Big Book Recovery

Working the 12 Step Programme

Traditions 3 & 5

Tradition 5 aims to unite us behind a common purpose and Tradition 3 reinforces this by dealing with a special case where groups have been diverted from their primary purpose in the past. Consider first the long form of Tradition Five from the appendix in the Big Book: Each Alcoholics Anonymous group ought to be a spiritual entity having but one primary purpose — that of carrying its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.

The phrase ‘Its message’ here means AA’s message. It is defined by the preamble which is read out at every meeting: “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.” This indicates why it was advisable for many of us not to share in a meeting until we have all three to offer: experience and strength and hope, rather than just airing our own emotions and grievances. Many in AA share experience, but it is often forgotten that it is only that experience which reveals our strength and hope that is to be offered in a meeting. And that experience, strength and hope should all be directed, as the preamble tells us, towards helping others to recover from our common problem – alcoholism.

Tradition Five is a reason why someone who has had a drink should be stopped from speaking in a meeting. Someone who is drunk can be helped at a meeting (after all Bill W was drunk when got the message from his sponsor, Ebby), but they cannot give what they haven’t got. And so if they have no sobriety, they cannot help others through their sharing.

Also, if anyone is disruptive in a meeting and diverting it from its primary purpose, they should be asked to be quiet or leave. If they continue to be disruptive, ultimately the police can be called to forcibly remove them. We have always found the police helpful in such cases.

There is another revealing phrase in the long form of this Tradition. We are told that each group is a “spiritual entity”. An entity is something that is complete in itself. We can test whether or not a group fulfils this criterion by asking the question: “If all groups did as we did, would all alcoholics get the chance to stay sober?” Each group should aim, through a combination of sharing and personal sponsorship, to enable any suffering alcoholic to receive the full AA message. Sometimes we hear, for example, that it’s okay to have meeting exclusively for men because women can go to other meetings. However, if all groups were Men’s Meetings then women would have nowhere to go in AA. By this argument, such a meeting does not conform to Tradition Five.

This last point was considered so important that Tradition 3 was created to lend it extra weight. Read now the long form of Tradition 3 from the Big Book: Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover. Nor ought AA membership ever depend upon money or conformity. Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves and AA group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation.

Sometimes there is an argument for, for example, a Men’s meeting is that it is part of a multimeeting group and the group as a whole, when all its meetings are taken into consideration (say Men’s, Women’s, Young Peoples, straight AA meeting), can be that spiritual entity which welcomes all alcoholics. We do not accept this argument. There is a distinction between a meeting and a group in organisational terms (a group has a single GSR and there may be several meetings that use the same GSR) but in this particular context there is no distinction. The tradition says: ‘Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves a group’. So in this context it would be an equivalent statement to say that every meeting must be a spiritual entity as well. As an individual, the single meeting that is aimed at one sort of alcoholic might be my home group. If this is so, then when I carry the message by sharing and doing service, I am restricting my usefulness to only certain alcoholics. As we can only get what we give away, I am necessarily limiting the quality of my sobriety – if I am placing limitations on who will hear my message, then I am limiting the benefits I can get in return. I am not giving it away as freely as I would be at a meeting that opened its doors willingly to all alcoholics.

So it is clear: every single meeting should be open to every single type of alcoholic. In respect of alcoholics, we want to be inclusive, not exclusive. No alcoholic should be barred, or even discouraged from going to any AA meeting because of whatever else they are (although they can be barred for what they do when they get there, as mentioned before). For example, some meetings in Great Britain aimed at a particular type of alcoholic, for example, a gay group, must have the words “non restrictive” included in the meeting description. The phrase is included to comply with Traditions 5 and 3. However, there is still a debate regarding this matter. Some would say, along with the writer, that even with the phrase “non restrictive” the effect is still to favour some alcoholics and discourage others, and so is against the spirit of the tradition which says specifically that membership should never depend on conformity.

Coming back to that phrase in the long form of Tradition Three: “any two or three people gathered together to form an AA group may call themselves an AA group provided that they have no other affiliation.” This means that any group will go into the directory as long as it decides to call itself an AA group. They do not even have to conform to the traditions. The exception is if there is an affiliation to another organisation or class of people, actual or implied (this is clarified further in the long form of Tradition 6). For example, in London there are some meetings that will only admit doctors and others that will admit only lawyers. This is considered an implied affiliation to their respective professions. So AA says to them, of course you are free to meet, but you can’t call yourselves an AA meeting and we will not put you in the AA directory. Those who see Men’s, Womens, Young People’s, Gay and Lesbian meetings as having a similar affiliation, argue that they should be removed from the directory too (a point hotly disputed by the groups themselves). In reporting this, there is no suggestion here that any AA member is anything but genuine in wishing to see the Traditions applied, or in wanting best for all alcoholics. More often that not, the difference arises not because any party has a lack of regard for the Traditions, but because of an honest difference in how the spirit of the Traditions can be applied.

There is one other thing. Tradition Three, states in its full form, that AA groups are for those who wish to recover from alcoholism. So a meeting is for those who can say they are alcoholics (or those who think that they might be). A combination of Tradition 3 and Tradition 5 reinforces the preamble and Step 12. An AA meeting is a place where one drunk helps another – this is how we solve our ‘common problem’, as referred to in the Preamble. The reason we keep going to meetings is because Step 12 tells us we must pass on what we have received. In accordance with this no one should share at an AA meeting until they are able to identify themselves as an alcoholic. And we should identify ourselves as an alcoholic only. We should not, for example, call ourselves ‘addict’ or even ‘addict/alcoholic’. If we broaden the scope from our focus on alcoholism alone, we are being diverted from our primary purpose and reducing each member’s opportunity to practise Step 12; and accordingly, reducing our chance to stay sober. Anyone can be a member of AA if the say they are and so when anyone in AA says: ‘My name is [NAME] and I am an alcoholic.’ No one can tell me I’m not.

PLEASE NOTE! This site uses cookies and similar technologies.

Our policy on our cookie use is available Learn more

I understand