Friday, March 30, 2007

"...they will come." (Part 1: Ritual)
In my previous post I lamented the decline of "mainstream" American Freemasonry, and linked this to the devaluing of membership in our Fraternity. I would be nothing more than a whiner if I did not offer my ideas as to what can be done to solve this problem. Simply put, we need to emulate our European and Prince Hall brethren, and bring value back to membership. We need to stop watering our Craft down and transforming it into another version of the Lion's or Rotary clubs. In order to stop this, there are four main areas which, in my opinion, need the most focus : ritual, education, membership, and activities. This posting will concentrate on ritual.
Ritual is the backbone of our Craft, and it is what ties us together as Masons. How often, though, is the true beauty of our ceremonies lost upon the candidate and brethren due to poor or sloppy delivery? How much of the lesson is missed due to "short form" lectures? What becomes of us as Masons when we change our rituals to conform to the whims of political correctness? We can't expect our candidates to take the ritual seriously, if it is apparent that those delivering it do not as well. I realize that not everyone is a master showman who can make the words of the ritual come to life for the listener, however, being entered, passed, and raised in a Masonic Lodge is a momentous and solemn occasion, and the delivery of the ritual should reflect this. Perhaps Blue Lodges should emulate the Scottish Rite, and allow interested brethren, who are not officers, to participate in the ritual. Many times there are officers who are excellent Lodge administrators but poor ritual performers, and this could help alleviate such a problem. Let the brethren who truly desire to perform the ritual do it. They will do a much better job and the candidate will have a much better experience.
A second aspect of the ritual problem, that goes hand in hand with the first, is the "short form" lecture. Having served as a Junior Warden myself, I realize that the lectures are difficult to memorize. But, are we doing the candidates any favors by omitting portions of the lecture, and referring them to the monitor for the explanations? Reading something in a book, will not in my opinion, have the same impact as hearing it delivered as part of a degree ceremony. If a single brother cannot handle the whole lecture (which I admit is a possibility, although I have seen several superb lecturers who can), why not divide the lecture into parts, with two or more brethren delivering the lecture together? This could serve the dual purposes of dividing the task up into more manageable chunks and breaking up the monotony of hearing one person for the whole lecture.
Additionally, we should not change our ritual because someone might be "offended". What we do inside our Lodges is our business, and what the outside world thinks is of no consequence. Our ceremonies are ancient and solemn, and every part of them, including the penalties, is designed to inculcate serious moral lessons. The kind of person who might be "offended" by parts of our ritual is not the kind of person who should be welcomed into our Fraternity anyway. This is not the Lion's club, and we have an ancient and honorable tradition to uphold. By denying this, we are denying the very essence of our Craft.
As a final note on ritual, it wouldn't hurt to "spruce" things up a bit. For example, in European Lodges, they use tracing boards to illustrate the various symbols in the degrees. In my eight years of being a Mason, I have never seen anything similar, except maybe the staircase in the second degree. How many Lodges actually have a mosaic pavement or a starry ceiling? Many important symbols are not present in our Lodges, thus detracting from the atmosphere of the ritual. It might not always be possible to replicate all of these things, but we should at least make an effort to incorporate as many of them as we can. Just because we are an ancient Fraternity, does not mean that we shouldn't take advantage of modern technology such as computers and projectors to enhance the ritual experience. Properly done, these can serve to impress upon the candidate the solemnity of the ceremony.
Ritual is the foundation upon which we build our Craft. Poor performance, shortening, or watering down the ritual only detracts from its value, and by extension, the value of membership in Freemasonry. Taking our ritual more seriously is a key step in reversing the decline of American Freemasonry.

Monday, March 26, 2007

"If you build it..."
The other day I was perusing a well-known local flea market, when my wife pointed out an interesting piece of artwork, which depicted a Masonic theme. Part of this painting included a set of hands, and I asked my wife "Did you notice what color those hands were?" They were, of course, black, and I observed that I had seen several pieces of Masonic artwork that day of a similar racial composition. A discussion ensued on the state of American Freemasonry, of which my wife concluded "Prince Hall is going to save Masonry." Now, those of you who have read my previous posts know how I feel about our Prince Hall brethren. I, however, did not agree entirely with my wife on this point.
It seems to me, that just about everyone seems to be getting "it" right except American "mainstream" Grand Lodges. For example, in Europe, our Craft is thriving. I read here that in France, for example, despite a much more difficult process, Lodges have waiting lists for new candidates. They are not having to resort to "one day classes" in order to bolster their numbers. The men are flocking to them, and not just your average joe, but quality men.. As I have mentioned before, I notice a similar enthusiasm for our Craft among Brothers of the Prince Hall persuasion. This is, of course, all anecdotal, as I have never actually attended a Prince Hall Lodge, but it seems that Freemasonry is thriving and growing in this sector of the Masonic community.
The question then becomes, what are "they" doing that we are not? In my opinion, the answer is simple. They are making membership in our Fraternity worthwhile, and placing value on it. In America, we have a tendency to want to make things easier. To this end, we have eliminated long form proficiencies, shortened degrees, and relaxed entry requirements. As a result, we make becoming a Mason too easy, and when something is too easy, it is not valued or taken seriously. This is the root of the problem that American Masonry is facing.
I am reminded of a line from the movie "Field of Dreams"- "If you build it, they will come." We, as American Masons, need to take a page from our European and Prince Hall brethren and "build it." We need to make membership in our Craft worthwhile. Only then will we be able to reverse the decline that we are seeing, and bring a fresh vibrancy to our Fraternity which is desperately needed.

(I will outline some of my suggestions for improving American Freemasonry in a future post)