If we stop and really think about it, anyone who has studied the history of our Fraternity for any amount of time knows we aren’t the same groups as we were three hundred years ago. If James Anderson or Benjamin Franklin were to have the ability to visit a Masonic lodge of the twenty-first century, I truly believe they would not recognize it as the same organization.
Lodges are meeting inside their own buildings or grand temples instead of above taverns, regalia made in a factory instead of by hand at home…etc. The changes we don’t think about which have occurred since the founding of the grand lodge system have been numerous. So why do we as Freemasons find it so hard to embrace change in our Fraternity?
In this instance I am not talking about the usual force against change, the stereotypical elderly Past Master we envision sitting in the North of the Lodge room with a scowl on his face, reminding all of us how things used to be-- but a larger group which, until recently I included myself in.
This week I was listening to the current episode of the Scottish Rite Journal podcast. The piece entitled “The Purple of our Fraternity: Caring for our Material Culture” which was an article written by Heather Calloway published in May/June 2014 Scottish Rite Journal discussed how the House of the Temple cares for the priceless artifacts of our past. At the beginning of the article, Heather describes how the Scottish Rite has changed the way the group communicates over the last two centuries.
In the beginning, the Rite would confer degrees by just reading the ritual to the new members. Once he heard the story, the Brother attained that degree. The current system of degrees didn’t come about until the Albert Pike era. With the advancement in theatrical technology and a larger membership valley, they began to have the manpower and budget to produce beautifully done degree work for new members, with actors in beautifully ornate costumes and with props and backdrops obtained from companies which specialized in fraternal merchandise. This period of degree presentation has lasted for over one hundred and fifty years.
Today in the twenty-first century we live in a fraternal world with a lot fewer members. Those members we do have are either elderly and can no longer do the work involved in putting on a large production of twenty-nine degrees like acting, lighting, costumes, stage crew, sound whatever their specialty was, or they have retired to a warmer climate and are no longer active. The younger men in many valleys are trying to balance family commitments, their job, and their other Masonic obligations, because chances are, they are also active in their Blue Lodge, York Rite or other Masonic bodies.
I know many Valleys have begun to just perform a handful of degrees every year and communicate the remainder of them by the officers coming out on stage and perform what some have called “a blessing" on the others (Kind of like, "Okay, you have now just received such and such degree because I said you have.) Lots of Brethren were against this because it took away from the degree work and the candidate didn’t get the moral and the meaning of the degree intended to be conveyed. Sadly, I believe this was done out of desperation of the circumstances mentioned above, and the officers of the bodies couldn’t come up with a better way to accomplish the task.
The last few years, there has been much crying and gnashing of teeth of the collective Masonic world because The Scottish Rite Northern Jurisdiction has begun the practice of filming their degree work and presenting it to the candidates in a smaller venue on a movie screen instead of an elaborate stage show.
This degree work in the films is performed by Masons in various valleys around the jurisdiction in full costumes and with theatrical effects, much like seeing the work performed in person, on stage but in a movie format. No shortcuts are taken, and nothing is left out. The candidate still receives the same message by watching the degree performed in this form versus our current system of degree delivery. I know this isn’t what many of us believe to be the way a new Brother should receive these degrees, but after some reflection, I think these series of videos might be more beneficial to the Rite on several levels.
FINANCIAL: I’m sure this is obvious but without the need to maintain and upkeep a large theater (Not to mention the heating and cooling of such a building) which is only used a few times a year, Valleys can better use the funds they collect for such things as an almoners fund for members and their widows and orphans who are in desperate need of help in hard times.
The funds can also be saved for rainy days when their building needs emergency repairs or other unforeseen expenses. Instead of passing the hat or endless fundraisers that require manpower the body doesn’t have or rarely and barely break even instead of providing much-needed revenue the group could be on a solid financial footing.
MANPOWER: Anyone who has organized a reunion weekend, or any large Masonic event knows how frustrating it is trying to find Brethren who will commit (and show up) to assist in putting on an event, can attest to how frustrating it can be. Back in the day this usually wasn’t an issue. You would have multiple men volunteer or just show up to help. But today many times you begin to feel like a one-man band.
