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I know long-time AA members who have never been to an intergroup meeting; they have preserved their serenity at the expense of their spiritual growth! I had my first experience of intergroup, or intergrumble as it is sometimes wryly called, just over a year into recovery. I'd been appointed group service representative (GSR) by my home group and went to the intergroup meeting on a freezing January Saturday afternoon. Even before the meeting began there was a heated discussion about whether or not to have a window open. The smokers wanted it kept shut to keep out the cold - the non-smokers wanted it open to let the smoke out! Voices and tempers were raised. I thought to myself, 'AA meetings are not supposed to be like this.' There is an unwritten etiquette about an AA meeting. We share our experience, strength and hope, telling what it was like, what happened and what it's like now. People usually listen respectfully and the speaker is not interrupted. It's not always like that in our business meetings. People have conflicting opinions about how best to carry the message to the still suffering alcoholic; as the debate intensifies we sometimes experience the resurgence of the alcoholic ego.
I was vice chair, and then chair of an Intergroup when I sometimes had to remind the meeting that we could disagree without being disagreeable. AA co-founder Bill W. was relaxed about a vigorous exchange of views. Commenting on the turbulent 1958 US General Service Conference he wrote, 'If individuals were deeply disturbed - I say, "This is fine." What parliament, what republic, what democracy has not been disturbed? Friction of opposing viewpoints is the very modus operandi on which they proceed. Then what should we be afraid of?' (From As Bill Sees It). In Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age he wrote, 'Within AA, I suppose we shall always quarrel a good bit. Mostly, I think, about how to do the greatest good for the greatest number of drunks ... Surmounting such problems in AA's rather rugged school of life, is a healthy exercise.' In his essay on the Second Tradition in 12 Steps and 12 Traditions Bill compares what he calls 'elder statesmen', old-timers who give up office willingly and are content to 'sit quietly on the sidelines awaiting developments', with the 'bleeding deacon' - who 'is surely convinced the group cannot get along without him ... nearly every old-timer has gone through this process in some degree.' After rotating out of office I continued to attend intergroup meetings as a GSR or observer and was once called a bleeding deacon by a combustible chap who disagreed violently with me over a particular course of action intergroup was discussing. (He did have the grace to apologise). We both desired the same aim - to help other alcoholics to escape their death sentence, as we had; it was just that we had different ideas on how best to do it.
Some friends tell me they don't want to get involved with intergroup 'because of all the politics'. But intergroups are just one channel by which AA carries its message of recovery to the still suffering alcoholic. There are about 130 intergroups in Britain, from, for example, one with as few as eight groups (Polish speaking intergroup) to Manchester with 90 groups. Intergroups and other service entities do what the groups can't do on their own. My last drink in 1984 resulted in a suicide attempt and I ended up in hospital. Before being discharged, a psychiatrist told me I should try AA so when I got home I looked up the AA number in the phone book. I phoned the contact and he sent two chaps to 12 Step me. Today, AA has a national 24-hour helpline - no single group could possibly organise that. On holiday I take my Where to Find, AA's directory of all the groups in Britain and English-speaking Europe. Again, one group would be unable to gather all that information and publicise it. When I came to AA the internet was in its infancy but AA has to adapt to changes in society so Conference recommended setting up a website to carry the message. Over recent years more and more newcomers have arrived at meetings after logging on to the website and most regions and many intergroups also have their own online presence.
Groups, by sending their representatives to intergroups, regions and the annual Conference, share their combined experience, recommend changes to current practice, propose new ways to help the suffering alcoholic and provide the resources to achieve that aim as effectively and efficiently as possible. In AA's inverted pyramid of authority the alcoholic and non-alcoholic trustees on the General Service Board are trusted servants, they do not govern. And AA in Britain could not function without the dedicated staff at our General Service Office in York and two satellite offices in London and Glasgow.
In AA we travel light, but without a minimum of organisation there would be chaos and our message of liberation for those afflicted with alcoholism would not penetrate. As Bill W. pointed out, 'AA has always violently resisted the idea of any general organisation, yet, paradoxically, we have ever stoutly insisted on organising certain special services, mostly those absolutely necessary to effective and plentiful 12 Step work ... these service activities are very small by contrast with our main effort (i.e. carrying the message)' (Grapevine, August 1948).