Unity or Popularity Contest: Intergroup's role

How does Intergroup serve the fellowships minorities, majority and the still-suffering addict? Let's look at an A.A. example. View or download as a PDF
Alexis de Tocqueville had an influence on A.A. co-founder, Bill W., who quotes him in Concept V of the Twelve Concepts of World Service
Here is the first thing we read inside the General Service Offices, Central Offices, Intergroups and Answering Services Overseas ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS 2012 – 2013:

“The offices listed in this service directory are listed at their own request. A directory listing does not constitute or imply approval or endorsement of any office policies or approach to or practice of the traditional A.A. program.”

Any service body will be listed regardless of their obedience to “the traditional A.A. program” or not? Why doesn’t the General Service Office (GSO) of Alcoholics Anonymous govern Intergroup offices or groups or members? The answer is that in the A.A. way, GSO is a service body, mandated to fulfill the bidding of the groups and members. It neither dictates nor polices. The groups have the authority at the top of our inverted triangle of A.A. Service bodies such as Intergroups, districts, areas and GSO are below, doing the bidding of the groups.

Warranty Six of the Twelfth Concept talks of “extraordinary liberties which the A.A. Traditions accord to the individual members and to (their) group: no penalties to be inflicted for nonconformity of A.A. principles; no fees or dues to be levied—voluntary contributions only; no member to be expelled from A.A.—membership always to be the choice of the individual; each A.A. group to conduct its internal affairs as it wishes—it being merely requested to abstain from acts that might injure A.A. as a whole; and finally that any group of alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an A.A. group provided that as a group, they have no other purpose or affiliation, . . . no action ought to be taken in anger, haste or recklessness; that care will be observed to respect and protect all minorities, that no action should ever be personally punitive; that whenever possible, important action s will be taken in substantial unanimity; and that our Conference will ever be prudently on guard against tyrannies, great or small whether these be found in the majority or in the minorities.” Twelve Concepts for World Service, pg. 74

Minorities have always been reluctantly welcomed into the A.A. fold—at least at first. The stories of our first women in A.A. include being told they weren’t welcome or instructed to sit with the wives in the other room while the A.A. men had their meeting. The first vote to welcome African Americans excluded them. Later they were allowed to attend as visitors, start their own segregated fellowship and then eventually welcomed as equals. LBGTQ groups and young people’s group all faced bigotry from those who spoke of A.A. stewardship and acted with fear and intolerance. Our society holds the same qualities of evil and goodness as the rest of humanity; our progress has been far from perfection.

The latest minority to threaten A.A. conservatives is the atheists and agnostics. If you don’t attend one, it’s helpful to note that agnostic A.A. groups have been part of the A.A. fold for longer than most members are sober or, in some cases, alive. The majority of A.A. members have a healthy indifference or “Live and Let Live” attitude about AA recovery that includes no obedience to any deity of any understanding. “I wouldn’t go to that group but to-each-their-own,” is the attitude of many god-conscious members. However, as the tension between secularists and theistic fundamentalists makes mid-day news outside our rooms, inside Alcoholics Anonymous tension has emerged in our local service structures about our nonbeliever-members.

A.A. alarmists accuse some agnostic groups of reading non-conference approved literature. Putting aside for one moment, the obvious—“The Man in the Glass,” “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” prayers as well as many of the slogans that our various groups proudly display—none of these are conference approved either. But because GSO faced so many calls to stop groups from doing un-AA things, this statement was put out to set the record straight. From aa,org/en-fdfs/smf-29_en.pdf:

“The term ‘Conference-approved’ describes written or audiovisual material approved by the Conference for publication by G.S.O. This process assures that everything in such literature is in accord with A.A. principles. Conference-approved material always deals with the recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous or with information about the A.A. Fellowship.

The term has no relationship to material not published by G.S.O. It does not imply Conference disapproval of other material about A.A. A great deal of literature helpful to alcoholics is published by others, and A.A. does not try to tell any individual member what he or she may or may not read.”

