Tuesday, April 21, 2009

21st Century Masonry

Bro. Ronald Pollock, president of the 1st Manhattan District Assoc.,
introduces RW Jeff Williamson, our speaker last night.

How good and how pleasant it is to dwell together with brethren who understand Freemasonry.

Last night was the first of what could become annual dinner-lectures hosted by the First Manhattan District Association at the Grand Lodge of New York. RW Bro. Jeffrey M. Williamson was the speaker. With his PowerPoint graphics ready, he discussed “How Can Masonry Survive and Prosper in the 21st Century?”

RW Williamson is one of those leaders whose résumé spans seven pages. He is a Past District Deputy Grand Master of the Second Erie District in the Buffalo area. He is Grand King in the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons. He also is a veteran of Grand Lodge’s Educational Services Committee and its Masonic Development Course, and has played a large role in training the jurisdiction’s DDGMs for many years. “I have a universal view of Masonry,” he said. (And he’s a Master Electrician, so “Let there be Light” is no trivial business to him!) He was recommended to the FMDA by Ted Harrison. ’Nuff said.

It seemed every lodge in the First Manhattan District was well represented last night. Worshipful Master Mike from Pioneer-Mt. Moriah No. 20 was there with a number of his officers and brethren. Many from Washington Lodge No. 21, like “HRH” Vincenzo, a college professor. There was Alessandro and others from Mariners. And Bro. Major, visiting from GLNF. RW Arnold from Consolidated. RW Christopher from Holland No. 8. Bro. Francisco, Bro. Terence, Bro. Lenny and many more. The room was full of young, educated men who are in Freemasonry to find a singular environment populated by exceptional people.

I think it is a gutsy move to host such a discussion. You never know who might show up, and what might be said. But, if there is any hope of reversing the problems plaguing Freemasonry, we have to admit a) there are problems, and b) there are solutions to the problems. The teachings of Masonry lead one to examine his life and to labor toward self-improvement. Moral, ethical, intellectual advancements. Does it not stand to reason that the order itself should, collectively, undergo the same sort of self-scrutiny, to discuss candidly the things we see that are just wrong, and the ways to fix them?

Dinner was simple, but New York style: big sandwiches worthy of a proper Manhattan deli, plus an open bar.

(Before things got started, the Magpie Mason had a “Narnia moment.” Whenever I’m in this building, I go to the windows to see what kind of view of Manhattan can be seen. The room next to our dining room was vacant, so I walk in, look out the window at an especially gloomy, rainy cityscape, and then return to the dining room. Right behind me come three Masons wearing aprons! I thought maybe the complimentary rye was getting the best of me. Where’d they come from? I go back into the room, head toward the coat closet, and find a narrow hallway winding its way around a corner. Voila! There is Publicity Lodge No. 1000 preparing for a Fellowcraft Degree! Strange that a lodge called Publicity would be secreted behind a coat closet, but of course the lodge room has a proper entrance also.)

An eclectic bunch of dozens of Masons packed the dining room adjacent to the American Room on the 19th floor. From three or four Fellowcrafts to a number of Past DDGMs, all were united in wanting to hear some common sense talk on what lodges need to do if they are to attract quality members and keep them stimulated and productive.

The Magpie Mason was delighted to see the recipe was very nearly identical to the recommendations set out earlier this decade by both the Knights of the North and the Masonic Restoration Foundation.

These two organizations deserve the credit for sparking the widespread interest in both European Concept and Traditional Observance lodges across the United States. European Concept emphasizes elegance and sophistication in upholding Masonic culture. The West Gate is closely tiled. Membership is limited. Dues are high. Food is great. Education is rewarding. Every meeting has a purpose. Sometimes a foreign ritual, like Emulation, is worked. It’s the kind of experience that, frankly, alarms those who want the Ralph Kramden Raccoon Lodge model to remain the only option. Traditional Observance has those traits in common, and goes further by incorporating highly esoteric elements into its initiations. T.O. is the proprietary design of the Masonic Restoration Foundation, a nationwide non-profit organization that offers memberships. The Knights of the North by contrast was a thinktank comprised of brethren from across the United States and Canada.

