Sponsorship in AA
This article is dedicated to the memory of Ernie Kurtz, AA’s foremost historian, who was so pleased to include us WAAFTs as members of the Alcoholics Anonymous that he loved so dearly. He was a devoted friend to us and strove to include us as an integral part of AA’s history.
By Thomas B.
Probably No Human Power
Here’s another example that in my 43rd year of recovery in AA it’s the obvious I so often miss! I must have heard, or read, “How It Works” at least 5,000 times, especially since it’s ritualistically been read at most meetings I’ve attended the past 25 or so years. But, it’s only been in the last several weeks that I’ve actually heard, or noticed, the (b), which states “That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.”
It doesn’t say “definitely,” or “certainly”, or “absolutely”. It says “probably” – it occurs to me, therefore, that a certain element of doubt and uncertainly has been an integral part of the AA suggested program of recovery from the earliest days of our Fellowship.
It strikes me that “human power” was in play when Bill was visited in November of 1934 by his childhood friend, Ebby, who was not drinking because he had joined the Oxford Group, telling Bill he was sober because, “I’ve got religion”. Bill, simultaneously being joyous because that meant more booze for him, was baffled, “aghast” as he describes it in the Big Book, wondering if his friend’s alcoholic insanity had morphed into religious insanity. Nevertheless, this was a crucial founding moment for what AA has since become during its almost 80 years of history – it was the result of the human power of one alcoholic sharing his story with another alcoholic.
Another critical founding moment, also animated by human power, occurred some six months later in May, when Bill, sober since his last admission at Towns Hospital, was most dejected, alone in Akron, devastated after a business deal fell through. He knew that in order for him to stay sober he had to talk to another alcoholic. He made several frantic phone calls from a pay phone in the Mayflower Hotel. Across the lobby from the payphone was the bar from which he could hear music and laughter. Desperate, he got in contact with Henrietta Seiberling, who was able to connect him with Dr. Bob, another hopeless alcoholic. It was arranged for them to meet at the Seiberling estate Gatehouse on the afternoon of Mother’s Day.
Dr. Bob and Bill met in the library off the living room of the Gatehouse. Bill leaned across a small table and told Dr. Bob that he had to talk to another alcoholic so that he would stay sober. In effect, as related by Ernest Kurtz on page 29 of Not-God, he said:
I called Henrietta because I needed another alcoholic. I needed you Bob, probably a lot more than you’ll ever need me. So, thanks a lot for hearing me out. I know now that I’m not going to take a drink, and I’m grateful to you.
This especially captivated Dr. Bob’s interest, hooked him, and instead of only staying for the 15 minutes he had intended, he ended up talking with Bill for some four hours that evening. After Bill told his story of alcoholic debauchery, Dr. Bob shared with Bill his story as well. Thus, for the second time the human power of alcoholics sharing their stories with each other occurred. As Ernest Kurtz sums it on page 35 of Not-God:
Wilson told hopelessness rather than preached conversion, and he told by using his own story, his own experience, the literal facts of his own life, rather than by offering abstract theory or even scientific facts.
Later, after Dr. Bob had recovered from his last binge and made his amends, Bill and Dr. Bob agreed they needed to help another alcoholic. A nurse at Akron Hospital introduced them to Bill D., a prominent Akron lawyer when sober, but also a raging drunk, who had been hospitalized numerous times. Dr. Bob paid for a private room in Akron Hospital, so that he and Bill could share the human power of their stories of stopping drinking with Bill D.
As related in Not-God on page 39, Bill D. excitedly told his wife after several visits, “If Bill and Bob can do it, I can do it. Maybe we can all do together what we could not do separately.”
Thus, began the first group of drunks that would evolve into Alcoholics Anonymous. And so it continues down to the present day with AA groups meeting all over the world where AA members still share their stories of experience, strength and hope with each other, so they can stop drinking and recover. In other words, the human power of alcoholics sharing our stories with each other enables us, a day at a time, to recover.
The element of doubt expressed in (b) above was likewise continued in the evolution of the Twelve Traditions during the 1940s and 1950s. If the Steps explain “How It Works”, the Traditions delineate why the AA program works. Tradition Two also includes an element of uncertainty. It does not read that AA’s sole authority is a loving God as He does, or will, express Himself in our group conscience – rather, it reads, “a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience.”
