When I came to Alcoholics Anonymous I asked a man to sponsor me and with his help I took the twelve steps. On their completion I found that I had recovered, and at this point my sponsor encouraged me to take responsibility for my membership of AA and my Homegroup by reading the 12 Traditions and trying to develop an understanding of how they are applied, in the running of our groups and the undertaking of our various levels of service.
The fourth tradition – Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole – is one that at first glance appeared quite clear, but which upon further consideration has required a bit of thought, reading and discussion to fully understand.
Initially, tradition four implied to me that any AA group can do exactly as it pleases, providing that in doing so neither other groups nor AA as a whole are compromised or threatened. Basically, I was right – or at least on the right track – for as Bill simplifies it at the opening of his piece on this tradition in the 12 and 12: ‘Autonomy is a ten-dollar word. But in relation to us, it means very simply that every AA group can manage its affairs exactly as it pleases, except when AA as a whole is threatened’ (12 and 12: 150).
It wasn’t long however, before I realised that the challenge in developing a working understanding of this tradition lay in understanding what, in the context if AA, might constitute ‘affecting other groups or AA as a whole’.
Again, initially, it occurred to me that pretty much everything that an AA group does could be seen to ‘affect’ AA in the wider sense, simply by dint of the newcomers ‘impression’ of AA being largely determined by the group, or groups, that they first attend. Similarly, could not many of the actions many AA groups take, be seen to ‘affect’ other groups? In my group, members sometimes share that ‘this is a great group,’ that ‘I love this group,’ or that ‘I dread to think what could have happened if I had not taken the 12 steps when I arrived in AA.’ Does this mean that they are suggesting that their group is ‘better’ than other groups, or that a group that does not advocate taking the steps as soon as possible is ‘wrong’, and are thereby ‘affecting’ them? No, it does not – this was not the sort of thing that Bill was referring to at all. When people share such things they are simply expressing enthusiasm for AA and the group in which they found sobriety and trying to impart to the newcomer the importance they place on taking the steps to find recovery.
When Bill talks about the principle of ‘autonomy’, he is referring primarily to the notion of ‘affiliation’. He explains in his writings the way in which the fledgling fellowship learned through (often bitter) experience that along with its ‘singleness of purpose’, AA’s principle of ‘non-affiliation’ is amongst the most vital in ensuring its long-term survival. This draws things close to the territory of the sixth tradition, but in the context of the fourth, Bill makes it clear that the main way in which a group’s autonomy is compromised is through its conscience and governance becoming ‘affiliated’ with something, or somebody, outside the sphere of its own direct membership. This is why a group ought not accept funds from non-AA members or outside sources (Tradition 7), or become embroiled in matters of public policy around, for example, education and the medical treatment of alcoholics (Tradition 10).
In simple terms, ‘autonomy’ refers to a ‘self-governing community’. Anything that might negate an AA group's ability to operate in this way, such as influence from, or obligation to, outside agencies or policies, should be avoided.
Bill does go on to say however, that the AA groups right to ‘autonomy’ and governance through its own conscience should not incur ‘great injury’ to AA as a whole. It would seem to me that by far the simplest and easiest way to ensure that a group does not – in its actions and procedures – greatly injure AA, is to abide by the principles of all 12 Traditions. A group who, for example, decided that it would accept large financial contributions from outside sources to further its 12th Step work, and then, for whatever reason closed down, with the money ‘disappearing’ in the process and invoking the wrath of those who made the donations, could very well cause a public (and legal) scandal that would injure AA a great deal. Similarly, a group that decided to produce, publish and distribute a bi-monthly magazine, detailing all they ‘don’t like’ or ‘disagree with’ regarding the supposed actions and policies of other groups, might very well provoke a public break-down in unity (Tradition 1) that could have grave consequences for the fellowship as a whole.
In short, the fourth tradition suggests that each AA group maintains the right to determine its own practices and policies through the workings of its own group conscience. This right ought not however be extended to the taking of actions that involve establishing outside affiliations or allegiances, or making policy decisions that veer so far from the spirit or AA’s traditions that injury to AA and/or other groups' results.
Ultimately, as Bill puts it, under the auspices of Tradition 4, each group has the ‘right to be wrong’. I may not like how another group does things – I may even disapprove, but short of the above, they have every right to proceed as they wish, and should not be excluded for doing so.
Plymouth Road to Recovery Group