Friday, March 25, 2016

Blinded By the Light: Resolving Freemasonry's Problems

Freemasonry is gradually wasting away. Only those masons who make the Ostrich Pose part of their Yoga regimen do not recognize this fact. There is a division between  those who see this as inevitable and those who think otherwise. I do not pretend to know what the final outcome will be, although, being the eternal optimist that I am, I do not think the end need be at hand.

And lest these words be misconstrued, I do not intend to criticize anyone for addressing the issue the way they have. Everyone has their own skills and perspectives, and these are not always going to agree with those of other people. Far be it from me to claim that my views are superior or that other masons are benighted. However, without being egotistical about it, I do think that my musings may be of use in debating and searching through the issues. These thoughts include some that are critical of the process and conclusions drawn by others, but not of the people who have offered them, nor of their intentions.

This needs to be a debate filled with passion, but not emotion. That means a passionate discussion, filled with challenging ideas, but not the heat of personal animosity.

 I watched an interesting presentation on YouTube this morning of a mason indulging in the most popular martial art of modern American - statistics. (Jon T Ruark whose presentation for the Pennsylvania Academy of Masonic Knowledge I located from a post on Brother Hodapp's website). He produced an excellent presentation, and if not the most artistic and entertaining of speakers (he was after all speaking on statistics), he acquitted himself quite admirably. If he could get me to follow his statistical analysis to the end he did a truly miraculous thing.

However, Bro. Ruark's presentation made me think of a few expressions, such as that which I used to head this post - blinded by the light, or that other which comments about the all too human foible of not seeing the forest for the trees. Again, I am not being uncharitable. I enjoyed Bro Ruark's presentation, noting as a total non-sequitur that he possesses a very Donegal surname, and am grateful because he inspired some interesting observations for me. Now, in fairness, I hate statistics, I truly believe that they represent, if not lies, mostly useless information. I think that explains in a nutshell everything that's wrong with our approach to problem solving today.

Forgive me for thinking that this presentation began with a conclusion and was constructed to support that conclusion. I think that in part because I know how many masons, both rank and file and the intellectuals, passionately disapprove of the "Made in a day" approach to resolving the Masonic numbers problem. I will note here also, that I do not disapprove of the "Mason in a Day" approach. the failure of "Masons in a day" events to resolve the problem of attrition demonstrates the need for an approach which consists of multiple responses.

There are a host of reasons why once made a "Mason in a day" those newly minted masons do not stay, none of which have anything to do with how they were initiated. They have everything to do with their experience within Masonry from that day on. All too often, I suspect masons have come to experience a freemasonry which is mediocre. That is most likely one of the big reasons why masonry has problems keeping members. To an extent Br. Ruark recognizes this in his comments concerning Traditional Observation Lodges as one possible solution. Indeed, T.O. lodges are likely to be one solution. Although I think they are perhaps to structuralist in their resolution of challenges, they have often met with good results.

Other blogs, notably Midnight Freemasons, have leapt into the arena with more references to statistics, and pie charts galore. They're all good. We need as much discussion as possible, and even discussion that reviews what has been discussed before can shed new light on old subjects.

However, there is an elephant in the room in the entire presentation which has not been addressed. Indeed, it has been noted, and joked about, but clearly the subject itself appears to be one which is off limits to a mainstream mason who with reason might fear negative reactions from on high to any such discussion. Well, I fortunately, have nothing to fear in speaking up. I am beyond the bureaucratic reach of any US Grandmaster, and to paraphrase a famous Freemason, Clark Gable, "Frankly, my dear brothers, I don't give a damn."

The elephant in the room was eloquently described by Br. Ruark, although I hasten to note, he said not one word against any Grand Lodge in his presentation. He described, by simply recounting the challenges he faced in engaging in a research project, the intent of which was to assist in strengthening Freemasonry, everything that is wrong with mainstream Freemasonry in the US today. In fact, although the problem is most egregious here in the US, it is a problem in most parts of the Masonic universe to one degree or another. The fatal element in Masonic culture, that aspect of Freemasonry which will ultimately destroy Freemasonry as an institution if it isn't stopped, is none other than the Grand Lodge system itself.

Whatever it once may have been, and I would argue that it probably was never a healthy influence on Freemasonry, it has grown to become an impervious, petulant bureaucracy that serves only to sustain its self importance. It is totally possible, although I doubt it, that it is manned by a large number of well intentioned individuals. Even if that were true,and I see no evidence to support that notion, those good men do not seem capable of making their bureaucracy beneficial in even small ways in encouraging masonry's survival.

The fact that a Freemason attempting to do a statistical analysis that might shed light on ways to grow the institution can get little response to his inquiries beyond being told that he had ignored protocol in asking, and then receive even less response when he subsequently followed the recommended protocol, should be enough to damn the Grand Lodge as a system. It is a head which has ceased to care about its body. If our individual brains were to refuse to consider or respond to the messages our internal organs or other body parts gave it, we would be dead in short order. That is the big take away for me from this report.

Freemasonry is dying folks. It will, by best reckoning, be dead in as little as 10 years, and at the most 25 years. The Grand Lodges are killing it off. It is true that Freemasonry needs to be more responsive to modern society and adapt to change. Failure to adapt will kill it in short order. A lot of that resistance is coming from on high. Of course, the blame does go back to the local lodge. Inevitably, all the members of the GL originated as members of a local lodge, no matter how many centuries ago they were entered and raised.

The best case scenario, I believe, will result in a much thinner and smaller institution. Freemasonry will not look like it does today if it survives at all. But, if it is to survive at all, it has to get out of its own way and stop being its own worst enemy.

