Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Are New Approaches A Cure Or A Complication

I received an email from a friend the other day stating that I hadn’t posted anything in the past 6 weeks and asking if I was OK. A small part of my answer was that I had discussed most of my major pet peeves and my fires had cooled a little.

However, I do still have a little problem with what seems to be frantic attempts by many Lodges and Grand Lodges in the U.S. and England to try almost anything to reverse Freemasonry’s losses in membership.

Anyone who tries to keep up with Masonic news reads more and more articles like the excerpts below.

“Petersfield Freemasons invited the town to an open day as they continue to throw off their cloak of secrecy.”

…the Masons are giving public tours of the New York Grand Lodge Headquarters.” The lodge also hired a public relations firm to spread the word about its 225th anniversary, which was last month. And the Masons have run advertisements in movie theaters and run one-day classes to award the first three Masonic degrees in a single session”.

“Several jurisdictions, including those in Massachusetts, Ohio, New York, Oklahoma, and Washington, D.C., have greatly streamlined the initiation process. They have introduced one-day programs through which men can perform the necessary rituals to become "Master Masons" in a single day, rather than over several months.”

“In a long-in-the-tooth corner of downtown Dallas, between the Farmers Market and the Stewpot, sits the solid, well-maintained – but largely vacant – Masonic Temple.”

“With lodges now offering tours to the general public (one even asked me to lunch) and the wording of Masonic ceremonies available for anyone to buy, he may be right. But, dare I say, the more like the Rotary Club the Masons become, the less intriguing it all seems.”

Many of us old timers are troubled by the trend to offer inducements and shortcuts to anyone who will join the ranks. The main question they are asking is, is adding hundreds of new members to Freemasonry in one day progress for the fraternity or an progress for the coffers of the local blue Lodges and Grand Lodges.

When you read the article “Freemasonry in France” by Michael L. Segall, it makes you wonder about the new trend to modernize Freemasonry in order to attract the modern man. Is modernization really a cure for Masonries problems are in the long run adding to it’s problems.

According to Brother Segall’s article, Freemasonry in France is more popular then ever and gaining members. It appears that their secret is, that French Freemasonry today is the same as French Freemasonry over a hundred years ago.

For instance, the opening paragraphs in the article state.

“At my grand lodge (France) we are doubling our membership every dozen years or so, and have never simplified nor reduced the ritual to cater to candidates. Actually, it's unchanged since we removed "Long Live .the King!" more than a century ago. We've kept our old obligations and penalties, and if some outsider wants to misinterpret them, it's his problem”.

“Masonic education is at an extremely high level which, I'm afraid, could hardly be imagined elsewhere. Becoming a Mason is a challenge and a sought-after achievement, worth quite a few sacrifices. Our main problem is building enough lodge rooms. Our current ones are filled every day of the week by meeting lodges.”

“We have done for nearly three centuries the opposite of what is currently attempted in the USA, and we've done it with great success. Here is the recipe of the Grand Lodge of France where, it should be added, attendance in lodge is about 70 percent of members at every meeting.”

One of Brother Segall’s main reasons for their success is a problem that many of us here have been concerned about for a long time. I have long maintained that a key cause of dropouts after a man goes through the Entered Apprentice or Fellowcraft degree is that he is told, now you are a Mason, except you cannot participate in 95% of the Lodge meetings. It’s like he is in a Masonic Limbo. He’s paid his money (degree fee), went through a ceremony in which he really didn’t understand what was happening or why and still knows nothing about what goes on in the Lodge meeting until after he learns the work for the E.A. degree, passes to the Fellowcraft degree and learns the work for that degree and then raised to the Master Mason Degree.

I still remember my own E.A. and Fellowcraft periods (only 15 years ago when I was 64 years old) and the feelings that I was still an outsider. I had joined a Lodge in another town, where my son was the only member I knew for many months. If it hadn’t made him so happy that I had taken the big step and his constant encouragement, I’m not sure if I would have kept coming back. The French however understood that problem and prevented it from allowing it to be a problem.

“Unlike the USA where, since the Morgan affair, lodges meet in the third degree, our lodges open and do most of their business (except passings and raisings) in the Entered Apprentice degree.”

“This allows entered apprentices to attend lodge from day one. It eliminates any need to hurriedly pass and raise them so they don't disappear before they may attend Lodge.”

Regarding Brother Segall’s claim of 70% attendance at meetings, there is another big difference between the French and English (U.S.) approach that explains the French success while most U.S. Lodge’s have an average attendance of ten to twenty percent of the membership.

“Our obligations include the promise to regularly attend meetings, with rare exceptions (illness, travel, professional, or family obligations), and then a written excuse (or phones to the lodge master) is required. Insofar as ritual is concerned, we do not think there is any need to modify it to suit the changing winds of modernity or political correctness (which is only a minor issue here)~ Those who do not like our penal clauses, rituals, proficiency, Masonic education, customs, or traditions don't have to become Masons.”

“We never have mass initiations or "zoom" degrees, where no one really gets initiated, or degrees performed by professional teams. We make all initiations, passings, and raisings personal warm experiences: of fraternity and brotherly love, performed by the officers of the lodge. We allow, no more than five candidates per ceremony as required by Anderson's Constitutions, so that the new members never forget the experience and its meaning.”

There also appears to be a difference in the basic approach to Freemasonry.

“. . . Selection is very strict, and becoming a Masons is considered a challenge and an achievement for which many applicants well wait months or years and make quite a few sacrifices. Dues are, on the average $350 yearly About a third to half of applicants are refused.

“We consider that Masonry is the means to make good men, better. All other purposes, developments, and results are simple consequences of this main goal. To this end it is obvious that only men who we consider capable of improving themselves are admitted. We are not interested in numbers but quality.”

I would not try to convince anyone that French Freemasonry is better or worse then English/US Freemasonry. However It does appear that it may be to our advantage to at least study the success.

For instance, it could definitely be to our advantage to make a couple of reasonably small changes in the status of E.A.s and Fellowcrafts. Either open all Lodge meetings in the E.A. degree except passings and raisings.

I think a better alternative would be the one proposed at the Texas Grand Lodge last year. Allow E.A.s and Fellowcrafts to attend Lodges opened in the Master Mason degree except during passings and raisings. However they would be nonvoting members and ineligible to hold an office until they have been raised as Master Masons. This would allow them to be involved with most Lodge activities and partake in day to day affairs.

I remember when my son in law, filled with expectations after months of work and study, was raised and attended his first stated meeting. On the way home, he turned to me and ask, “Is that all we do at Lodge meetings, talk about who’s sick and who died and how much the light bill cost this month.”

I’ll agree it was an exceptionally dull meeting that night, but if he had been attending meetings all those months he would have had a completely different view of Masonry and that meeting wouldn’t have been a let down.

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