A group conscience, of course, is the consensus of the human beings, who are members of the AA group. It expresses the human power that evolves among the members of the group as they consider and decide how best to carry the message of recovery to alcoholics who attend their group meetings.
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It’s always been my belief that the primary essence of the recovery process in AA can be found in this dynamic of alcoholics sharing their stories of recovery with other members at AA meetings. When an alcoholic shares with other alcoholics her or his experience, strength and hope – in other words, the Good Orderly Direction of recovery – the human power of identification through our shared language of the heart enables AA members to help each other get and stay sober. Ernie Kurtz describes the process on page 204 of Not-God:
As program, AA teaches that the physical, mental and spiritual components of each alcoholic’s life are mutually connected… But AA is also fellowship, and as such it teaches that it is with others rather than as individual that one treats self healthfully.
The first atheist in AA, Jim Burwell, describes in his story, “The Vicious Cycle”, in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th editions of the Big Book the importance of his connection to the human power of the group:
I did like these new friends because, again, they were like me. They had also been periodic big shots who had goofed out repeatedly at the wrong time… for a long time the only Higher Power I could concede was the power of the group, but this was far more than I had ever recognized before, and it was at least a beginning. It was also an ending, for never since June 16, 1938, have I had to walk alone.
It’s always been my belief that the stories in the back of the Big Book along with Bill’s story in Chapter 1 are much more effective in demonstrating “How It Works” than the rest of the material in the first 164 pages.
Here’s how Glen F. Chestnut, moderator of the AA History Lovers Group describes it:
“Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.” It is in the reciting of them that we find ourselves contacting the spiritual power which can transform our lives. One can investigate early AA spiritual concepts and ideas, philosophy, sociological structures, and psychological theories, and analyze all of these at great length. But telling stories – and listening to them – is far more important and basic, because this is the way the message is really passed on, and the context in which the deepest spiritual insights are revealed.
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At our convention in Santa Monica last November, I was struck by a comment Eric C. made. A 30 year combat veteran of the U.S. Marines, he compared the camaraderie within an AA group to the esprit de corps he experienced with his Marine Corps units during service in three wars. Alcoholics, like soldiers in combat, survive largely due to the strength of the human power of our esprit de corps.
Theologians and ardent believers may speculate about the First Cause being some sort of deity – nevertheless, the agency of survival by alcoholics in recovery, like soldiers in combat, is the tangible, observable, experienced human connection, the human power of alcoholics with each other.
My experience of the human power of a group of people organized around a common goal or purpose is not limited only to AA. I have experienced similar dynamics resulting from the power of humans to successfully collaborate together to achieve common goals in other endeavors.
I played high school football in Jackson, Mississippi, for a small Catholic high school in the middle of the protestant Bible belt. Our teams were not only scant in the number of players compared to other teams we played, we were also considerably smaller – we were outweighed by an average of 25 to 30 pounds per man. Nevertheless, our coach, Bill Raphael, a legendary Mississippi high school coach, was able to inspire and motivate us to overachieve despite our limitations. At the end of each winning season, we would play a post-season bowl game in which he pitted us against teams ranked at least one or two classes above our level of competition. Coach Raphael was able to elicit from us a combined team effort of human power that resulted in us also winning three football bowl games.
Both in high school and college I was also actively involved in theatre productions, both acting and directing. As well, for ten years following college, I sought a career in the theatre, working in regional theaters and Off Broadway. After a long and arduous rehearsal period, when a theatre company gels into an effective ensemble performance, the results, both for audiences, as well as for members of the company, can be magical, if not downright miraculous! The same phenomenon occurs from the human power of musicians or dancers in performance to deeply move themselves and those who experience them.
It’s evident throughout the history of our species that the human power of a group of people dedicated to a common purpose is ubiquitous. I admire the notable quote by Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.
