Tradition 1 tells us that AA must have unity in order to survive. Tradition 5 helps us to achieve that by defining the primary purpose behind which we can unite. However, this is not enough to help alcoholics to stay united. Even if we are agreed on our purpose, there is the question of how the group fulfils it. We will be more effective if we pull together, so each group must address such things as: what language will we use? What is the format of the meeting? Will we invite speakers or will it be a discussion format? How long should people speak for? Will it be smoking or non-smoking? So we need a mechanism for finding consensus. On the face of it, this is a difficult prospect. Alcoholics are capable of generating hours-long debate over anything from questions about the format, to important issues such as whether or not the group should serve chocolate-chip cookies. The group conscience exists to help us settle such matters amicably.
Tradition Two is unusual in that its longest form reads just as it is on the scroll: 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.
No meeting is a complete free for all. Every group has practices that it expects those who attend to conform to. We tend to notice the formats of those that differ from the norm in our area, but in fact every meeting has rules that are generally followed. For example, most people respect the idea that only one person at a time speaks, and that we don’t speak twice before everybody who wants to gets a chance to speak once. Most groups have distinct times when people share and many have set times when coffee is served. We should respect each group’s format. When everyone in the group puts aside their personal preferences and acts in conformity to the decisions of the group conscience, they are acts of personal humility that enable a loving God to work through us and our group.
The group conscience is usually taken as the majority vote of the people who consider that group their home group. However, if it is to have the authority of a loving God, it should be an informed group conscience. The conscience is informed when it relies upon the experience of those within the group. The groups that work well are those that naturally look to their most experienced members for leadership (and contrary to what we sometimes hear, there are leaders in AA). This has to be a process of trust. Our leaders are those whom the group chooses to trust. The old-timers should be responsible and make their voice clearly heard; then they should sit back and let the conscience decide. Writing about the old-timers in the 12x12, Bill W writes: “When sorely perplexed, the group inevitably turns to them for advice. They become the voice of the group conscience; in fact they are the true voice of Alcoholics Anonymous. They do not drive by mandate, they lead by example.” This is how we have leaders who are trusted servants.
Alcoholics, in common with many, find it very difficult to express contrary opinions without things developing into clashes of personality, even if they don’t start out that way. We have found that in the AA group, the greatest harmony is achieved when there is quiet discussion amongst ourselves before the matter is debated formerly and openly. If the main protagonists can reach agreement so that a motion is either withdrawn or passed unopposed, it will avoid disagreement in open forum that in contentious issues can lead to disunity and the development of factions. When factions develop, each spends time trying to score points over the other, the newcomer is neglected, and it will bring the group down.
There are times, however, when people really should speak up regardless, and those are when the Traditions are compromised. At service committees, such as intergroup, Region and conference, there is no group conscience because these are not AA groups. But there is what is called a collective conscience of the groups that these committees serve. Slightly different considerations apply in the formation of a collective conscience of a service committee than for the formation of a group conscience. The mechanism for the formation of this collective conscience is described in Tradition 9 and the 12 Concepts for World Service (see later).
Once the group conscience has made the decision, then we should conform to it. We don’t have to agree with it, but we should strive to accept it. Also, we should respect the customs of groups that we visit. If the custom of that group is not my liking, I can decide not to go again, but I should not subsequently complain about the group at other meetings. I should mind my own business.
Nevertheless, there will be occasions when people cannot accept the group conscience. Sometimes with good reason, for example they might feel that the Traditions are compromised: and sometimes with bad reason, for example if a decision has not gone my way I might complain that others are “controlling” the group (which usually means that I don’t like it when the group decides to follow the opinion of someone other than me). Two things can happen: first, I could stay and complain; or second, I can leave the group. It is often said that all you need to start a meeting is a resentment and a coffee pot. Once factions have developed it is often for the best if one of the parties leaves and sets up elsewhere. Now there are two meetings where previously there was one. Each is doing it differently, but each group is united. Provided each group now respects the autonomy of the other and doesn’t go around badmouthing them, AA as whole has benefited.
This principle of autonomy allows unity with diversity. This is what Tradition 4 is about: With respect to its own affairs, each AA group should be responsible to no other authority than its own conscience. But when its plans concern the welfare of neighboring groups also, those groups ought to be consulted. And no group, regional committee, or individual should ever take any action that might greatly affect AA as a whole without conferring with the trustees of the General Service Board. On such issues our common welfare is paramount.
We are all guilty of it at times, but we should watch our tendency to gossip about individuals and groups as it is destructive to the unity of AA as a whole. It breaks Traditions 4 and 1 (as well as just being plain rude). Tradition 4 also means that a group is not answerable to any other group, to intergroup, to the General Service committees, conference or the General Service Board, except when other groups or AA as a whole are affected. This Tradition does not say that we cannot do things that affect AA as a whole, it says that we should consult those affected first. This has happened many times and AA guidelines indicate where groups have permission to do things that affect AA as a whole. Some of these guidelines appear, for example, in the AA Service Manual and 12 Concepts for World Service. For example, Concept 7 says that AA groups are entitled to withhold money from the rest of AA if they wish to.