Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Overlooked Reform: The Grand Lodges

^The Way Things Are ^

 ^The Way Things Should Be ^

With all the wonderful things going on in Freemasonry to better local or individual lodges (Traditional observance, affinity, European concept, etc.)  and bring them out of these challenging times there is unfortunately little effort made to reform the grand lodges and to make them once again administrations in service to the ultimate and supreme body: the individual lodge.

Grand lodges today are living on the legacy (including the financial legacy) of what was left by hundreds of years of Masons.  With this legacy in hand grand lodges oversee a much reduced membership and base of activities; yet they are more thoroughly taxing and burdening constituent lodges and claiming greater authority than ever before.

Many areas of ownership and management, including property, funds and investments that might have otherwise been stewarded by attentive local lodges at a scale manageable at their level of expertise became centralized and mismanaged.

In the future, grand lodges will have few assets left to liquidate or mismanage.  Even at the end of liquidation of considerable assets, the state of finances in most grand lodges at this point proves that grand lodges should never be managers of assets that might otherwise be in the purview of the local lodge.  They are not equipped to do so and officers are not selected on the basis of their competence in such matters.  This again goes to problematic idea of organizational stratification, with grand lodges at the top of a pyramid.

Many grand lodges have all but tossed aside the notion of equality.  They have become homes for political players, even for men frustrated in the real world of open competition and qualification. Titles of honor of doing service has became reason for usurpation of authority.  Owing to this error- plagued state of things, the lodges themselves become distracted from the work of being healthy lodges.

Rather lodge leaders undertake to become subordinate in all things, as they believe that ingratiating oneself with the grand lodge officers, eventually becoming grand officers is a progressive degree system in itself. In this topsy-turvy state, levels of officers in the grand lodges, and their involvement and authority have become more meaningful than the lodges themselves. 

This unintended hierarchy by its very nature gives itself to corruption, cronyism and many other vices that strangle constituent lodges.  The most glaringly results of this self generated bureaucracy are to drive away new blood and to shut the doors to new ideas.  As such, conditions have been created only to sustain the oldest members and ultimately, keep a lesser quality of membership that cannot provide a challenge to authority- in essence a kakistocracy.  Practically speaking, authority over policies that would rectify these problems have been left to these same grand lodge officers who have no motivation to do so.
By putting such important matters into the hands of grand lodges we are not simply leaving them to fail but to fail for all of us. This is obviously not the only or even its primary area of failure.  Grand lodges are failing in almost every way conceivable and because of it the Craft is indisputably in free-fall.

In the present, it can be supposed that the grand lodges are why proven reforms and approaches, such as affinity lodges, traditional observance and European concept lodges are not more prevalent.  As grand lodges resist changes and continue to support failed and dysfunctional models and policies (often for the political ends of  grand officers) lodges languish and die. Indeed, the bureaucratic model of the powerful grand lodge saves and protects the sick lodge while driving away the healthy.

One is left to ask a question: "Besides issues of recognition and some physical facilities, why would anyone deal with many of the grand lodges of today?"

Historically, grand lodges were initiated to support individual, independent Masonic lodges which existed from time immemorial.  Today this has become the other way around. We have accorded to the grand lodge roles which they did not rightfully have, nor should they have. It should be of little surprise then, when we accord the grand lodge bureaucracies the role and powers of the lodge and give them monopolies that Freemasonry has failed both at the level of the lodge and the grand lodge level.

We need only to look back into the long history of Freemasonry to see that lodges that were more self reliant, rooted in communities or constituencies and responsible for their meeting spaces, furnishings, regalia etc., were much healthier.  The reasons are obvious- their membership was responsible, avoided waste and engaged in the care and generosity that come with such a conditions. 

What is often considered the first grand lodge (UGLE) did not form either with a real or imagined authority to usurp lodges or assume jurisdictional control.  The first four lodges that met at the Goose and Gridiron  did not start Freemasonry and consisted of a tiny fraction of Freemasons and lodges. (And indeed so did the five "Ancient" lodges that shortly after formed a competing grand lodge.) The UGLE knew they could not make extravagant claims since only a few lodges took part in the UGLE, while many older lodges existed (and  lodges exist to this day, in amity in overlapping jurisdiction.)

In America, our grand lodges have taken on more authority and made greater claims  than the UGLE when our own lodges sprang from their own authority, abandoning* their European mother lodges which gave  authority to operate, if they ever had such authority (and many did not). The "Lodge at Fredricksburg" in which our nation's first president, Bro. George Washington notes he was initiated had no warrant or charter until many years after Washington was made a Mason.

