On 22 February, 1994 I had the privilege of observing the annual conference of Grand Master Masons of North America in Arlington Virginia. It was a visit which caused me more than a little concern.
That statement requires some explanation, because there was a great deal about the conference which I found very worthwhile, indeed. The Grand Master of Masons in Virginia conducted the proceedings with skill and dignity; and it was obvious that the Brethren present had a real sense of the importance of their work and were committed to its accomplishment. More than that, it was clear that all those in attendance were ardently dedicated to the well-being of the Order; and the projects which were described in the presentations were manifestly well intentioned, well thought through, and clearly intended to serve both the Craft and the community.
The reason for my reaction is more subtle. I think I was concerned because, in some curious way, there seemed to be a lack of cohesion. It seemed to me that, although everyone present was a Freemason, it was clear that they were members of some fifty odd different organizations. As well as sharing a common system of symbolism, these organizations share common problems and threats. Some of those, such as the relationship with the Shrine, are present realities. Others, such as racial issues, the changing role of women in the society, and attacks by the Churches, are not immediate problems; but they are certainly potential ones. I got the impression that although the representatives of the fifty odd Grand Lodges assembled in the room all share the common experience of the Masonic Degrees; there seemed to be no shared vision of the Craft.
The activities of which various Brethren spoke, action against drugs, action to curb violence in schools, programs to increase membership, and so forth, are all good and useful programs. They are programs which are well worth doing; but they are programs which any organization could undertake. They are programs of community service which could be as well performed by Rotary, Kiwanis, or Lions. They are useful things, they are good things, but they are not things which require Masonry's unique qualifications. Further than that, programs of this nature seem to me to address symptoms - not root causes. I came away from the conference with the impression that there is no joint position held by the conferees from which the Grand Lodges can take effective action to solve their common problems and no single, shared understanding which will enable Freemasonry to make its unique, fundamental contribution to society.
In my own work I frequently see companies, charities, and government agencies in a very similar situation. People identify obvious problems and implement programs to correct them; yet the organization continues to have difficulties. Managers feel that they are going around "pissing on hot-spots", and no real progress is made. When we see an organization in this situation we encourage its managers to ask themselves a single question, "What is this outfit really for?" Simple as it sounds, that is always a difficult question. The answer is rarely obvious; but when the leaders have found the answer to that question obscure situations become clear, difficult problems are solved easily, and the organization blooms like a rose.
It seems to me that Freemasonry would benefit by asking that sort of question.
On the Saturday before the Grand Masters' conference I had attended Brother George Washington's birthday celebrations at the Memorial Temple. With that experience fresh in my mind it was easy to think of Masonry in an earlier time. Washington's period, the 18th century, was one during which Freemasonry was very influential; it numbered among its members the movers and shakers of two continents. It seems to me that Washington's period might be a good starting place. Forget about the Rite Bodies and the Shrine; they were not around in 1776. Think of the Blue Lodge; and ask yourself the question:
"What is there in the Three Degrees that attracted the best intellects and the most able men on the European and American Continents to Freemasonry during the eighteenth century?"
If we cannot answer that question, our Lodges are not offering what Lodges offered in 1776; that is why movers and shakers are not attracted to our Lodges today. Answering that question is important. Let us think about what 18th century Masons must actually have done at their meetings. There are Lodges whose minutes read, month after month:
"Lodge opened. Lecture gone through. Lodge closed."
Think of what that means! Imagine how different such a meeting would have been from one of ours today. What could those Brethren have been doing? Why on earth did they keep coming back? They kept coming back because they were studying the material which makes up the symbolism of the Degrees. Simply learning the ritual was not enough. They didn't learn ritual so they could do a Degree well and get congratulated for it. They didn't even learn it so they could coach the next candidate. They learned it so the material would be immediately available for them for their study and for their personal guidance on a minute to minute basis. Their libraries included books which covered the same ground in greater detail.
Our 18th century Brethren were not members of an affluent, widely known organization dedicated to friendship and community service. They were good men making themselves better by studying the things that are concealed by the symbols and rituals of the Degrees themselves. And that study changed them. And, being changed themselves, they changed their world.
It is instructive to look round our world today. In almost every country one finds the trappings of democracy; in most of those countries democracy does not work very well at all. Those countries in which democracy does work are the same countries in which Freemasonry was influential during the 18th century (or they are places colonized by those countries). That is an indication of the influence our Order can have.
It seems to me that if we were to answer the question posed above, and to answer two equally fundamental questions: "What is Masonry, really?", and "What is Masonry uniquely qualified to do?"; then we would be well placed to offer America (and the world) something which it has lost and needs desperately to find again.
If we fail to answer those questions, the Craft will go the way of thousands of other organizations that forgot what they were for.
One does not have to subject the Craft's symbolism to much analysis to realize that those ten virtues figure prominently among the things which are taught by Freemasonry. If a man can publish a book on a subject at the heart of Masonic teaching, and that book is ten weeks on the best-seller list, why are Masonic Lodges looking for members?