The Great Debate and the Future of A.A.
By Bill W., General Service Conference, 1954
This is the closing hour of the Conference, one of the greatest hours that I have ever lived because, I believe, it marks the date when this Society has really gone on its own, and will become forever saved from any or all power that may threaten it.
Each Conference has its own distinct personality and achievement. More than any other, this Conference, I believe, had confidence. More than any other, it envisioned its responsibility now and for all time to come. Confidence and responsibility have become the keynotes.
As recently as six or eight years ago, my own confidence in our destiny was terribly shaken. Among us there had arisen a terrible risk. Like all of the risks and struggles in A .A., however, this was concerned with the universal question:
“What is best for A.A.?” The debate was about whether or not we would have a Conference. Back in those days the Traditions had taken form and had just been put on paper, but there still remained this terrific question of how to guarantee our overall function, how to create a structure that could withstand power drivers and ravages of time and of adverse circumstance.
So I took the problem to the Trustees of The Alcoholic Foundation, the board of A.A. members and friends of A.A. that we had put together in 1938. We were sitting there as an incorporated board, providing service that would enable this Society to hold together to carry its message; and we still assume the right to be the guarantors and guardians of its tradition and general welfare. We had aggregated a self—assumed authority, and quite properly during the infancy of the movement. We had aggregated the authority to print the literature, to help resolve group problems, to be answerable to the public, to administer your funds, to provide your mirror of A.A. life in a monthly magazine. All of this authority we had simply assumed and by common consent in 1945 the movement was only too glad to have us do this job.
But the day might come when a great blunder would be made; when there might be a great scandal, when there might be a great religious or political division. And the day might come when from sheer remoteness and lack of interest or understanding, the support of this overall function might melt away. Moreover, the movement, out in the group and area level, had begun to say that they wished to take their affairs into their own hands, even as men coming of age.
So the debate turned on how A.A. as a whole could take its affairs into its own hands and be secure. How could Service Headquarters and the Board of Trustees, custodians of the vital authority the movement had delegated, and with demonstrated capacity to perform movement-wide services – how could they be linked to the movement and to the world outside? When I began to appreciate how little real linkage there was, I get scared to death. I went to my friends the Trustees and said: “There has to be a hook—up. This movement has now grown to the point where there must be some means by which it can look after its own affairs, if it wants to. And even if it doesn’t want to, it is entitled to a look.”
Well, my old friends said to me what many an old—timer around A.A. still says: “Let’s keep it simple.” To me, the real issue was: should we keep it simple by getting you people in here to see that it lasted, or would we make it complicated by keeping it so simple that it would break apart. The result of this debate, which lasted until late 1950, was the Third Legacy Program, in which the General Service Conference is the vital force.
To overcome the objection that there would be terrible politics in the selection of Conference Delegates at the grass roots, we had to go in for a species of political invention. We had to eliminate hotly contested elections that leave behind hostile minorities. And we had to do away with personal nominations from the floor. The final process did just that. It was the process that got you here feeling like servants, not senators -— and without leaving much, if any, hostility behind you.
Then came another question: How would the Delegates be related to the Board of Trustees who already had legal rights, who possessed responsibility for our public relations, who had title to our publications and who served as custodians of A.A. funds? Legally, what power could the Conference exercise over all these things? What influence could you have upon the selection of future A.A. Trustees themselves?
The answer is that, legally, the Conference could not take away the authority granted to the Trustees, if the Trustees chose to hold on to it. But, as you know, the Trustees have wisely consented to make themselves amenable to the desires of the Conference. They said, and rightly: “Let us keep the legal form of the things we need to transact business. But let us, on any two-thirds vote of this Conference, in which we also participate, be traditionally under a mandate from this Conference. Let us be part of this Conference, but a minority, and let us hereafter, when we name successors to A.A. Trustees, submit such names to a committee of the Conference. And when an out-of-town A.A. Trustee is sought, let us make appropriate inquiries within A.A. in the region under consideration.”
And thus, in general principle, there came into being the structure of the Third Legacy. Today in the last hour of the time of this experiment, I share with you the promise of its certain success and am more moved than at almost any time in my A.A. life. The moment of the transfer of authority to serve, from us old-timers to the movement, is at hand and will be certified, let us trust, in 1955.
We have had under construction all these nearly 20 years a way of life, which we might say is housed in the A.A. Cathedral of Spirit. Standing on its floor are 120,000 who stand in safety because the Twelve Steps, the principles on which we stand and by which we live, are inscribed thereon. And this floor is of ever—expanding, illimitable dimensions. Four years ago in Cleveland, with the validation of the Twelve Traditions, we realized that we had placed 12 wonderful buttresses as insurance that the great walls of the Cathedral would not fall. Now we are at work on the final construction, the spire of our Cathedral of service, wherein shines the beacon light to those who are still in the dark. The work on the spire is not yet complete, but our confidence is that it will shine throughout the world, touching the most distant beachhead, for so long as God wants it.