W. Bro. S. Brent Morris is the well-known Masonic author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Freemasonry and other books, the editor of the Scottish Rite Journal, and a familiar face if you've watched some of the recent programs about Freemasonry on The History Channel or The Discovery Channel.
He wrote the following essay, A Radical in the East: The Reflections of a High Priest on his Year in the East, in 1980. It was originally published in the York Rite's Royal Arch Mason magazine in December 1980, and then as the lead essay in a collection of the same name published by Iowa Research Lodge No. 2 in 1993.
Bro. Morris received his "due notice" from the York Rite soon after the essay was published. He later found a new home in the Scottish Rite.
This is the first time this essay has appeared in digital form online, or anywhere since 1993. The Burning Taper is honored that Bro. Morris has allowed us to republish it here.
A Radical in the East: The Reflections of a High priest on his Year in the East, by S. Brent Morris, P.H.P.
Published in the Royal Arch Mason Magazine
vol. 13. No. 8 (Winter 1980)
"Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a soul." — Mark Twain
As a man matures, his thinking about various things changes. Some of these changes are gradual developments; some are sudden, abrupt turnarounds. 1 would like to share with you a shift in my thinking about Freemasonry of the latter type. My comments deal most specifically with the Chapter, though they are applicable to the Lodge or any other organization. My thinking was radicalized while I served as High Priest of Zeredathah Chapter No. 35 in Laurel, Maryland. I may not persuade you to my thinking, but at least I hope to make you pause and consider.
My road to becoming a radical began innocently one evening before the opening of Chapter. I was concerned with the usual pre-meeting worries: attendance; officers; programs; and time. Especially time, as that evening we had a fair amount of business, and I wanted to close early. I recall thinking to myself: “Open—15 minutes; read and approve the minutes—5 minutes; ballot—10 minutes; announcements—10 minutes; close—10 minutes.” Already I saw an hour’s work ahead of me, assuming no one became long-winded, and that didn’t even include business. Then the Secretary handed me a note with the name of a recently deceased Companion. My first thought was, “Damn! Another three minutes at least for a eulogy and a prayer.”
As I thought over the meeting while driving home that evening, I recalled with growing revulsion my reaction to the death of our Companion. His death had not touched me in the least—his passing did not mean to me a loss of fellowship, but only a few minutes longer to spend in Chapter. What a perversion of Masonic principles my thinking had become! As I tried to decide what caused me to change so, I realized that my thinking had abruptly shifted.
I recalled our Affirmation Sunday service at a local church where there had been an unpleasant confrontation about whether we should wear our aprons. An older Past High Priest felt that we should follow the Grand Chapter’s suggestion and wear our aprons to show the world that we were Royal Arch Masons and proud of it. On the other hand, I maintained that we were at the church to worship, not to impress the congregation. The settlement of this disagreement was that some Companions wore their aprons, some didn’t, and I felt smugly self-righteous. That is, until I later reflected on the day. Then I realized that while I had made pious noises about the joy of worshipping together, my real concern had been to wheedle and cajole enough Companions to attend so that the Chapter (and especially the High Priest) would not be embarrassed by sparsely filled pews. Was this what our Affirmation Sunday was supposed to be about?
Then my thoughts went to our efforts to gain new members. Were we interested in increasing our circle of friends, sharing our fellowship, or helping a brother find that which was lost? Not on your life! We had much simpler and baser motives. We needed more money, for one thing, and initiation fees were an easy source of income. By increasing our rolls, we would show the world that we were a healthy and vibrant organization; we would reestablish our self-importance (for if we weren’t important, why would all of these people seek membership?); and, perhaps most significantly, we would get new officer material. What could be a more urgent task for Masonic Officers than to perpetuate themselves?
Kindled by the death of a companion and fueled by some reflection on Capitular Masonry, my old thinking burned away. The time had now come for me to reevaluate my point of view towards the Chapter. The fundamental question was: “What is the purpose of Royal Arch Masonry?” My answer was fourfold: preservation, transmission, encouragement, and enhancement. Our Chapters are predicated upon preserving the Legend of the Recovery and the philosophy and way of life that is Freemasonry, and transmitting them to our successors. We also serve to encourage a dynamic interest in our Craft, and to enhance this interest by offering further opportunities for fellowship and service.
If these indeed are our purposes, how do we fulfill them? The ritual serves as our fundamental method for preserving and transmitting the Legend of the Recovery. In our Chapter rituals, we elaborate upon and expand the basic tenets of the Craft. Our ceremonies act as a binding force that permits us to enlarge our sense of unity by sharing common experiences. The formality of our procedures, customs, and (at least in Maryland) dress emphasizes the seriousness of our intent; it serves to set us apart from other, more informal groups. And yet, with these lofty purposes and means to achieve them, we fall far, far short of the mark. What has gone wrong?
There is no one simple answer. However, I will share with you what I observe to be some of our more glaring errors. Our formality all too often degenerates into a caricature of the solemnity we hope to attain. Perhaps when evening clothes were a standard item in any gentleman’s wardrobe, black tie was an appropriate dress for Chapter. Today, when few social functions require black tie and even fewer men own a tuxedo, our formality is out of place. If formal dress is the genuine desire of an individual Chapter, then it should be vigorously encouraged. But to put a blanket requirement on all Chapters—large and small, city and country—is to invite stagnation and eventual suffocation. The result is, sadly, a cartoon-like scene of ill-fitting tuxedos bought decades ago and kept in service well beyond their natural lives. Presiding over this setting is a High Priest, without his own top hat, who borrows a faded, frayed, and wrong-sized refugee from the coat closet, and then attempts to represent the glory of Solomon!
