Friday, June 22, 2007

Challenging lodge-specific traditions is a dangerous thing

When things go wrong for you, you often think you're the only one it's happened to. That's the way I felt when I first started this blog to relate my negative experiences in Freemasonry.

As The Burning Taper gained readership, I began hearing similar stories from brothers in jurisdictions all across the country.

While it's sad to know that so much disharmony exists in the brotherhood, by some twisted logic it's comforting to know you're not alone in your experiences. Masonic disagreements, over rules and procedures, property, ritual, egos, perceptions, and even religion and politics happen every day. Maybe Masons don't have more disagreements than members of any other group, but with the fraternity having "peace and harmony" as a goal and "brotherly love" as a major tenet, it's all the more awkward, embarrassing and disappointing when we don't get along.

One of the most common causes of disagreement is the clash of ideas between otherwise friendly-to-each-other brothers. It usually takes the form of a newer, more progressive-thinking Mason presenting ideas and suggestions of change to older, more conservative brothers, who generally are by nature resistant to change. At its extreme, it is the classic battle between neophobes and neophiles, those averse to novelty versus those who have an affinity for novelty.

"That's not the way we do it around here" is almost a cliche; we've all heard that said repeatedly by our more senior brothers.

And yes, some things probably shouldn't be changed.

But I've noticed that most of the things long-time Masons are averse to changing aren't necessarily long-time Masonic traditions or landmarks. Usually, what they want to hold onto is some way of doing things that was introduced into their lodge within their own lifetime, that, for them, has become tradition. When you compare their sacred-cow-you-can't-change to official code or traditional landmark, you'll find that someone in their own lodge's not-too-distant past made a change and then that change became "the way we do things around here."

Some lodge-specific traditions are benign, like always holding the annual Widow's Breakfast on the first Saturday of December, or a brother who has staked out a certain chair in the lodgeroom as "his."

Other lodge-specific traditions are actually against Masonic code, or not Uniform Work, like not having the officers march in at the beginning of a meeting, or not requiring a brother to stand and salute the East before speaking, or praying loud and long to Jesus when sectarian religious activity is specifically prohibited. Georgia Masonic Code, for example, speaks of having the official state flag displayed stage-left in a lodge room. Even I didn't dare mention that our lodge's state flag, with its Confederate Battle Flag field, was officially changed by the state six years ago, and by code should be replaced with the new flag.

I noticed, too, in my lodge, that while Past Masters were adamant about new members learning and reciting ritual correctly, like saying "the" instead of "a" in a specific part in the ritual, they were loathe to learn and use an updated section of ritual even when the Grand Lodge's ritual committee officially changed it. "That's not the way we say it," I was told.

I've even seen a Past Master argue, in front of a large group, with the official instructor of ritual during a School of Instruction about the proper place for the Senior Warden to stand during a certain moment in degree work. His rationale? "That's the way we do it at our lodge!"

He was calmly told, "I'm teaching you the Uniform Work. How you do it at your lodge is up to you." Ten brothers from my lodge attending the school have just seen the proper way to do it, and absorbed that as the correct way, yet when they later try to do it that way at their home lodge, the same Past Master shouts out, "That's not the way we do it here." Funny... ten men would do it that way — the correct way — if the one Past Master holding onto his incorrect "tradition" would hold his tongue and let them.

The new brother, or a neophile brother, risks censure and more if he dares question lodge-specific "traditions."

Image: "From Hell"

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  1. But I've noticed that most of the things long-time Masons are averse to changing aren't necessarily long-time Masonic traditions or landmarks. Usually, what they want to hold onto is some way of doing things that was introduced into their lodge within their own lifetime, that, for them, has become tradition.

    It is a truism in Connecticut that "Lodge traditions" are the continuation of a mistake that someone made, but never corrected, either because it "looked cool" or nobody thought about it.

    Few things generate the heat like having a GL officer try to correct these traditions. :-\

    Excellent observation, WS.

  2. Then of course, you can follow proper procedure and wind up disappointing the Brethren.

    Oh well....


