By Jerry F.
The Twelve Traditions: A Non-Traditional Approach
Much has been written about the secular AA beliefs and attitudes towards the Twelve Steps. Some groups have chosen to rewrite them to eliminate god references. The risk there, of course, is incurring the wrath of the local Intergroup and perhaps that of our fellow AAs.
Some groups simply don’t mention the Twelve Steps in their format and other readings. My home group is in the latter category with the implicit understanding that we approve of and adopt some steps and at least some parts of other steps.
But what about the Twelve Traditions? Is there anything there that might give us pause?
Spoiler alert: there sure as hell is.
Most of us first encounter the Traditions, those “steps written for the groups,” on window shades in our meeting rooms. However, they are best read in the back half of our Twelve and Twelve book.
A framework for governance for a Fellowship that insists upon remaining unorganized (derived from Tradition Nine) is brilliant in its conception and admirable in its execution. Written by Bill when, we are told, he was in the worst stage of his latest bout with clinical depression, they contain some of his best writing. For that, alone, they are a pleasure to read.
Then, too, who can doubt that AA would even exist without the Traditions to keep us from tearing ourselves apart when weathering some of our worst internecine battles? The history of AA, properly understood, is the history of how the Twelve Traditions saved us from ourselves.
So, does that mean that we, as secular members of AA, ought to accept the Twelve Traditions exactly as written? Well, there we need to consider all of the Traditions. In doing so, we see that we may affirm some of them but not all.
As secular AA members, we rely upon Tradition Three and Tradition Four rather more than do some of our more religious members. For us, these two Traditions validate our claim to be full-fledged AA members.
The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.
Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.
However, as a secular member of AA, I find that I cannot give an unqualified endorsement to the Twelve Traditions as written. When asked about it, I have stipulated that I would do so only with the exception of Tradition Two and Tradition Twelve. To be precise, my difficulty is with the first part of the Second Tradition and the long form of the Twelfth Tradition.
Tradition Two (Short Form)
For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority – a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
In the essay in the Twelve and Twelve on this Tradition, Bill spends a few pages telling us how groups are formed and led if they don’t have leaders telling the group members how they should act. It isn’t his best writing, but it isn’t bad. The closing sentence is, “I listened, and – thank God – I obeyed.”
I do not accept the first sentence of this Tradition. I do not have, nor do I believe AA has, “a loving God.” Surely we can reach consensus at the group level without invoking an interventionist supernatural deity who will tell us mere mortals what to do when we are in doubt.
Our group conscience is a powerful thing that derives its authority precisely from those same group members. Indeed, as explicated in The AA Service Manual Combined with Twelve Concepts for World Service, also written by Bill, our First Concept is, “The final responsibility and the ultimate authority for AA world service should always reside in the collective conscience of our whole Fellowship.”
Yes, our “collective conscience,” not a god, however loving or spiteful he may be on any particular day. And while it’s true that the Twelve Concepts are written for and directly affect only the General Service Board, they have long been an influential guide for AA groups at the local and regional level.
And yet we can’t expunge the entire Second Tradition. The second sentence of the Second Tradition is important, vital even, to the continued existence of our Fellowship.
“Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.” It is so important that it is repeated—and is the only clause of which this is true—a few times in the Bylaws of WAAFT-IAAC as it was then constituted.
It is more than a reminder, it approaches the status of a mantra. We need always ensure that, at the international, national, regional, and local level, including our home groups, our duly elected “leaders” are not leading or governing but rather serving our needs. And yet, Concept X applies:
Every service responsibility should be matched by an equal service authority, with the scope of such authority well defined. We must grant the authority necessary for our elected leaders to perform their well-defined duties.
How about a rewrite? Heresy, yes, but how about a rewrite?
A Secular Tradition Two
For our group purpose, there is but one ultimate authority—a collaborative discussion resulting in essential group consensus through our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
This reflects, in my experience, the actual decision-making process in our home groups, service structure, and Intergroups.
Anonymity and Spirituality
Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.