If you read A.A. Comes of Age, you know that the first groups to interpret and read A.A. Steps without the word “God” were Buddhist groups early in A.A.’s growth into the East. In a blog post from a year ago I referred to how this 1950s artistic liberty with the Twelve Steps met with concern from well-meaning absolutists. In his “Chapter on Unity” in 1957, Bill W. writes:

“To some of us, the idea of substituting ‘good’ for ‘God’ in the Twelve Steps will seem like a watering down of A.A.’s message. But here we must remember that A.A.’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them, as they stand, is not at all a requirement for membership among us. This liberty has made A.A. available to thousands who never would have tried at all had we insisted on the Twelve Steps just as written.” Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age pg. 81

Moving on to what role Intergroups play, they are also service bodies—not supervisors or moderators. A.A. is not a popularity contest. The most marginalized, repugnant or anti-establishment of us are still rights-bearing-equals. Can we vote on each group’s legitimacy before entering them into the meeting list?

From A.A. Guidelines: Central or Intergroup Offices (MG 02 Rev. 2/12)

1) Listing of all groups in the community that want to participate.
2) A reminder that financial support is voluntary and not a condition of membership (in keeping with A.A. tradition).
3) A clear explanation that responsibility for the maintenance of the service office rests with the groups. Therefore, each group should name a central office representative and an alternate to serve a specified term as the connection link between the group and its central office.
4) A summary of the functions of the central office and an explanation of how it will be staffed and operated.
5) A discussion of how the service office will handle such vital matters as inquiries from newcomers, relations with the press, and similar duties.
6) Assurance that the service centre will be operated in keeping with A.A.’s Twelve Traditions.

Every group that wants to be included is to be included. What a slippery slope we decline down when one alcoholic is given authority to judge another. If an Intergroup office wants to take inventory, should it be the groups it serves or its own operating procedures that should be scrutinized?

I am a member of one of these groups that been discriminated against by what Bill W. calls in Concept V, an “apathetic, self-seeking, uninformed or angry majority.” Concept V also states that, “When we look at our minority groups, we find that here we have also gone to great lengths in our trust of minority groups. Under Tradition Two, The group conscience is the final authority for A.A.,” The Twelve Concepts of World Service, pg. 23

Toronto Intergroup assumed this role of authority, higher than the groups it serves, the seat of perilous power, declaring my group and one other not-A.A enough for the meeting list. Of course we’re still part of the General Service structure; we still contribute our time, talent and money to district and area, working in Hospitals, Grapevine, Archives and Public Information. Without Intergroup, since our first agnostic A.A. meeting started four years ago this month, eight other agnostic A.A. groups have started and are growing. Still, we don’t find the now five evenings of Toronto area agnostic A.A. meetings in the meeting list, phone greeters are forbidden to mention us to interested callers and our groups have no voice on the Intergroup floor.

A well informed, less self-serving and less hasty intergroup body would not allowed a vote in the first place. The very act of singling out a group for judgment is a form of harassment. Who is being un-AA when such a discrimination takes place—the agnostics or the Tea-Party-esque conservatives? Right now, another Intergroup is considering if their A.A. is best served by implementing this new-A.A. brand of creed cleansing or homogeneity.
If love and tolerance is spirituality then, scapegoating and judgment is evil. Isn’t evil the opposite of spirituality? I put that question to you because before posting, I scrutinized the word, “evil,” wondering if I wasn’t being melodramatic. Individually, aren’t these Intergroup reps just trying to be good stewards of our fellowship? Wouldn't we be right to feel shame for the disrespect that A.A.'s legacy of minorities suffered from our fellowship in their hour of greatest need. I don’t think the next generation will view group-banishing Intergroup reps as well-intentioned or in any way stalwartly.

Where did this law-and-order conservative pathology come from? At some level, it’s always been part of the A.A. tapestry. For those of us who weren’t around in 1986 to know GSO’s retiring General Manager, Bob P., his final talk to the General Service Conference was reprinted in Box 4-5-9 (Vol. 50, No. 2/April May 2004) Here he had this to say about the rigidity of the day:

“If you were to ask me what is the greatest danger facing Alcoholics Anonymous today, I would have to answer: the growing rigidity that is so apparent to me and many others; (i) The increasing demand for absolute answers to nit-picking questions; (ii)Pressure for G.S.O. to ‘enforce’ our Traditions, (iii) Screening alcoholics at closed meetings. . . . And in this trend toward rigidity, we are drifting further and further away from our co-founders. Bill, in particular, must be spinning in his grave, for I remind you that he was perhaps the most permissive person I ever met. One of his favorite sayings was, ‘Every group has the right to be wrong’; he was maddeningly tolerant of his critics and he had absolute faith that faults in A.A. were self-correcting.”