  3. Well here's my philosophy as a Brother of the Craft, a Worshipful Master, and a ritualist certification candidate:
    The book is right, except where it isn't. Let me explain that a bit: The book represents the ritual as given by our Grand Lodge Esoteric Committee and propounded by our District Lecturers. The book allows for minor variation of execution in some segments. Other segments it makes very clear that there is only one acceptable way of performing it. If the book says that there can be no variation (as in the preparation of the candidate, for example, our Lodge has a "tradition" of having the Tiler prepare the Candidate ahead of time and often incorrectly - this makes no sense in context since the Candidate has not, at that point, received the Junior Deacon's address as to WHY he is being prepared), then I enforce that 100% - even to the point of alienating the most vocal neophobic past master in our lodge. I have our (now former) District Lecturer on speed-dial so I can call him up and let said Past Master ask him how to perform a certain segment. Other segments, the ones that have looser constraints, I allow to be done "the way we've always done it" as long as it does not conflict with other sections of the ritual, violate any bylaws, laws, or edicts, or put the candidate or another Brother in physical or emotional hardship. Several good examples are: Our Grand Lodge changed the wording of the Entered Apprentice reception to include the word "symbolically" - as in "Y ar smb rcd o t pt o a sp ist prc yr nkd lft brt..." I allow (and encourage) our Senior Deacon to omit the word "symbolically" because that reception was very meaningful to me as an EA and I don't think that being "symbolically received" makes as stong an impression as actually being received. Other sections where some leeway is permitted are the EA walkaround lecture (the second section) and the EA Apron presentation. In fact, there are several different "optional" versions in our official ritual monitors and it even says that particularly learned Brethren are encouraged to substitute their own Apron Address as long as it meets the criteria. One lodge in our area has special permission from the Grand Lodge to perform the picture lectures (EA and MM) using a real marble tracing board and chalk and charcoal to instruct the candidate. This is beacuse a brother of that Lodge is very good at performing it this way and it is quite impressive to see. So I agree with Brother Widow's Son that some of "the way we do it here" is a good thing to leave alone, while other things ought to be made to conform to the "official" way of doing things.

  4. Quoting from our Connecticut Monitor:

    "Grand Lodge Regulations insist that in essentials unity, in ono-essentials liberty....

    Our Lodge has, by tradition, some lectures not contained in the Monitor, and I have never seen objection to it.

    Traveling Man

  5. Darn my farrier fingers!

    I meant, " essentials unity in non-essentials, libert...",


  6. DAMN! essentials unity, in non essentials liberty...."


  7. Our Lodge has, by tradition, some lectures not contained in the Monitor, and I have never seen objection to it.

    Conn is fairly liberal about its approach to ritual - much to the dismay of some old-timers. Adding to the degree work is rarely discouraged. For example, the EA is presented with an apron and accompanying lecture. Our lodge has a long, long form of this. Other lodges have a, er, shorter long form. Others have a slightly different long form. One would think that it should be more consistent, but the point is that they are all extensions of the short version that is required.

    I should note that from a historical perspective, rituals have often varied between lodges; it was only during the mid- to late-1800s (in the US, anyway) that GLs began to think about standardizing rituals, based on the Preston-Webb lectures that were making the rounds after the Civil War.

  8. At a certain Annual Communication in a certain midwestern state this past month, legislation was proposed that would allow the Grand Lodge building in the state capital to let non-Masonic, outside renters serve alcoholic beveredges at their functions. It was to be a three year experiment to show the state's Masons that a wedding reception could be held in a Masonic building with alcohol and the Earth would not stop spinning on its axis.

    Naturally it lost by a hefty majority. And no one had better dare suggest that Masons be allowed to serve wine at a Feast of St. John or a festive board.

    At one point during the predictable recitation of truisms, canards, shrieks and hysteria that get trotted out whenever this topic comes up, one Mason stood up and actually said, to the effect, "If the Founding Fathers ever heard us discuss allowing alcohol into our Temple buildings, they'd roll over in their graves."

    You mean the Founding Fathers who were ALL initiated, passed and raised in taverns? Or perhaps the Masters of the founding lodges in the state who formed the Grand Lodge, who were meeting in a tavern, who turned in their expenses for rum and cigars to be reimbursed by their home lodges when they returned?


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