Yeah, well, there are among us – we secular alcoholics in AA – members who call themselves “rationalists.” They do not believe in anything spiritual or other-worldly. They hold that science and reason can explain everything that we encounter in life and there is no need for any metaphysical interpretations. To insist on a spiritual dimension to the Twelfth Tradition is to exclude these rationalist members from our secular Fellowship.
What if we struck “spiritual” from the Tradition? Our spiritual members should have no difficulty with this. We are not negating their spiritual beliefs; we are simply not giving it a place in our Tradition. After all, the intent of the Twelfth Tradition is twofold: we acknowledge that anonymity is the foundational principle of all the eleven Traditions that preceded this one, and we are reminded to always place principles before personalities. Good stuff, that. Anonymity, fully realized, is a complex proposition. It decidedly does not mean not giving your last name and other contact info to others in the Fellowship.
The Twelfth Tradition as explained in the Twelve and Twelve essay is clear, although this is an instance in which I wish Bill had gone into further detail. The importance of humility in practicing this Tradition is referred to in the essay as an “all-pervading spiritual quality” which I find unhelpful and yet I think there is much that could be written on this aspect.
Let’s back up a step or a Tradition. Our Eleventh Tradition is …
Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.
By extension, then, to include TV, the internet, and the next mass communication form to come along.
Here we turn to Dr. Bob for clarification. In “Dr. Bob and the Good Old-Timers,” pg. 264, he is quoted as saying that there were two ways to break the anonymity Tradition: “. . . by giving your name at the public level of press or radio, or by being so anonymous that you can’t be reached by other drunks.”
And yet, in my experience, this Tradition is widely violated in AA, especially the second clause. And as secular members of AA, we are still too small in numbers to keep ourselves separate or remote from other members when we could be helping newcomers and old-timers to understand how a godless recovery works.
And then there is the long form of Tradition Twelve.
Tradition Twelve (Long Form)
And finally, we of Alcoholics Anonymous believe that the principle of anonymity has an immense spiritual significance. It reminds us that we are to place principles before personalities; that we are actually to practice a genuine humility. This to the end that our great blessings may never spoil us; that we shall forever live in thankful contemplation of Him who presides over us all.
Bill, Bill, Bill. Yes, the humility required to practice the principle of anonymity does have immense significance. But I see no reason to categorize it as “spiritual.” And I do not “live in thankful contemplation of Him who presides over us all.”
The “genuine humility” needed to practice anonymity in AA is not that of some stale catechism but rather the realization that I am not the message. I am carrying the message. And the message is that anyone can get and stay clean and sober if they are willing to practice the principles of the program.
As a secular member, I do not believe that I can turn my will, my life, or anything else over to a supreme being. I must accept responsibility for my actions, and that includes my continued sobriety.
Here’s the point: I accept and am truly grateful for the Traditions with the exception of the first part of the Second Tradition and the long form of the Twelfth Tradition. Those I reject. And I do not understand how any of us, we secular AA members, can have allegiance or devotion to the Twelve Traditions as they are now written.
It is high time that this position is reflected in our home group formats and in our regional and international organizations. Either we don’t mention the Twelve Traditions in our Purpose Statements as we have come to do with the Steps, or we affirm belief in them while explicitly denying that acceptance to the first part of Tradition Two and the Long Form of Tradition Twelve.
Toronto has shown us the way. We can “acknowledge or adopt the Twelve Traditions of AA.” I choose to acknowledge their existence in their entirety and adopt ten and a half of them.
About the Author, Jerry F.
Jerry is one of the founding members of We Agnostics in Tempe, AZ and was the instigator of the WAAFT-AZ Convention last November in Phoenix. He has served in many positions in his 27 years in AA and is currently treasurer of his traditional AA group, coffeemaker of his secular group, and has recently completed a term as a board member of WAAFT-IAAC. He considers his greatest achievement as being responsible for a change to the Fourth Edition of the Big Book and his greatest asset as being relentlessly anal.
Images by Cope C. “with appreciation to Henry Payne for his focused vision and talented hand, and apologies for adapting his Moses to a different purpose.”
The audio version of this story was recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his community. If you would like to join him, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org