This leads us to search for the basis of authority, by law or established custom that current conditions in American Freemasonry rest. 

The authority and responsibilities of the grand lodges as they now exist do not find grounding in Anderson's recounting of the constitution and even less grounding in the constitutions and descriptions of Freemasonry of others before him. The frequent splits, schisms, competition, etc., in and among grand lodges probably owe to this. 

The argument about the historical role is clear.  To trace American grand lodges is to trace exercises in  independence, and perhaps usurpation and arrogation from those mother lodges of England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, France and so forth.  Legitimacy in the transfer or  external awarding of authority then, is not a valid issue.  Features of recognition or amity have not shown  themselves to be hard and fast rules and in most cases the actual yardstick for recognition (race, politics, financial gain) have been at best pragmatic and often deplorable.

American values of diversity, checks and balances, freedom, adaptation and localized authority came after the first grand lodge was introduced in Britain.  Freemasonry helped introduce these ideas even before they became popular or were implemented in larger society.  In America we took these ideas further both in our lodges and our larger society. We Freemasons in America seemed to have gone backward though, even from the earliest times when Freemasonry toiled under monarchy but still held its lodges as independent.  We have unintentionally re-instituted in some cases inequality and even tyranny and this has, predictably a state of decline.

The real discussion is about the practical work of reforming the grand lodges to be a supportive substructure, in service to lodges.  The grand lodge is not Freemasonry, it is support of Freemasonry and to that position it must return for the well being of the Craft. No solutions or alternatives should be off the table as we look to  how to achieve this.
I submit that we should look at making use of alternative grand lodges that operate in different jurisdictions.  We as Americans know and history shows us that without competition deterioration, and corruption generally sets in.

Among the grand lodges we have just such deterioration-  this is undeniable.  Most of that which is today lain at the feet of the lodge- the plummeting numbers,  failing lodges,  lack of adaptation, repeated stories of mismanagement, and the overall perilous condition of the Craft in America are mostly issues that find their roots not in the lodge but the grand lodges.

The grand lodges should not be blamed.  It was the lodges that turned over their responsibilities and authority to grand lodges  and their centralized bureaucracy, and that had predictable consequences.  

Our hope should be to reform the grand lodges where reform is needed.  (It should be noted that not all grand lodges are in equal need of reform.)  But this begs two questions:  If there is no competition and these grand lodges have not reformed themselves to the present date even with the present state of Freemasonry, what hope is there?  And what are are alternatives? 

One alternative is to look for new grand grand lodges. Continental style (used here to cover "grand orient" lodges that may or may not require faith in deity) lodges under various jurisdictions have a long history in the U.S.  In recent years with the growth of  immigrants from countries that have Continental style Masonry, Continental style lodges have become a growing but low profile feature in the American Masonic landscape.  It is unclear what type of authority is exercised and what are the practices of these Continental style lodges in the U.S.

Among some Continental Masonic practice, the issue of religion is entirely at the discretion of individual. This has been used as an excuse for certain other grand lodges not to recognize Continental grand lodges but in truth, Anglo-American Freemasonry's denial of recognition of much of Continental Freemasonry has a long history rooted in jurisdictional competition rather than religion. 

Regardless of the reason, most Continental style lodges in the U.S. suffer from a lack of recognition  by Anglo American Freemasonry. It is natural that for many Americans Masons Anglo-American amity (and amity within established lodges in the Anglophone world) as it exists is something worth maintaining.  This is likely to be the most significant factor retarding the growth of Continental Freemasonry in the U.S.  One would assume that with time rifts would heal, particularly if American Masonry working (at least initially) under Continental jurisdiction were to assume the more conservative American practices particularly regarding religion.

Anglo-American amity however is not a goal that requires working within the present "single grand lodge per jurisdiction" system; there are options for healthy competition.  

In much of the country we see Prince Hall Affiliated (PHA) grand lodges flourishing and doing so in a fashion that most grand lodges can only look at longingly.  In some cases race has been an issue.  Even with the growth of Whites and Hispanics in Prince Hall grand lodges, not enough people have been willing to join Prince Hall lodges who are not Black to create the sort of healthy, competitive alternative that Prince Hall grand lodges offer.  I have spoken to PHA grand lodge leaders and have found them more than amenable to various arrangements that would result in growth without jeopardizing their own character or that of new lodges.  Apparently there is a history of PHA grand lodges doing just with Grand Orient (Continental style) lodges and lodges of exile from the Arab world, Latin America, Asia and Africa. PHA then has chiefly as a draw back the persistence of racism in American perspectives that would impede it acting as a vehicle for healthy growth of Freemasonry in the U.S.

