defined need.”  Addiction can rob us of everything---family, job, home, and dignity. Bottoming out is what makes us willing. Willingness becomes the foundation of trust and faith. The choice is very clear---life and death.

As Shoemaker observed, alcoholics are desperate to get well---not just a little bit better--- but all the way. As Shoemaker explained, “AA's each and all have a definite, desperate need. They have the need, and they are ready to tell somebody what it is if they see the least chance that it can be met.” He asked, “Is there anything as definite for you or me, who may happen not to be alcoholics? If there is, I am sure that it lies in the realm of our conscious withholding of the truth about ourselves from God and from one another, by pretending that we are already good Christians.” Shoemaker noted, “There were no good Christians in the first Church.” Everyone was a sinner in the beginning.

We too, come to our church because we need. We may come feeling lonely, confused, empty or afraid. We may come longing for God, seeking affirmation, acceptance and meaning. We may come seeking connection and community; a sacred space to praise God joyfully. The body of Christ is the body social. Are we committed to standing together in life-altering fellowship or are we just showing up Sunday morning for small talk, coffee and cake? Are walking the walk or just talking the talk?  Are we passively waiting for transformation to happen to us or are we desperate for it? Are we taking full responsibility for our salvation or do we expect our clergy to do it for us?  In church, as in recovery, half measures avail us nothing.

Secondly, Shoemaker wanted to remind the church that transformation occurs in the context of community---that people are redeemed in life-changing fellowship. Ongoing transformation is the essence of spiritual growth, and also the goal of recovery.  But without a compelling, overwhelming need to change, we humans usually won’t.  People in Twelve Step recovery actively work to strip away everything that separates us from ourselves, each other and God. We reflect on our shortcomings and humbly ask God to remove them so that we might better know and serve His will. We regularly depend upon each other and God for help. We speak our truth openly, on a daily basis, face to face. Fear and shame evaporate along with the mental obsession to drink, gamble, or drug.  We can see ourselves and each other being redeemed on a daily basisundefinedit’s not a promise, it’s a fact.

Observing the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, Shoemaker noticed that even the newcomer had something valuable to offerundefinedhis or her own experience, strength and hope. The drunk with two days of continuous sobriety is a powerful example for the shattered soul walking through the door. In Step Twelve, we acknowledge that we have had a spiritual awakening as a result of working the Steps. This is an evangelical call to practice program principles in all human affairs, and to “carry the message” to others who may be sick and suffering. In The Wounded Healer, Henri  Nouwen urged us to make use of our brokenness in ministry, to use it creatively and purposefully. But, as Shoemaker lamented, “Today the last place we feel we can be candid is in the church.” He reminds us that in the First Century, transformation was expected.  Nobody did it alone.

Thirdly, was the necessity for definite personal dealing with people. Shoemaker questions, have we ever been “drastically dealt with.”? How real are we willing to be with each other? Are we challenged by ourselves and each other to grow on a daily basis? Willing to bear our souls in “fearless moral inventory”?  Can we share what’s in our hearts openly, confiding  fears, sorrows and hopes? Can we say, “I

feel I’m not good enough for God,” or “I’m afraid I’ll never be whole”? Being a “polite” or “nice” or even “helpful” parishioner is not the same as standing together in true fellowship---without fear of ridicule, gossip, judgment or shame. Sobriety depends upon unity, so does salvation.

Fourth, Shoemaker understood the necessity for a real change of heart, a true conversion.  An Anglican view of conversion is a gradual and lifelong spiritual awakening. According to Reverend Bill Tully, Rector of St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City, “Christians are in continuous conversion.”  So are alcoholics and addicts. Recovery is an ongoing process that transforms us on a daily basis. When I surrendered to Twelve Step recovery, I understood I would have to change everything. I also knew I wouldn’t have to do alone. I understood this change would happen in God’s time, not mine. And that I had to meet God half way.

Finally, Father Shoemaker believed, “One of the greatest things the church should learn from A.A. is the need people have for exposure to living Christian experience.”  As Shoemaker noted, “In thousands of places, alcoholics (and others) can go and hear recovered alcoholics speak about their experiences and watch the process of new life and take place before their eyes. There you have it, the need and the answer to the need, right before your eyes.” But even if we were willing to follow Shoemaker’s advice, how would we actually do it? As he observed, the structure of churches---services, bible study groups, forums, workshops, even retreats---often lack the intimacy and continuity needed to for such sustained, raw exposure. But few societal institutions now exist where people can be consistently open, honest and true with each other. Cyberspace communities allow us to do it anonymously, safe behind a screen. In the family, at school, work or church, we may rarely get to express what we truly think, want, and need. Can we even talk to God in our own voice?  It’s our most intimate connection, but too often, we can’t remember the language.