“We suffer from a lack of Masonic leadership and training,” said RW Williamson, “and we live in the past.” Boring meetings, poorly worked ritual, indifference to the brethren’s expectations and other familiar factors have created a “lackluster environment.” The fraternity’s longstanding preference for quantity over quality in membership not only has failed to cultivate talent that can move us forward, but actually has resulted in a greater number of Masonic trials to rid the Craft of those who never should have been initiated in the first place. “Can Freemasonry survive and prosper in the 21st century? It can and it will. Freemasonry is as relevant today as it was 250 years ago. But we need to make Masons, not members.”

His formula for returning Freemasonry to its true purpose is a checklist for lodges to incorporate into their management.

• Investigate the candidate thoroughly – He noted that in the GLNY the term now is “interview,” but he stressed the importance of making sure every petitioner is worthy and well qualified.

• Keep membership small – A lodge, if everyone is to know each other and function as a close unit, should be limited in size to about 50 Masons.

• Candidate comprehension – Challenge the Apprentices and Fellows to think. Have them write papers before their second and third degrees describing, in their own words, what the preceding degrees mean to them. Bro. Francisco noted how this process helped him gain greater comprehension.

• Proficiency – Rituals must be worked expertly and with sincerity, with work being assigned according to merit.

• Dues – Lodges need to be adequately funded by the brethren themselves. It is okay to hold fundraisers, but they are really intended to foster the bonding experience while raising money for worthy causes.

• Attendance – The brethren are expected to attend the Communications, or send regrets that they are unable to attend. Or, in other words, extend to the lodge the same courtesy one shows his family, friends and business colleagues.

• Festive Boards – No explanation is really needed here. Eat, drink, and be merry.

• Standards – “Set the bar high, and the brethren will respond,” he said.

St. John’s Lodge No. 1, Ancient York Masons was well represented last night. It is already achieving this very type of lodge experience. In fact, this lodge, founded in 1757, marked its 250th anniversary year in part by receiving its Traditional Observance certification from the Masonic Restoration Foundation. An old lodge can learn new tricks. The end result of this revolution is the existence now of a waiting list of candidates trying to gain entry into St. John’s – and many, if not most, will not make the cut – whereas several years ago this lodge was struggling to remain functional.

A Past DDGM who is a member of several lodges told of his experience in affiliating with Independent Royal Arch Lodge No. 2, which was founded in 1760. “Washington and Lafayette were regular participants in its proceedings.”

“I was one of the last to be allowed to affiliate with I.R.A.,” he said. “They are very selective.” He then described the process of vetting candidates for membership in I.R.A., which includes attending numerous non-tiled events and social functions to let the lodge’s brethren get to know the candidates, to see which would make a proper fit in the lodge. “Even though I was well known to the lodge, I still went through the process.”

The candidates of today, Williamson said, are looking for “education in a mystic craft,” and ways to achieve self-improvement and become gentlemen. They like the mysterious and unique language used in Masonic rituals. Memorization of ritual is not enough, but teaching an understanding of what these ceremonies say should be the goal. Admittedly, our speaker was preaching to the choir, but there was a lot of information and wisdom provided. Things that really needed to be said, and that drew applause. (And conversation of this nature is heretical in some jurisdictions, ergo this blog.)

Bro. Gerry of Pioneer-Mt. Moriah Lodge No. 20 shares his insights on membership retention.

“Just because Grand Lodge has no procedure to involve EAs and FCs, doesn’t mean the lodges cannot involve them in activities,” said RW Martin Kanter, PDDGM. Certain things have to be handled while at labor on the MM Degree of course, but there are ways to assimilate brethren of the lower degrees into the lodge experience.

VW Piers Vaughan recommended taking a creative approach to education, for example by making each of the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences a path of study, and by exploring the Art of Memory to put the Fellowcraft Degree in even deeper esoteric, historic and cultural contexts.

“We’re not the American Legion Post,” Williamson said in his conclusion. “We’re a Masonic Lodge. We invoke deity to be with us.”

Bro. Lenny, Bro. Alessandro, and others socialize after the lecture.



Mark Koltko-Rivera said...

You have done us a real service by providing such a good report of this meeting. I shall be putting a copy of this post in my permanent file, so I can reference it in future work. Thank you very much.

Magpie Mason said...

Bro. Mark, you were missed. And if you don't mind my suggesting, perhaps you could contact the FMDA and discuss the feasibility of distributing your books. The DVDs produced for Grand Lodge were discussed, but it seems the brethren are not receiving copies of them. There is a demand for education in this District, so maybe you could be among the suppliers.