In a self-correcting A.A. no one has to be voted off the island. Call it “God’s will,” or Darwinian “survival of the fittest,” but A.A. meetings that are on the wrong track will go away all by themselves; and they will hardly drag A.A. along with them.

In the same issue of Box 4-5-9, John K., Director of A.A. World Service who spoke at a General Service joint sharing session in November 2003 is quoted. The title of John’s talk was “A Vision for A.A.’ Future—A Continuous Moral Inventory of Our Collective Behavior.” Here is what Box 4-5-9 shared with all of A.A. from John K.’s message:

“Our co-founders were pragmatists—try something, test it, change it, review it, test it, then change, review, test it again. As a result, our knowledge as a Fellowship is based not on logic, or revelation, or authority—it is based on experience, on what works, and as such, it is always subject to change. Our basic vision of the future is simple: It is to carry our message of recovery from alcoholism to the still-suffering alcoholic, and to do so through the efforts of each and every one of our members. . . . Co-founder Bill W. wrote frequently about his vision for A.A.’s future. In April 1959, he said: ‘Maybe we have a policy or plan that still looks fine and is apparently doing well. Nevertheless we ought to ponder very carefully what its longtime effect will be. Will today’s nearby advantages boomerang into large liabilities for tomorrow? The temptation will almost always be to seize the nearby benefits and quite forget about the harmful precedents or consequences that we may be setting in motion.’. . . Almost every act has an unintended consequence, yet often we give too little thought to follow-up testing and assessment to determine whether anything we have, as Bill said, ‘boomeranged into a large liability for tomorrow.’. . . I think we now need to pause to ask if in the process, the cumulative effect of individual ‘minor’ changes might make, over time, a significant change overall. . . . I hope our vision for the future emphasizes the A.A. group as the fundamental unit of recovery. I hope our vision includes an A.A. where groups still have the right to be wrong . . . I hope our vision for A.A.’s future includes a willingness to engage in a ‘continuous moral inventory of our collective behavior,’ and to include as many of our members as possible in every aspect of that exercise.”

Interestingly, another article in this Box 4-5-9, is called “Unity and Sharing Are the Glue of Intergroup Seminar.” Unity in the founder's A.A. never meant uniformity. On the contrary, unity underscores our basic and spiritual tenet of love and tolerance for all.

In conclusion, let’s look at the tyranny of the minority. This story looks like one of squabbling minorities. The majority of A.A. supports a wide tent, celebrating the variety of spiritual experiences. In one corner, we have the minority agnostics. If they demanded that God is un-known and unknowable, and insisted that this restrictive worldview be removed from all A.A. literature—that would be tyranny from the minority. But they don’t demand that A.A. change—they just expect to be accommodated. Agnostic groups want to be included, welcome one and all, and mind their own business. In the other corner, the absolutist minority. They want to cleanse A.A. of unconventional meeting rituals. This is campaigning for change. They say they are preserving the integrity of the A.A. message. But what is the A.A. message? It is that we are a fellowship—not a program. We have “suggested” Steps and only one requirement for memberships—that doesn’t include obedience to, or belief in, Allah. An Intergroup that governs groups betrays the very A.A. principles they ought to be protecting. Allah doesn’t need their kind of help and neither does A.A.

Here is an idea for Intergroups concerned about being seen to endorse something that doesn’t sit well with everyone. Learn from the General Service Office that will continue to include you—regardless of how an Intergroup adheres to our Traditions. Simply say what they say in their directory: “The groups listed in this directory are listed at their own request. A directory listing does not constitute or imply approval or endorsement of any group policies or approach to, or practice of, the A.A. program.”

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