* * *
From AA’s earliest days the human power of sponsorship has been an integral part of AA’s recovery program. The AA publication Living Sober on page 26 relates that, in the early days, hospitals in Akron and New York would admit alcoholics if a sober AA member would agree to sponsor them. Here’s how Living Sober describes the early process of sponsorship:
The sponsor took the patient to the hospital, visited him or her regularly, was present when the patient was discharged, and took the patient home and then to the AA meeting. At the meeting, the sponsor introduced the newcomer to other happily non drinking alcoholics. All through the early months of recovery, the sponsor stood by, ready to answer questions, or to listen whenever needed.
Dr. Bob paid to move Bill D. to a private room for the talks he and Bill had with him.
Throughout his life, until he died in 1966, Bill always referred to Ebby as “Ebby, my sponsor”, which he did in the Memorial Article to Ebby in the June, 1966 issue of The Grapevine. In his book, Ebby, the Man Who Sponsored Bill W., Mel B. describes how Bill financially supported – in the parlance of today’s recovery, enabled – Ebby all throughout his life, even when he was notoriously and obnoxiously drunk, which he often was.
Nevertheless, Bill continued not only to help support Ebby, he also paid for him to attend several AA Conventions. Ebby experienced his longest period of sobriety for seven years in Dallas, Texas. However, after the death of a girlfriend, he again relapsed. Bill continued to help him, arranging through the AA Board of Trustees for a stipend, so he could live the last two years of his life at McPike’s Farm, near Ballston Spa, NY, one of the early “Drunk Farms” for alcoholics. Ebby died sober of a stroke March 21, 1966.
In a sense, Dr. Bob and Bill co-sponsored each other, developing a deep friendship, as they worked with alcoholics to establish AA along with other members from the first two AA groups in Akron and New York. This was during the period when the Big Book was written to spread their message of recovery to other alcoholics. They continued to sponsor each other while collaborating to guide AA’s early evolution during the 1940s, when the Twelve Traditions were conceived up until Dr. Bob died on November 16, 1950.
The History of Sponsorship in AA
In February of 1939, the Works Publishing Company distributed 400 copies of the draft manuscript of what would become Alcoholics Anonymous to all the then recovering alcoholics in Akron and New York who had been involved in the collaborative writing project. Bill and Dr. Bob wanted to get final editorial sign-off from members for what would become the basic text of AA. To insure there were no obvious misstatements, they also sought editorial advice from prominent members in the medical and publishing fields, as well as eminent religious leaders. This effort resulted in three significant editorial revisions.
First, as Ernie Kurtz notes on page 75 of Not-God, a New Jersey psychiatrist, Dr. Howard, recommended that all declaratives, such as “you must” be changed to suggestions, such as “we have” or “we tried.” He noted that alcoholics have always been preached to without much success, proposing that suggestions might be more effective instead of finger-wagging directions.
Second, Bill, to accommodate Hank P. and Jim B., toned down to some degree the ardent religious tone of “How It Works” as described on page 167 of Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, published in 1957:
In Step Two we decided to describe God as a “Power greater than ourselves.” In Steps Three and Eleven we inserted the words “God as we understood Him.” From Step Seven we deleted the expression “on our knees.” And, as a lead-in sentence to all the steps we wrote these words: “Here are the steps we took which are suggested as a Program of Recovery.” AA’s Twelve Steps were to be suggestions only. Such were the final concessions to those of little faith or no faith; this was the great contribution of our atheists and agnostics. They had widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of belief or lack of belief.
A third significant editorial revision was to delete this outlandish direction at the end of the (a), (b) and (c): “If you are not convinced on these vital issues, you ought to re-read the book to this point or else throw it away!”
* * *
And so, Alcoholics Anonymous was finally published on April 10, 1939. It was soon nicknamed the Big Book, since it was designed using thicker paper and larger margins than usual, so buyers would get their money’s worth.
