By Steve K.
The term “Conference-approved” relates to literature and audiovisual material that is published by AA World Services, Inc, and has been approved by Conference for this purpose.
“The term has no relation to material not published by GSO. It does not imply Conference disapproval of other material about AA. 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.” (Service Material from the General Service Office)
A.A. also produces non-conference approved literature such as the ‘Grapevine’, which is published by A.A. Grapevine, Inc. Examples of Grapevine publications are the book ‘The Language of the Heart’, which consists of Bill W’s Grapevine writings, and also the A.A. ‘Preamble’ is a Grapevine, Inc publication.
The General Service Conference recognises the Grapevine as the international journal of Alcoholics Anonymous. The only reason it’s not Conference approved is because it’s published monthly and the Conference meets annually and therefore it is not practically possible.
My personal concern is with AA members stating that “only Conference-approved literature should be read out at meetings.” This is a misunderstanding of the term at best and outright dogmatism at worst. As stated above, group members are free to read from any literature they choose to and there is no ‘tradition’ or GSO guidance that states otherwise.
A.A. group members should also be aware that neither GSO or Intergroup governs individual groups’ decisions. Ultimately the group conscience decides its own format and practices.
In my view it’s not healthy to unreasonable censor what members read out at meetings, as to do so is based upon fear and prevents group members’ right to freedom of expression. Diversity of opinion and views is a good thing, as we can learn from each other’s differences and experiences.
Also, A.A. should never be rigid in its outlook and be prepared to change and evolve when necessary as new understanding and insights become clear. The founder members of the fellowship were humble enough to realise that “we know only a little” and they learnt from experience as they went along and envisaged an evolving A.A.
Dogmatism within A.A. was being warned about nearly 30 years ago. At a talk given by the then General Service Manager, Bob Pearson, to the General Service Conference in 1986, he had this to say:
“If you were to ask me what is the greatest danger facing AA today, I would have to answer: the growing rigidity – the increasing demand for absolute answers to nit-picking questions; pressure for GSO to “enforce” our Traditions; screening alcoholics at closed meetings; prohibiting non-Conference-approved literature, i.e., “banning books;” laying more and more rules on groups and members.”
The fellowship of A.A. is based upon liberal and spiritual principles which suggest acceptance and tolerance of each other’s differences. The ‘primary purpose’ of the group as stated in Tradition Five, is one of carrying a message of recovery to the alcoholic who still suffers, and it’s this common goal that binds those differences together.
My experience of alcoholism and recovery from it are unique to me, as is my message to others, who may or may not identify. How I communicate my experience and any literature I use to help me in doing so, should be my choice. In addition, my understanding and experience of the Twelve Steps is personal to me.
Tradition One calls for Unity not uniformity, and states that:
“We believe there isn’t a fellowship on earth which lavishes more devoted care upon its individual members; surely there is none which more jealously guards the individual’s right to think, talk, and act as he wishes. No AA can compel another to do anything; nobody can be punished or expelled. Our Twelve Steps to recovery are suggestions; the Twelve Traditions which guarantee A.A.’s unity contain not a single “Don’t.” They repeatedly say “We ought….” but never “You must!”
To summarise the core principle of Tradition One, I would suggest that the individual’s right to freedom of expression should be cherished, as long as it is not harmful towards the welfare of the group as a whole.
Tradition Two suggests that ultimately the group conscience decides its own format and practices. However, an informed group conscience should take into consideration all viewpoints, as well as application of the relevant ‘traditions’ and the principles they contain. It is also worthwhile considering any previous guidance by Conference/GSO in relation to the issue, although the AA group is not obligated to follow it.
Tradition Three States that:
“The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.”
The program of recovery is a suggestion only; members are free not to read the Big Book, or practice the Twelve Steps if they so wish, and the program of A.A. should not be forced upon its members. Tradition Three aims to be fully inclusive of all members regardless of differences, and warns against dogmatic rules born of fear and prejudice which are barriers to recovery for all who want it.
A quote from Bill W.
“In AA we are supposed to be bound together in the kinship of a universal suffering. Therefore the full liberty to practice any creed or principle or therapy should be a first consideration. Hence let us not pressure anyone with individual or even collective views. Let us instead accord to each other the respect that is due to every human being as he tries to make his way towards the light. Let us always try to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Let us remember that each alcoholic among us is a member of AA, so long as he or she so declares.”
“In no circumstances should we feel that Alcoholics Anonymous is the know-all and do-all of alcoholism.”
Bill said, referring to the work of other organisations engaged in research, alcohol education and rehabilitation.
Traditionalists within AA, argue that keeping readings to “Conference- approved only” in meetings, provides a focus upon “its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.” This prevents the group going outside of the Twelve Step solution. It’s also suggested it helps to keep AA’s identity and can give a feeling of security for some members.
While I do have some sympathy for this point of view, it assumes that all members are ok with the language and ideas in the traditional literature. It prevents freedom of expression in terms of the variety of interpretations that members are free to hold in relation to Twelve Step recovery.
The ‘Conference-approved’ only view also ignores aspects of ‘tradition one’ in relation to individual freedom, and also ‘tradition three’ in terms of being an inclusive fellowship; as not all group members do agree with the religious ideas and language used in the orthodox literature.
The traditional viewpoint also keeps AA stuck in the past and from learning anything new about recovery from alcoholism. Mainstream AA is supposed to be a diverse fellowship, and therefore its literature and what is read out at meetings should reflect the differing views of its membership, surely?
In my opinion, I feel that a compromise between ‘tradition five’, the group’s primary purpose of carrying a Twelve Step message of recovery, and the individual freedoms suggested in part of ‘tradition one’ and ‘tradition three’, should prevail. In line with ‘tradition four’ and ‘tradition two’, groups are autonomous and are free to decide their own version of a compromise according to the conscience of the group.
The above quotes by Bill W are taken from his speech to the General Service Conference held in New York City in April, 1965.