Further afield, there has been  a practice by other major grand lodges throughout the world to abstain from chartering lodges in the U.S.  Yet many grand lodges such as the Grande Loge Nationale Française, the Grand Lodge of Scotland or some of Nordic and Scandinavian (distinctly Christian in nature) and Latin American Lodges are in amity with the UGLE  and American grand lodges   They also have lodges abroad, often sharing jurisdictions with other grand lodges they mutually recognize (and some they do not.) Usually I hear the same answer when speaking to these international grand lodges:  they are more than willing to charter lodges in the U.S. but the key issues are that no one has petitioned them, or their are logistic problems particularly with language and translation (seemingly easy to overcome but few apparently attempt to do so.)

There is another alternative which is the growth of the "nationally based" constituent lodge.  By that I mean lodges that operate in one jurisdiction pulling many of their members from other jurisdictions.  These lodges usually do their "work" geographically within and under a certain jurisdiction but not otherwise hindered from the brotherly actions that occur among Masons of the same lodge and they are free to visit other lodges as well.  (Examples might be those affinity lodges based in some nationally important locale such Washington D.C., operating under that jurisdiction with Masons from throughout the country. Such nationally based lodges have have a long history and have grown as organizations with Masonic origins have rediscovered their roots and opened affinity lodges.

At times there have been policies of grand lodges requiring "releases" from territorial jurisdictions. I cannot imagine that this impediment would not quickly fall out of use if it was actually rigorously enforced. Most Americans would find either the practice itself (including providing such information to trigger this policy) to be insulting  and  repugnant to the very basic notions of American  and Masonic values.  Theoretically it would put a person in the ownership of a particular jurisdiction like chattel or unwitting inhabitants of territorial divisions devised by con artists and hucksters.

Then there is option of the formulation of new grand lodges.  This obviously is not unheard of; new grand lodges spring forth every few years, some failing, and others succeeding.  The success of these new lodges in achieving Masonic goals are seldom assessed or challenged by established American  lodges. Instead (because of political and financial interests of), established grand lodges usually dismiss and denounce these efforts. At a time when Freemasonry is in unprecedented decline any new grand lodge that survives probably should be commended. There are visible weaknesses however.  Since the real benefits that grand lodges provide in this day and age are, as mentioned, facilities and recognition, the two essential benefits of new or "independent" grand lodges do not exist.  A third benefit which would be the shared values of the lodge might run into the fact that those most animated by the existence of a new grand lodge may have liberal or innovative ideas that fall outside of the acceptable notions of most unhappy Masons or those practices that would be mainstream enough to eventually garner recognition (or at least respect). 

New grand lodges in the U.S. often look elsewhere, particularly to Continental lodges for amity where they are more likely to find it if they prove themselves worthy of the same.  A valid criticism is that if these lodges were to instead look at the earlier mentioned option of associating themselves under existing grand lodges, they would bring their spirit of reform and the success of their lodges and quality of their work would be easier for other lodges to ascertain.

Whatever the best options may be to remedy the problems-  reform movements, increased competition from grand lodges, grand lodges working with Masons who reside in various jurisdictions, new grand lodges, it is time to implement something for the sake of saving Freemasonry.

American values reject what we often see in our grand lodges:  excess and ostentation, cronyism, obsession with rank, centralized power, regalism, rule by decree, monopoly. One of the greatest reforms that can be made is to  return the authority of the lodge to the lodge. This would go a log way to rescuing the Craft from its declining state. 

*The original Prince Hall Lodge seemed to have been forgotten by  their mother lodge rather than the other way round, thus legitimately inheriting authority rather than usurping it, but this article  focuses on "mainstream" American grand lodges. It does call to mind the hypocrisy that many American grand lodges with less legitimate historical claim have refused to recognize Prince Hall lodges.

1 comment:

W.T. said...

Some really interesting points. An example of how competition changes things was the Jewish lodges in New York that were formerly part of the Prince Hall lodges. The Jewish men interested in Freemasonry were originally turned away from other grand lodges. When those lodges prospered as Prince Hall lodges, the other non-PHA grand lodge started to accept them and those lodges eventually changed their affiliation.