How can Freemasonry address the problem that the GL has become? There are two solutions. The first and most radical, might also be the most traumatic. While it in some ways appeals to me more, and I have mentioned it here before, the idea of North American Freemasonry without Grand Lodges seems too dramatic a change to be accomplished, however beneficial it might be. The second is one which, although it would not be possible to accomplish without some, hopefully only metaphorical "blood letting", is one which could result in a dramatically revived fraternity. I am suggesting an inversion of power.

As Robert Cooper of the Grand Lodge of Scotland noted during a public speech given to Freemasons in the United States ( ) The Grand Lodge in Scotland has no power to order any constituent lodge to do anything at all. All individual lodges in Scotland jealously guard their power. As a result, the Grand Lodge may humbly and very diplomatically suggest that its member lodges might (or might not) wish to consider a recommendation that they would like to recommend. It is a refreshing idea, and one which I believe might go a long way to resolving the problems within US Freemasonry. Imagine a Freemasonry where the Grand Lodge served its member lodges instead of dominating them.

Shortly after posting this blog, I became aware of the GL of Mass. response to the current unfortunate situation in Tennessee and Georgia. Thanks to John S. Nagy for that information. While my initial reaction was to think that Massachusetts was trying to sit on the fence by not taking any action, my second thought was that they were providing an example of exactly what this practice of informing and advising rather than dictating might look like.

I have no illusions that my own thoughts on such matters might ever rule the day, but all sorts of ideas need to be considered, and I keep hearing the same ones repeated. So, in the hopes of broadening the discussion, I will continue to throw ideas into the ring from time to time. It is for other people to decide what works best in their situations and how to implement their decisions. All the same, in the current climate, it seems healthy to keep all options on the table.


feoh said...

Great article! Thanks for posting it. The idea of an inversion of power sounds like it could work, but it also brings up some troubling thoughts for me.

Let us for example imagine a lodge, say in the rural fringe of an otherwise liberal state, which decided that the grand lodges of GA and TN were right, and that homosexuality is immoral and all gay masons should be expelled, when the vast majority of masons in the state felt very strongly otherwise.

I would think this could create some rather deep and critical divisions in the craft, and rob the rite of travel of some of its benefit.

What do you think?

Bro. Christopher Patti
Amicable Lodge, AF&AM
Cambridge, MA.

E C Ballard ஃ said...

Thank you Brother Christopher. I would not wish to suggest that the approach I mentioned here is perfect, nor that it would be free of complications. However, what practice ever is? How does such an approach compare with our current conditions? As they say, the Devil is in the details. That being said, none of the current avenues for redress do that much better.

As for creating deep and critical divisions within the craft, do we not have them now?

Eoghan Ballard

Robert Johnson said...

I think you are spot on when you talk about the "problem". I addressed this in the panel discussion in the second video of our PA forum. Someone asked about the craft dying. I believe I said "It will never die, but Grand Lodges will." Take it for what it's worth. And I'm glad you enjoyed my gallery of Pie Charts! ;)

Editor Midnight Freemasons
Host - Whence Came You
Cohost - The Masonic Roundtable.

Raymond Sean Walters said...

[All too often, I suspect masons have come to experience a freemasonry which is mediocre.]

I cannot recall the number of times in 26 years I have used the word mediocre in connection with Freemasonry... and mediocrity rules the day as Freemasonry is concerned.

When fear, intimidation, and manipulation are utilized by a so-called leader, that is NOT leadership. Freemasonry is a voluntary association often run in the manner an ineffective, selfish CEO runs a business model that refuses to pay a livable wage, exception being that no wages are paid to anyone, neither literal nor symbolic.

[As for creating deep and critical divisions within the craft, do we not have them now?]

Yes, I too have seen the divisions in American Freemasonry over 26 years; divisions that remain in place due to dictatorial, ineffective leaders that seem unable to simply inspire the Craft that has voluntarily given authority to a Grand Lodge charged with managing/ supervising only.

As Bro. John Williams of the Phylaxis Society has stated in a series of articles titled "Masonic Growth", Grand Lodges make Lodges, and Lodges make Masons... Grand Lodges could stand to stay in their lane and allow lodges the room to do more of what they (the lodges) should be doing, namely making and instructing Masons.

And please know that I do realize there is no easy fix, but I do know that failure to learn from and follow Ecclesiastes 12: 1-7 will not produce any positive result.


Raymond Sean Walters

Mike Clevenger said...

Your post brings to mind MWB Dwight L. Smith's comments made in 1962 in "Whither Are We Traveling." In it he states that Freemasonry cannot return to its past glory and prestige unless the level of leadership is raised above its present position. Grand Lodges elect their leaders from the ranks and unless they invest in properly training leaders at the local lodge level then the result is poor leaders running the Grand Lodges. I have immersed myself the last 11 years in personal development & leadership training for the Fraternity and am fortunate that in Ohio my Grand Lodge has embraced the idea to train better leaders. We have for online leadership training and last year presented leadership training in each of our 25 districts with a program entitled Masons Lead Better ( The result over time will be that great leadership will create a great lodge experience. Great Masonic leaders will lead "on the level" and understand their role is to serve the craft.
Mike Clevenger

Paul Thompson said...

Thank you for a great article. In PA, there is an upheaval going on that is being ignored by the Grand Lodge as just a couple fanatics and "Not real Masons." There is a great feeling of frustration and we are seeing newer and younger members joining and disappearing quickly. Lodges are being told this year, that a 5,000 member gain is to be accomplished. For those that have thought about it, with the annual attrition through death and suspensions, it works out to more like a 7,000 member gain. Break it down to lodges, and it works out to about a 20 member increase in each lodge. We are doing one day classes, dropping initiation fee's for veterans, completely dropping initiation fees for Scottish rite members this fall. For those that want to find out more, I will not post the link here but if interested go to facebook and search for discovering truth about pa freemasonry.