Nowhere in the first 164 pages of the Big Book is there specific mention of sponsorship. However, Chapter 7, “Working With Others”, contains a number of suggestions and guidelines for helping alcoholics. Herein follows some of the language conceived by the first successfully sober folks in Akron and New York:
- “Don’t start out as an evangelist or reformer. Unfortunately a lot of prejudice exists.” (p. 89)
- “If the man be agnostic or atheist, make it emphatic that he does not have to agree with your conception of God.” (p. 93, emphasis in original)
- “It is important for him to realize that your attempt to pass this on to him plays a vital part in your own recovery. Actually, he may be helping you more than you are helping him.” (p. 94)
- “Never talk down to an alcoholic from any moral or spiritual hilltop; simply lay out the kit of spiritual tools for his inspection… If he thinks he can do the job in some other way, or prefers some other spiritual approach, encourage him to follow his own conscience.” (p. 95)
Nevertheless, the overall message of Chapter 7, “Working With Others” – also evident throughout much of the rest of the first 164 pages – is summed up on page 98: “Burn the idea into the consciousness of every man that he can get well regardless of anyone. The only condition is that he trust God and clean house.”
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In 1940, the Akron No. 1 AA Group, also known as the King School group, published a pamphlet entitled, “A Manual for AA”. It was described as “a practical guide for new members and sponsors of new members of Alcoholics Anonymous”. Mostly written by Dr. Bob and other original members still closely affiliated with the Oxford Group, it is much more authoritative and declarative in style than the Big Book. It reintroduces some of the concepts deleted from the multilith copy of the Big Book, urging newcomers to follow the “rules” of AA. The primary rules are total abstinence and studying the Big Book so it “becomes your second Bible”. If not, the newcomer may relapse and thus lose membership in AA and any position within AA they may hold.
Like the Big Book, the pamphlet is directed primarily towards “real alcoholics”, those so-called low bottom drunks who have lost everything, those who suffer from “pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization”.
Much of it is devoted to qualifying the newcomer to insure that he is such a hardcore case, thereby ready to follow not only the Twelve Steps but also the Four Absolutes of the Oxford Group. The newcomer is urged to devote no less than 100% effort – in other words, per Oxford Group parlance, newcomers are to be Maximum.
It’s emphasized that although women may also be alcoholic, this pamphlet is for men only. Further, it warns that when a woman is present, including family members, men alcoholics tend to lose their focus on sobriety, tending to slack off doing what’s necessary to maintain sobriety. In other words, they become less than “Maximum”. Sexist? Just a tad.
The sponsor is urged to assume full responsibility for the newcomer to include, if necessary, paying for his hospital stay. The sponsor is directed to “Encourage him to look up to you. Your responsibility never ends”.
It has a much more explicit tone of traditional Christian ideology than the Big Book was revised to reflect. In addition to the Big Book and the pamphlet, the sponsor is urged to ensure the newcomer has a copy of both the Bible and the Upper Room, a daily devotional magazine published by the United Methodist Church. The newcomer is exhorted:
There is the Bible you haven’t opened for years. Get acquainted with it. Read it with an open mind. You will find things that will amaze you. You will be convinced that certain passages were written with you in mind. Read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew V, VI and VII). Read St. Paul’s inspired essay on love (I Corinthians XIII). Read the Book of James. These readings are brief but so important.
The newcomer is encouraged to “read Alcoholics Anonymous and read it again so that It will become your second Bible”. The sponsor in addition to instructing the newcomer about the Twelve Steps and Four Absolutes, also directs him to start each day with a quiet period of contemplation for guidance and prayer, after reading the Upper Room or other devotional material.
The newcomer is mandated, “Keep these rules in mind. As long as you obey them you will be on firm ground. But the least deviation – and you are vulnerable. It is those who try to cut corners who find themselves back in their old drunken state”.
It is not surprising that Dr. Bob felt this way about sponsorship, after all at the end of his story in the Big Book he writes: “If you think you are an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptic, or have any form of intellectual pride which keeps you accepting what is in this book, I feel sorry for you… Your Heavenly Father will never let you down!”
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The rapid growth of AA in Cleveland resulted in an “AA Sponsorship Pamphlet” written in 1944 by Clarence S., who had been sponsored by Dr. Bob. This pamphlet was directed to sponsors only, but reiterated much of the material found in Akron’s “A Manual for Alcoholics Anonymous”. The notable exception was deletion of any references to the King James Bible or the Upper Room, which were Protestant publications, not appropriate for the many Catholics in Cleveland who sought recovery in AA.