Ceremony could be the spice of a Chapter meeting, but like a spice, it should not overwhelm. If only we followed this maxim! Unfortunately, at least 20–30 minutes of each meeting is spent in the tedium of opening and closing. The repetitive nature of these exercises numbs the mind and bores the onlooker. We have all seen ritual bastardizations that produce “short form” ceremonies. These informal alterations indicate a crying need for more fundamental changes, but it is a cry that is seldom heeded. Rather than ask why we persist in using ceremonies created in and ideally suited for the previous century, our Companions slowly drift away, never to return.
When we look at our ritual, we cannot help but be impressed at the position of preeminent importance it has in our affairs. Its importance, I feel, has been bloated entirely out of proportion. Consider for a moment the thousands of man-hours spent on ritual—memorization, rehearsal, exemplification, conferral—and contrast this with the efforts spent on charity or education or even fellowship. It is a rare Chapter that does not spend the major part of its time and efforts on ritual, to the exclusion of almost anything else. It is my disturbing observation that ritual has ceased to be a means to an end, the method by which we preserve and transmit our heritage, but rather it has become an end in itself.
While I was in the East, I was advised to hold more rehearsals so we could confer the degrees proficiently. We needed to confer the degrees so we could get new members who were needed to become officers who were needed to attend rehearsals so we could confer the degrees proficiently. We’re caught on a treadmill and too few realize it. Our older members long for the halcyon days when weekly rehearsals were packed with eager young Companions longing to be appointed to the line. Those days, if they ever really existed, are past us. It is true that a healthy, strong Chapter has excellent degree work, just as it excels in all activities. However, it is folly to think that a crash program in upgrading ritual performance alone will materially improve an ailing Chapter.
Having outlined what I consider to be our purposes and some of our failings, I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a few suggestions on how we could improve. We could begin by allowing more individuality in our Chapters. Some Chapters may wish to meet twice a month with a full line of officers in black tie and to confer degrees on demand. Others may want to meet quarterly with only nine Companions in informal dress and to send candidates to other Chapters or festivals for their degrees. The current notion of the ideal Chapter is one that is large, has a full line of officers, meets frequently, rehearses religiously, and has a waiting list of prospective Officers. This ideal at one time may have been common, and for the nineteenth century and even the early twentieth century was perfect, but it is certainly the exception now. We must allow our Chapters to find equivalent expressions for their zeal in Capitular Masonry without feeling inadequate. The alternative is to continue as we are, with Chapters withering as they become trapped in an endless cycle of failure.
The words spontaneous and lively are seldom used to describe Chapter meetings. Why not encourage a return of activities that not only promote fellowship but also are fun? These could include Table Chapters, dinners, and—as heretical as the suggestion may be—liquor served as refreshments or with a meal. American Freemasonry was bitten at an early age by the temperance bug, and has never quite recovered. Capitular Masonry could take a progressive step for the Craft by permitting Chapters to serve liquor, and at the same time encourage a less puritanical image of Masonry.
Our opening and closing rituals (not to mention most other routine procedures) should be streamlined. We really don’t need ten or more officers in a Chapter. Certainly the Veilsmen are unnecessary as is probably the Principal Sojourner. Ideally we should have both a long and short form opening and closing. The latter exist widely in bastard form and need only to be recognized and standardized. I’ve heard many say that short form ceremonies should never be allowed because the long forms would not be used again. If there is such a willingness to abandon our current forms, perhaps they have outlived their usefulness.
Finally, I’ll share with you my most radical thought: Our degrees need to be changed! Masonic ritual as we know it was born in the late seventeenth century. It grew and adapted to serve the Craft as the Craft evolved. It varied locally, and was a living, changing expression of the differing interpretations of our ritual heritage. Then, in the early to mid-nineteenth century, possibly in response to excessive variation and extreme interpretations, our ritual became uniform, rigid, and ossified. It was declared that the interpretations and usages of the middle 1800s would henceforth and forevermore be the orthodox ritual.
As beautiful and meaningful as our ritual may be, I’m not convinced that our 1850 version is any better than a 1750 one, and I’m certainly sorry that I’ll never see a 1950 interpretation. Our ritual is indeed impressive, but it should be as we have plagiarized from the finest sources—Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and others. However, great portions are wordy, turgid, anachronistic, unhistorical, and all but impossible to follow. When an evening devoted to the Royal Arch degree alone can drag on to nearly midnight, we cannot help but run off workers as well as sideliners. The task before us is one that will require delicacy, that will cause howls of pain, but at the least must be seriously considered.
It is painfully obvious that something is wrong with Capitular Masonry. Our membership is declining, as is that of most fraternal organizations, but more alarming is the fact that the percentage of Craftsmen who join the Chapter is also declining. The reasons for this downtrend are neither simple nor clear, else we would have eliminated them long ago. As conditions continue to deteriorate, many of our Companions take on a siege mentality, perhaps feeling that they are the last guardians of the sanctum sanctorum. They call, with increasing stridency, for a return to what they perceive as the virtues of our earlier days of strength: rehearsals, degree work, and conformity. To them, any change at all is tantamount to surrender.
On the other hand, I, as a self-confessed radical, want a more imaginative solution. While we still operate from a position of relative stability and strength, we should seek bold innovations. Surely we can preserve and transmit our teachings by some more flexible method. Certainly we can encourage and enhance fellowship and interest in the Craft less stodgily. Novelty will not guarantee success, nor will change be without failure. However, if we must fail, I would rather fail by trying than by acquiescence. When we pass on, as shall all things flesh, I want to go with a bang and not a whimper.
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