By Joe C.
It’s January 2014 and Vancouver is in the news: the city is winner of the 2025 AA World Conference. Congratulations are in order.
There is also controversy brewing in Vancouver, with two agnostic groups having been removed, at least temporarily, from the official Intergroup roster of AA meetings. This coming Tuesday (21 Jan 2014), Vancouver Intergroup will vote on whether or not agnostic groups are to be deemed “listable” on the Greater Vancouver AA meeting list.
This plays into a bigger drama about AA’s growing pains as more and more atheists come into the rooms. Tolerance and inclusiveness are being tested on both sides – that’s nothing new to AA, as we’ll discuss.
The 2014 Winter Olympics are in Russia in the next couple of weeks. It was just four year ago that, again, Vancouver played host to the world for the 2010 Winter Games. I remember a 2010 controversy when city officials either jailed or relocated a lot of the city’s undesirables. The plan was to ensure that every picture taken by every fan, athlete or dignitary would only show squeaky-clean Vancouver.
Al-Anon, a refuge of sober second thought, some time ago adopted a three-fold filter that Socrates is credited with offering us: Is it true? Is it fair? Is it useful? I know that not all of the people of Vancouver were ashamed of their homeless population nor did they feel threatened by them. If the decision went through the Socratic filter, it may have been concluded that it was not true that these people posed any threat to visitors, that it was not fair to disrespect the human rights of one class of people for the pleasures of another and as for was it useful – I expect there are still hard feelings in Vancouver, four years later.
Maybe Intergroup is unconsciously going through the same urgent clean up. Why let controversies go unchecked, while preparing to impress the world? If the problem-cases are small enough, eliminate them.
So, who are these groups and are they scapegoats or have they violated the rules of fair play in AA? Two groups in Vancouver, like another hundred or so groups in North America, don’t see belief in, or obedience to, “God as we understand Him” as being a requirement for AA-style sobriety. While belief in a prayer-answering God is popular in AA, it isn’t a prerequisite for membership. The groups read a version of the AA Twelve Steps without the phrase “God as we understood Him.” None of this is news for the core AA Agnostica reader but please bear with us while we bring newer readers up to speed.
According to an 18 page report from the new Vancouver Intergroup Manager the groups had to be eliminated from the meeting list and their voice silenced without delay – it wasn’t the manager’s self-will, it was argued; it was the result of a sense of duty. The groups aren’t real groups; they aren’t listable and should not have been welcomed in the first place.
These agnostic AA groups unabashedly say, “Hey, we’re not asking permission. AA gives us the right to autonomously run our meeting as we see fit. AA isn’t a popularity contest, if you don’t like it, don’t come, that’s fine. We’re not doing anything wrong – in fact, we’re doing what our founders would have us do, carry the message of hope to still-suffering alcoholics that come to AA through an ever-widening gateway.”
“No way,” says the Vancouver Intergroup; “not so fast. Every group is autonomous, ‘except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.’ We are autonomous as an Intergroup, too – and we are going to recommend that our popular groups vote on what constitutes a listable group.”
Is an agnostic group bad for AA or a confusion to newcomers?
Is artistic liberty a good thing like the slogan “Live and let live” suggests to us? And what about the other Traditions? Our co-founder, Dr. Bob said this about our Traditions. “Honesty gets us sober (Step One) but tolerance (Tradition One) keeps us sober.” Tradition Two specifically says “we do not govern.” How do we tell a trusted servant from a twisted servant who has gotten drunk on dogma? Tradition Three has one and only one membership requirement – and it’s not a willingness to believe in or pray to God, is it? Who’s to bless and who’s to blame here?
Let’s apply the Socratic test to the Vancouver Intergroup’s arguments. Socrates is known for his contributions to modern society’s ability to be both reasonable and virtuous. Personally, I am not certain that we can reason people out of a corner that emotion has painted them into. As our co-founder Bill W. has cautioned us, fear and intolerance are highly emotional catalysts that can destroy Alcoholics Anonymous. Our Traditions were fashioned to defend us from our own emotional slips. 