Clarence S., following the 1937 example of early AA members in New York, separated AA meetings from the Oxford Group in 1939, since parish priests forbade Catholic alcoholics to attend what was clearly a Protestant Christian movement. Besides, as he informed Dr. Bob, “They use the wrong Bible”. Otherwise, it recommends a very directive approach to instructing the newcomer how to do the Twelve Steps and how to live in accordance with the Four Absolutes. It emphasizes the absolute necessity of belief in a Power greater than oneself that “is the heart of the AA plan”.
Clarence S. settled in Florida in the 1960s, where he became a 32-degree Mason and one of AA’s first and most popular circuit speakers, leading meetings and AA retreats throughout North America. After his third marriage in 1971 to Grace, an ardent Christian, he became quite religious, quoting the New Testament at meetings and retreats, according to his biographer Mitchell K. Sponsorship as promoted in Akron and Cleveland was a predominant theme of many of these retreats.
During the 70s, when I was getting sober in New York City, I remember Clarence being quite controversial within AA – some members worshipped him as the cult leader of the one and only true AA, while others vehemently believed, myself included, that he was inappropriately imposing Christian religiosity on AA, thereby egregiously violating our professed tradition of being spiritual, not religious, in accordance with the AA Preamble, which states that “AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution…”.
The dogma reflected in these two documents and by Clarence S. form the core ideology of what Ernie Kurtz in Not-God describes on pages 301-302 as “Akron-style AA”. It also forms the basis of the growing movement within North America the past 30 to 40 years to reflect primarily, if not only, an evangelical, pietistic, Christian doctrine, as evidenced by the Back to the Basics and Simply AA brands of AA. It’s the impetus behind the delisting of atheist and agnostic AA groups.
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In 1976, GSO published a pamphlet, Questions and Answers on Sponsorship, with revisions made by the General Service Conferences of 2004, 2005 and 2010. Herein follow some of the most pertinent guidelines discussed in the pamphlet as they differ from the Big Book, the Akron AA Manual, and the Cleveland pamphlet approach to sponsorship:
- The sponsor and the sponsored meet as equals (p. 7)
- Sponsorship responsibility is unwritten and informal (p. 8)
- There is no superior class or caste of sponsors in AA (p. 12)
- Encourage newcomers to go to a variety of different meetings and to get a number of different viewpoints about AA and literature (p. 13)
- Don’t impose personal views or beliefs or pretend to know all the answers (p. 14)
- There is no best, or single, way to sponsor. Be flexible and tolerant of whatever helps a newcomer. People of many faiths, or no faith at all, can get sober in AA (p. 15)
- Firmness is best tempered by sympathy and understanding (p. 16)
- Sponsorship doesn’t mean forcing any specific interpretation of AA; many alcoholics maintain sobriety without personal belief (p. 21)
The GSO pamphlet on sponsorship offers a considerably more open, balanced and compassionate approach to helping others compared to the more doctrinaire views of the Big Book, Dr. Bob and Clarence S. It reflects a more humanitarian, egalitarian, benevolent view of how we in the AA Fellowship have evolved to help each other recover.
My Sponsor, Peter
We can see from this review of the history of sponsorship that there is a considerable range of different approaches and practices of sponsorship. Some take a very narrow, conservative view, trying to replicate how it was allegedly done by our earliest members in Akron, and others are much more progressive and non-directive in their approach.
In some groups I’ve attended certain people have reputations for being Big Book Nazis, whereas others have a much more loosey-goosey approach to sponsorship. One thing that especially puzzled me when I moved away from New York AA was when people would proudly refer not only to their sponsor, but to their grand-sponsor and great-grand-sponsor, etc. It took me a while to realize that what they were doing was tracing their lineage of sponsorship back to Clarence S., and thus directly to Dr. Bob. Many traditional, mainstream members of AA consider Dr. Bob to be, along with Clarence, the true and legitimate founders of AA, dismissing Bill and GSO as apostates.
To conclude this treatise, I want to relate my experience with sponsorship. In essence, I conclude that sponsorship is an endeavor which greatly enhances both the sponsor and the one sponsored. Both help and learn from each other.