Rehearsals no one shows up for, finding members to fill roles and then asking them to fill multiple roles because no one either volunteered or was a no-show. Hoping you can find people to set up tables for lunch…etc. In the end, it will get done but not to the standards or vision you had at first perceived it would be, and those few volunteers you had will eventually burn out and begin not to show up anymore.
With a scaled down reunion, a handful of Brethren can set the room up the night before and have everything in place for the next morning. Not only will the candidates have a pleasant experience, but your crew will also! No one will have to wake up at 4am on Saturday morning to set things up. They will be able to enjoy themselves and go home that night without being exhausted. They might enjoy it so much they might volunteer for your next event!
RETENTION: The two reasons I listed above are pretty much common sense. But I don’t think many people have really thought about how we can retain members with the model I am discussing. But I feel this could be an important point and so far, (as far as I know) has been overlooked.
As we know most incoming members have no idea about the degrees, how they are performed, what they contain, whatever. From many studies we have heard about over the years they are just looking for education, deeper meaning for life. They don’t care about “How it used to be done.” They just want to become better men, as we tell them can be done, by putting on a Masonic apron.
As it is now, a man sits down in a theater seat, watches a couple of plays, sees some officers tell him the plays you didn’t see are “communicated” to you (Whatever that means) and BAM! You are a Scottish Rite Mason! No explanation of what he just experienced-- just a dues card and a lapel pin. "Thanks for coming! Make sure to come back again and see the same degree next year or visit a reunion in another city and hope they present different degrees than your valley does."
One hundred and fifty years ago it was common for a young man to attend a vaudeville show or a play as a form of entertainment. For today’s twenty-first century man attending a live stage show (Other than a concert) is a rare event. In this age of “Netflix and chill” if a man does venture to a theater it would be to see a big screen special effects laden movie. In my opinion, live plays, with amateur actors might be a new concept for him and the message of the play could be lost just because of the novelty of the experience.
We all know that the society of today is heavily influenced by movies and television. We constantly quote movies in our daily lives. We as Freemasons know movies influence young men thanks to the joining boom after the National Treasure movie was released. Video can be a tremendous influencer on our incoming members.
When the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction polled its membership and potential members one of the top things, they said they wanted was Masonic Education. They didn’t specify how it was delivered. They just asked for Masonic light (Sound familiar?) I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Brethren wish they could have seen all the Scottish Rite degrees instead of just a few at a reunion. (Or all of them crammed into a weekend).
Video allow for so much more Masonic Education than a stage play. During a reunion men can be seated comfortably in a Lodge room and after each video an instructor or leader could lead a group discussion on what the candidate believes the moral of the lesson way, and what was the symbolism used. The group can interact amongst themselves with guidance of the leader before they move on to the next lesson. In this way, a candidate has an idea of what the Rite is trying to teach him and what Masonry expects from him. It also helps the candidates get to know each other as they progress through the degrees, building teamwork and friendships. It also eliminates the constant complaint of degree work “being taught like drinking from a firehose instead of a garden hose.”
Videos also allow for Scottish Rite bodies to take degree work “on the road” to lodges in areas that are difficult for Brethren who live a great distance away from the Scottish Rite Temples. This could spark interest from Brethren who feel driving to the city for a meeting every month isn’t worth their time or gas money. If the Brethren see that a meeting is more than just the reading of minutes, that they actually could benefit from attending they might be more apt to attend meetings more regularly.
These videos would also be a great way to hold Masonic Education nights for interested members. They would be fantastic if they could be incorporated into study clubs which work in conjunction with the Master Craftsman program or The Hauts Grades Academy. Think of the discussions and positive Interaction among members!
Brethren, these are just a few examples of ways this small change could lead to a positive effect on our Fraternity. I’m sure creative minds who gather together could come up with even more benefits and uses for this new way of doing things. Like I said before, nothing I propose is a “Masonic landmark” and has not been done since “time immemorial”. It was once an innovation to the way things are done in the new age, just like what I am proposing. I am just asking you to sit down with an open mind and consider what I have laid out here.
Like the book by Alan Deutschman entitled, “Change or Die”, if we don’t change the course of how we are doing things, eventually there will be a time when we can no longer continue with our current methods. If and when the time comes it might be too late to try and change. I’m sure one thing we all can agree on is no longer having a Scottish Rite body to be a member of is a change none of us wish to see happen.