So let’s put the Vancouver Manoeuvre up against the Socratic test: is it true; is it fair; is it useful?
First, it is argued, you can’t change the AA Steps. If you interpret them, you can’t call yourself an AA group.
Here is the “authority” that anti-agnostic members draw from. Bylaws of the General Service Board, Inc., page S111 of the AA World Service Manual has this turgid little offering:
The General Service Board claims no proprietary right in the recovery program, for these Twelve Steps, as all spiritual truths, may now be regarded as available to all mankind. However, because these Twelve Steps have proven to constitute an effective spiritual basis for life which, if followed, arrests the disease of alcoholism, the General Service Board asserts the negative right of preventing, so far as it may be within its power to do so, any modification, alteration, or extension of these Twelve Steps, except at the instance of the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.
On its own, without context, we might conclude that there it is – no changing the Steps. But who does this limit apply to and who is the enforcer? That’s not confusing when we read the entire Service Manual. This bylaw applies to the annual General Service Conference of Trustees, Delegates and employees that approve and conduct the business of AA each year. It is the Board that does the enforcement. In no way does this apply to AA groups or members. This has been so since 1957.
But maybe while technically the General Service Board (or any Intergroup Office) should never govern nor punish groups, is it possible that the spirit of Twelve Step sacredness should be observed by every group? Not according to the Twelve Step author, Bill Wilson. AA Comes of Age was published in 1957 also. Here, for the record, Bill tells a story in the Chapter on Unity about the first known group ever to take God out of the Steps. He defended this group without reservations.
On page 81 he talks about how AA was growing around the world. Buddhists said that they would like to be part of AA, but also would like to replace the word “god” with “good” so that the practice of the Steps would be compatible with their non-theistic belief. Bill Wilson writes:
To some of us, the idea of substituting ‘good’ for ‘God’ in the Twelve Steps will seem like a watering down of AA’s message. But here we must remember that AA’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 AA available to thousands who never would have tried at all had we insisted on the Twelve Steps just as written.
So it is simply not true that agnostic groups that read an agnostic interpretation of the Twelve Steps are breaking our Traditions or even go against the spirit of them – according to the guy who wrote both.
And as far as reading anything that the group deems to be fair, true and useful, in an effort to attain and maintain sobriety, the General Service Office reminds us “Conference Approved Literature” doesn’t suggest that either GSO nor the Conference is in the business of banning or disapproving any literature that a group or member might find helpful. 
Next up, an Intergroup email to group representatives states, “In January there will be discussion about this submission and a decision made as to what constitutes a ‘listable’ group.”
If you are searching your Service Manual, the Intergroup Guidelines or the pamphlet, The AA Group, for the world listable, you won’t find it. It’s a made up word. But we all know what is meant. We can’t have anyone calling themselves an AA group without ensuring they follow THE RULES. Check the Appendices at the back of Alcoholics Anonymous or look in the AA World Service Manual for “the Rules” and you can’t find them either. What we find in the Manual is Warranty Six (Concept XII) where, if Bill Wilson had any second thoughts about defending groups reading God-free Twelve Steps, he could have mentioned it here. Instead he celebrates the liberties afforded members and groups and assures that no punishment, judgment, nor demand for conformity ever be imposed on an AA group by AA itself. 
“There are no emergencies in AA,” Ward Ewing told me in 2011 when talking about what he learned while Chairman of the Board of AA. General Service – a four year term. It was a learning curve for Reverend Ewing as a non-alcoholic Trustee. A sense of urgency was something he brought to AA but we taught him, as he told me, good decisions – spiritual decisions – were never made in haste, anger or apathy.