Though I made several “half measures” with sponsorship during my first year of recovery to include one of the founders of Adult Children of Alcoholics, Tony A., who wrote “The Laundry List,” I didn’t deeply connect with a sponsor until early in my second year of recovery right after I discovered my second wife having an affair. I chose Peter to be my sponsor because he was back solidly in AA after a horrid relapse upon discovering his wife having an affair. I didn’t want to relapse !~!~!
Peter helped me to solidify my Higher Power as being AA, since he helped me accept that I could not stay sober without the Fellowship of other sober members in AA. He then suggested that I could make a decision to turn my will and life over to AA and the Fellowship, because I could tangibly experience that other members loved and cared for me. In short order, I finished a 4th Step, which I had been procrastinating about for several months, and soon thereafter shared a 5th Step with him.
Then we just stopped doing the Steps formally. Instead we deepened our friendship to include sharing a sober house on Fire Island for several summers. We spent hours discussing our spiritual pursuits. These included meditation, voluminous reading in the world’s spiritual traditions, astrology, yoga, New Thought, several New Age gurus and authors to include Ram Dass, Alan Watts, Bubba Free John, Werner Erhard, Marianne Williamson, Gary Zukov, Matthew Fox, Stanislav Grof and Shatki Gawain. During the 80s we also both became very involved with A Course In Miracles. Yup, we were prime examples of our “woo-woo” baby-boomer generation.
Essentially, we shared our experience, strength and hope with each other as equals, as peers, enabling both of us to stay sober for many years. We also shared our rage, anger, resentments, despair and dismay about what we judged to be mostly a messed up world and society, filled with injustice, suffering, poverty, and never-ending war.
Often we laughed, deep, raucous belly laughs, one of the most spiritual behaviors, I believe, we humans can experience together. Perhaps our deep and frequent bouts of laughter together were the most precious gifts we shared.
For the last ten years of his life Peter drank, more or less successfully. We stayed in regular contact even after he and his wife relocated to South Africa, where he died in August of 2006 from an aortic aneurysm. He remained until the day he died full of humor, hope, wonder and curiosity. Though he could be very dark, archly cynical and sarcastic at times, he was also full of awe, wonder and mostly great gratitude. I never stopped learning from his wisdom and sardonic acceptance of life as it is, always being considerably more grateful than despondent.
Like Bill did with Ebby, I have never stopped referring to Peter as my sponsor. The son of a street hooker in upper Manhattan during the late 30s and 40s, he lived a rich and full life, both in recovery and after he drank again. He was my sponsor for 33 years to whom I shall always be grateful. His humor, knowledge, wisdom and light-hearted approach to life and living always inspire me.
It still does, since I periodically communicate with him. On my MacBook Air is a 154-page document entitled “Missive to Peter”. In the mystery of the Kosmos – as the science of the recent blockbuster movie Interstellar hypothesizes – I magically believe he somehow hears me, and I also believe in some unknown, mysterious way he continues to commune with me. Hey, as an aging hippy baby-boomer I may have morphed into an agnostic atheist, but I’ll always be somewhat “woo-woo”!
Whenever I help others I remember with gratitude the memory and certainty of Peter’s human power which sustains my recovery today in my 43rd year of sobriety in AA as much as it ever did.
As well, I am sustained in continuing recovery today by everyone who shares in the several AA meetings I attend each week, whether they are new to recovery, coming back from a relapse, or have been fortunate like myself to have years in the ever-evolving process of recovery. I am newly inspired by the infinite variety of stories I hear in AA meetings, which demonstrate the human power of our shared recovery.
Thomas has written a number of article for AA Agnostica beginning with First AA Meetings way back in June of 2013. Religion has sometimes been on his mind and he has written two articles on the topic: One’s Religion is an Outside Issue (July, 2013) and A Fellowship of the Religious? (April, 2014).
He also reviewed John L.’s book, A Freethinker in AA (May 2014) and wrote about one of the traditions: Tradition Two: A Flaw in AA Service Structure? (September, 2014). Thomas played an active role at the WAFT IAAC convention in Santa Monica, participating in and moderating workshops, and writing about the convention for AA Agnostica.