Shoemaker suggested parishioners organize into small, informal groups to share our ongoing personal experience of life in Christ---how do we live and breathe our faith in the sacred and mundane?  Many churches have recognized this need---to practice our faith as desperately, fearlessly, and honestly as a drunk drowning in a river of Gin. But Shoemaker wanted to see much more of it. "Would that the Church were like this----ordinary men and women with great need who have found a great Answer, and do not hesitate to make it known wherever they can--a trained army of enthusiastic, humble, human workers whose efforts make life a different thing for other people!"  This was Shoemaker’s hope and his prayer.

On September 28, 2002, I was baptized in a triple immersion sacrament, by a sober Anglican Priest in Gardiner’s Bay, East Hampton, New York. I was surrounded by fourteen sober friends, some Christian, some not. This baptism outwardly expressed what I'd experienced inwardly some months prior; the unquestionable presence of Jesus Christ in my heart.   Experiencing God’s great love has repaired a damaged childhood, soothed the longing for a father I had never known---he died when I was a month old. Nothing else could have healed that gaping hole, the aching emptiness of an early rupture and abandonment.  Lord knows, I tried everything.

But I still hated organized religion. I viewed it with skepticism, understood it as a repressive institution; patriarchal, sexist, homophobic, and racist. What I knew of the institutional church seemed antithetical to this awesome, loving, healing God of my understanding. So I considered myself a “Surfy Christian” and for two years I prayed in the ocean, while dancing, even on the New York City subway---anywhere but in a church. I made up my own prayers, bodysurfing to the rhythm of the waves, chanting repetitions of my own version of the Jesus Prayer, “I surrender myself, body spirit and soul to the Lord, in Jesus Christ, Amen.”

            One day, back in New York City, I really needed to talk to God and it was a cold outside so I ducked inside St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church. Funky, elegant, huge yet homey, this landmark Park Avenue church with a membership of several thousand had probably seen better days. I didn’t even know what kind of church it was, but I loved the architecture and the music. I was overjoyed, tearing up at the sight of women officiating as Priests and Bishops. The multi-cultural face of the congregation looked like my America, like my vision of heaven--young and old, rich and poor, hipster and square, all definitions of family, rising up together as one.

I started by just showing up at the Sunday evening “Come as you are” Eucharist.  I was greeted with a radical welcome, treated as a child of God, even though I wasn’t technically yet “one of them.”  Nobody cared what I was wearing or where I came from. They cherished the Jewish roots of Jesus---the faith of my fathers. “The communion table is open,” declared the officiant, Father Bill Tully, and I was encouraged to partake. “These gifts belong to God, not the church.” The innovator of the controversial open communion table, Tully views this as a form of “spiritual evangelism,” a way of drawing in and including all.

All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: ‘ I was a stranger and you welcomed me’. When I was sick and half crazy, lost in my addictions, the anonymous people I met in Twelve Step recovery promised, “We will love you until you love yourself,” and that promise was kept.  When I came to the Episcopal Church as a stranger, you also welcomed me. But it was the election of Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire that finally convinced me to become an Episcopalian. It my proof that  God’s love was still alive in the church.  And so, two years after my baptism, I joined St. Bart’s and was confirmed. I currently serve in lay ministry.

When a Roman friend asked about my Episcopal Church I explained, “Well, were Anglican, Catholic and also Protestant. We don’t have a Pope, but we take Holy Communion and make group confession. We are taught that God loves really us, that we are pleasing to Him just as we are. We believe He came to live among us to know us better. We ordain women, and our clergy can marry. Same sex couples are welcome in our congregation. And even when we disagree passionately, we still try to love each other and walk on higher ground.”

Today I surf a seamless highway, a continuous loop between the Episcopal Church and Twelve Step recovery. I learn in both traditions that wisdom can be distilled from the daily as well as texts and traditions. Both travel the Via Media, balancing between the old and new. Each embraces the newcomer--the ultimate prodigal child--as precious. And full reconciliation is sought through a sustaining, relational approach to God, self and neighbor. Both traditions believe God talks to us through other people. “God incarnated in us,” explains Tully, “We function by virtue of our relationship to each other. We are responsible for each of us.” This too, is a tenet of recovery. 

Shoemaker’s critique was universal; he was not addressing fellow Episcopalians, he was speaking to a congregation of anonymous alcoholics at a conventionundefinedmen and women representing all faiths, sects, denominations, and traditions. His was a message that applies to all religious institutions. And, like the good book and the big book, it remains timeless. For the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Christianity came first---specifically through Father Shoemaker and the Episcopal Church. For me, it was the other way around. I came up from a church basement on a stairway to heaven. It’s been said that the longest journey we’ll ever take is 18 inches; that’s the distance from the head to the heart. On that journey we learn to speak in the language of the heart---that’s the language of recovery, and of the Gospel.

*Dr. Donna Gaines  ( is the author of Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia’s Dead End Kids, and A Misfit’s Manifesto: The Sociological Memoir of a Rock & Roll Heart. An elected  member of the Guild of Scholars of the Episcopal Church, Donna is a member of the Magnolia Institute, a recovery ministry at St. James of Jerusalem Episcopal Church in Long Beach, N.Y. where she also serves on the vestry. 

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