Have AA groups in Vancouver broken Traditions? No. Is it Vancouver Intergroup’s right to set aside our Traditions and create their own “listable” requirements for AA groups? Sure – but don’t lie to yourselves or others. It’s not the groups that are changing Vancouver AA, it’s Intergroup. In the AA that our co-founders left us, a group is a group if the group says so. Trusted servants accommodate; we do not judge.
If Intergroup passes judgment on unpopular groups, in AA we call that tyranny of the majority. If the minority groups demanded that all of AA conform to their wishes and change everything, that would be wrong, too – that’s tyranny of the minority. But the groups aren’t asking AA to change for their sake. What they are asking is to be treated with the same unifying love and tolerance that others are accorded.
Vancouver, if you go down this road, and especially if you want to use Toronto as an example, consider the law of unintended consequences. Agnostic AA membership is up – Toronto agnostic groups saw a surge in popularity after being tossed from Intergroup, not a drop in popularity. Contributions to Intergroup from the remaining groups is “below budgeted expectation” according to the latest Greater Toronto Area Intergroup minutes. Maybe that’s a coincidence and maybe that’s what Bill W. calls “the power of the purse.” Maybe Toronto is still a story in the making.
Vancouver hasn’t discovered a new and dangerous trend; deviating from the norm has been part of AA longer than most of us have been alive. This is what makes our society so special. We all have our own opinion but we all have to work from the same facts. Vancouver reminds us of our history; if we don’t know our history, we are damned to repeat it. When Bill, Bob and our other pre-baby-boomers faced these same fears about artistic liberty (the right of the group to interpret the Steps for their purposes), they asked what they were afraid of? “Naturally, we began to act like most everybody does when afraid. After all, isn’t’ fear the true basis of intolerance. Yes we were intolerant. How could we then guess that all those fears were to prove groundless?” Tolerance and inclusion require the opposite of fear—courage and whatever it is we have faith in.
So, group representatives, as you consider the proposal set forth by the Central Office Manager of the Greater Vancouver Intergroup Society, please be courageous and ask yourselves as you read, discuss and vote on the issue of the listability of groups other than your own:
Is it true; is it fair; is it useful?
 From Page 17, AA Tradition – How It Developed:
The number of membership rules which have been made (and mostly broken!) are legion… The way our “worthy” alcoholics have sometimes tried to judge the “less worthy” is, as we look back on it, rather comical. Imagine if you can, one alcoholic judging another. At one time or another most AA groups go on rule-making benders… Newcomers argue that they aren’t alcoholics at all, but keep coming around anyway… Others refuse to accept all the Twelve Steps of the recovery program. Some go still further, saying that the “God business” is bunk and quite unnecessary. Under these conditions our conservative program-abiding members get scared. These appalling conditions must be controlled, they think, else AA will surely go to rack and ruin. They view with alarm for the good of the movement!
At this point the group enters the rule and regulation phase. Charters, bylaws and membership rules are excitedly passed and authority is granted committees to filter out undesirables and discipline the evildoers. Then the elders, now clothed with authority, commence to get busy. Recalcitrants are cast into utter darkness; respectable busy-bodies throw stones at the sinners.
 Warranty Six from A.A. Service Manual: Combined with Twelve Concepts for World Service by Bill W.:
In preceding Concepts, much attention has been drawn to the extraordinary liberties which the A.A. Traditions accord to the individual member and to his group: no penalties to be inflicted for nonconformity. . . Because we set such a high value on our great liberties, and cannot conceive a time when they will need to be limited, we here specially enjoin our General Service Conference to abstain completely from any and all acts of authoritative government which could in any wise curtail A.A.’s freedom under God. . . . Therefore we expect that our Conferences will always try to act in the spirit of mutual respect and love—one member for another. In turn, this sign signifies that mutual trust should prevail; that no action ought to be taken in anger, haste, or recklessness; care will be observed to respect and protect all minorities; that no action should ever be personally punitive, . . our Conference will ever be prudently on guard against tyrannies, great or small, whether these be found in the majority or in the minority.
 Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 140.