Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur

How Not to Run The Club

So I just got around to posting a response to an old message from siderea, and it occured to me that I haven't had this rant yet. So herewith, a digression on The Imminent Death of Freemasonry.

This month marked what may prove to be a critical moment in Masonry, at least in this state. After years of debate, the One-Day Class finally happened.

Understand, what floats my boat in Masonry is the ritual. Masonry has a concept of immersive inductive ritual that I find fascinating. There are three central degrees (Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason). These are taken separately, usually on successive months, at least in this country. In each degree, the candidate is walked through the ritual, entering in darkness and having the light of the lessons imparted to him. When done well (which is, sadly, not often enough) it can be powerful and moving, inspiring both wonder and curiosity. It's a distinct bonding experience between the candidates and the Lodges they enter, forging some remarkably enduring friendships.

But it takes time. The candidate has to commit to those three successive months. He has to dress in funny clothes, and gets taken through ritual that is intentionally esoteric. And as I said, most Lodges aren't very good at it. Many of the guys don't understand the ritual, and they are consequently embarrassed by it, and you cannot do ritual well if you're embarrassed by it.

So this month, Grand Lodge decided to try an experiment. Instead of requiring each candidate to go through individually on three successive months, they did an enormous group presentation. The rituals were performed as playlets, rather than being done immersively. All three degrees were done in quick succession. Instead of being a personal and intimate experience, they had something like 500 guys shown the ritual all at once, with only the slightest personalization. The candidates are technically members of specific Lodges, but not really due to starting there -- they were assigned Lodges by Grand Lodge, and are only obligated to stick with those Lodges for one year. (And since there is no particular bond of ritual, I don't expect many to stick with their mother Lodges.)

The hell of it is, the experiment may in fact have been a great success. Grand Lodge is deeply concerned about the decline of the Fraternity -- the membership rolls are falling rapidly, and they need to recruit somehow. They decided that the ritual mechanisms are too high a barrier to entry, and chose to do something different. They employed all of the resources of Grand Lodge, in ways that individual Lodges really can't, doing things like taking out radio ads for the session. They got a lot of new recruits, whose view of Masonry is undoubtedly going to be shaped by the way they were inducted. I won't be surprised if it happens again next year.

(Mind, it's very controversial, and it's by no means certain that it will happen again. Some other Grand Lodges are talking seriously about declaring Massachusetts to be schismatic over it. But I only expect that to slow things down. Much though I dislike it, the One-Day Class is very consistent with the direction that the Fraternity is heading in general.)

I mourn the change, though, because I find it very symbolic in and of itself. The ritual is what got me into Masonry. No, my Lodge isn't perfect, but we make a real effort to do it well, and give the candidates a taste of the potential there. The One-Day Class, though, marks the moment at which Grand Lodge lost its faith in the constituent Lodges, saying, "We can do this better than you can."

But these rituals weren't designed to be done en masse. Without the immersive element, I fear that they will become pointless, and quickly mutate beyond recognition. This isn't an idle fear -- it's pretty much what has happened to Scottish Rite. This is one of the adjunct Orders: when people talk about "32nd degree Masons" (and the other degrees from 4th through 31st), they're usually talking about Scottish Rite. This went through just this change many years ago, becoming a mass organization instead of a personal one. It isn't a bad club, but the ritual has increasingly gone by the wayside.

I've spoken on this before -- I think Masonry is mutating from an organization whose principal focus was on spiritual and moral self-betterment to one that is principally a charity. The end result is likely to be a club that is a social good, so I can't wholly condemn it. But I still regret the quiet loss of the society I thought I was joining.

And yes, you should all continue to hassle me about the Mysteries project. I have neither forgotten about it nor despaired; I've just been desperately pressed for time. With one possible specific exception (which either will or will not happen in the next month or so), I'm planning on declaring a moratorium on Small Projects after Celebration happens, so that I can find some time to work on the Big Projects...

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