“We’re all in recovery of some sort,”
says Canon Nancy Ford
Canon Nancy Ford, deacon to the city at Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria, B.C., was well-acquainted with the concept of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) thanks to years of working as a counsellor. But the more she thought about it, she realized the meetings, though often hosted in churches, always seemed to take place in church basements or halls. “The integration into any kind of faith community, if people wished, wasn’t present…As part of being church, I wondered, what are we offering for folk who are engaged with that kind of healing process?”
For about the past five years, the cathedral has been offering an answer to this question through a weekly Twelve Step Recovery Eucharist.
In her early days as deacon, Ford says, she dug into learning about the community surrounding the cathedral in downtown Victoria. The area garnered national attention in 2015 when a tent city sprang up across the street from the cathedral. Victoria has also seen a huge spike in illicit drug overdoses as the opioid epidemic continues; a recent B.C. coroner’s report noted that the city was one of three townships in the province experiencing the highest number of illicit drug overdoses in 2018.
While learning about the area, Ford attended a local conference where she met others working in local government and non-profit agencies. Through a connection with an agency that worked with people experiencing substance use challenges, Ford was invited to attend an open Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
“[I] was deeply touched by the nature of how community forms in AA groups; the honesty, the celebration and—well, yes, we know about struggles. But I discovered there was a joy there.”
Inspired to create a bridge between church and recovery communities, Ford developed the liturgy for the Twelve Step Eucharist, collaborating with Anglican priest and psychologist Canon Martin Brokenleg. She also consulted with then-Christ Church Cathedral dean Logan McMenamie (now bishop of the diocese of British Columbia) and current cathedral dean Ansley Tucker.
The Twelve Steps are incorporated into the liturgy during the Prayers of the People, first in the traditional Twelve Steps language and followed by a prayerful response. Step 8, for instance, in the liturgy reads, “We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all,” followed by the prayer, “Encircle all who suffer from any grief or trouble. We offer all those on our hearts and minds to you.” The reading of the step is followed by a time of silence, for prayer and reflection.
“What I’ve noticed is that over time, people, when there’s a silence after Step 8, they live into it. Even if they’re not really churched. That silence has become important,” says Ford. After The Peace, she adds, “Sometimes people…will gather around the altar and feel that continuing moment of community.”
The liturgy also differs from a traditional Eucharist in that instead of a homily, there is a time for discussion and conversation, which Ford says often leads to some quite deep theological reflection.
Ford notes that whoever is presiding each week makes clear that “to receive communion in one kind is to receive it in both,” a consideration particularly for those in recovery from alcohol use. Blessings are also available for anyone who might choose not to receive communion. The service is open to anyone, says Ford, whether they are formally in recovery or not. “Personally, I believe…we’re all in recovery of some sort,” she says.
“We have people who come on a regular basis for whom substance abuse is not an issue. They find the meditations and the prayerful time together very, very powerful, and they like to attend. We have folk who are beginning recovery, folk who are deep in recovery.”
Chris Pitman worships at Christ Church Cathedral. He has been in recovery for a few years, with three years of sobriety under his belt. About a year ago, he says, he saw an advertisement in the church for the Twelve Step Eucharist. Serendipitously, around that time a close friend who was going through his own struggles with addiction came to Pitman asking if he could join him at church.
“[He] said that he felt faith was giving me something—a strength in my recovery that he was wanting within his own,” Pitman says. The two men went to the service together and have been attending ever since.
“We loved it. It was absolutely amazing…both of us had been to churches in the past in our recovery and had some bad taste from it. There was quite a bit of the addiction-as-morality issue, some shaming involved.
“I think a really simplified version of recovery to a lot of people that don’t understand was, ‘Well, why can’t you just stop? Just pray and it will be fine.’”
The Eucharist at Christ Church, conversely, felt open and non-judgmental, he says, a “safe space” for even those who are just coming to recovery, and for people of all beliefs.
While everyone’s recovery is different, Pitman says, for him the chance to integrate his recovery with a church setting was invaluable. “For me, [as] somebody coming from a church background, it’s so refreshing and such a ray of hope that there was something like this that existed, where I could fully experience the fullness of both aspects of my recovery in one safe place.” He also loves being able to take communion in a Twelve Step setting, he says.
It has also been good for his friend, who does not have a church background, to see a Christian space that was welcoming and did not treat addiction as a moral failing. When his friend was worried about returning to the service after a relapse, Pitman recounted, Ford’s gentle response had a huge impact on him. “Nancy…just came up and put her hand on his shoulder…and was like, ‘Hey, you know what, I’m just glad to see you here today, and you’re not alone. I don’t know what’s going on in your life, but you’re not alone, you’re welcome here any time.’ For him, that was really powerful.”
“The success stories, if we use that language, are the ones who find consistency and acceptance,” says Ford. She has observed “that people have found a lifeline to sobriety through the consistency” of attending the service.
Pitman says that since he began attending, he has found a sense of community. “A year later we’re standing and chatting a lot more outside, we’re telling each other parts of our life stories and our hopes and dreams, and what’s going on in our lives right now.”
Ford says that recovery is not about success or failure; it’s a day-to-day journey, and requires support. “I remember someone saying in a training, ‘Well, I think I was in and out of stabilization 12 or 13 times,’ ” she recalls. What inspired that person in his recovery was not a certain program, but the compassion of those lending support, says Ford, who saw him “not as an addict or a drunk or whatever that horrible language is, but as a person.” This is the motivation, for Ford, the knowledge that “each person is a child of God. Each person is on a journey that we know nothing about.”
Through connections with a local organization that supports people with substance use issues, Ford connected with Taryn Strong, a yoga teacher who now teaches a weekly yoga-for-recovery class at the cathedral after the service.
Strong and her mother, Dawn Nickel, are the founders of SheRecovers, a “recovery and empowerment platform for women.” What began as a blog and a Facebook page in 2011 is now a collection of resources, events, workshops, retreats and coaching.
Strong, who identifies as being in recovery from substance use disorder, self-harm, disordered eating, trauma and co-dependency, has been teaching yoga since 2007. Though she found Twelve Steps programs didn’t work for her personally, she discovered that yoga was helpful in her journey of recovery. When she began teaching at a detox facility in Victoria, she quickly began to find ways to cater her teaching to those in recovery. Since then she has also completed training in trauma-informed and Twelve Step recovery yoga teaching.
Recovery programs, Strong says, “have gotten really good at addressing the mind and the spirit. If someone’s entering recovery, they can go to a Twelve Step meeting, maybe find church, which is so beautiful…But we’ve forgotten about the body.”
Yoga, she says, can help people connect to their body. It can also be empowering for people who have struggled with addiction or dependencies to feel that they are fully in control of their body.
As part of offering a trauma-informed class, Strong says she avoids triggers by not using physical touch to correct students’ poses and using inviting rather than commanding language.
At its core, she says, yoga and Twelve Step programs have very similar philosophies around recovery. “They both see addiction as a spiritual crisis needing a spiritual solution.” Both frame addiction as disconnection, she says, whether from a higher power, our own bodies or each other, and recovery as a reconnection with spirituality, self and community.
The Twelve Step program was created by Alcoholics Anonymous, which was started in the 1930s in Akron, Ohio. The steps have since been adapted for support groups for those in recovery from other substances and addictions.