Following in Brother C. M. Williams’ footsteps, Brother Joshua L. Rubin, PM presents his second submission for From the Mentor’s Mouth. WB Rubin is the Secretary of Samuel Gompers-Benjamin Franklin Lodge #45, Free and Accepted Masons of the District of Columbia. He served as Master of that lodge in 2011. He can be reached at email@example.com.
While reading WB Homan’s post recently, I was reminded of the fracture frequently found in North American Freemasonry. With 51 “traditional” Grand Lodges in the US and dozens of recognized Prince Hall Grand Lodges, not to mention the dozens of additional Grand Lodges in Canada, Mexico, and beyond, American Freemasonry is without the symbolic head that conspiracy theorists wish we had. When, as WB Homan notes, the Grand Masters of Georgia and Tennessee pass edicts that alienate us from one another and from the majority of Americans who support not only marriage equality, but the two-thirds who support the 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas.
Which led me to ask myself the question for the millionth time, “Why do we have so many Grand Lodges anyway?” Why do we subject ourselves to a system as fractured as it is? With fewer than 1.5 million members in the United States, why have 51 “traditional” grand lodges? Certainly, it would be infinitely easier to have one national Grand Lodge, as they do in other parts of the world. No longer would I have to wait for ages to get a waiver from another Grand Lodge to accept a member who happened to reside in Maryland, where most of my lodge’s members live. Or—perish the thought—I might be able to take on another member who does have a criminal record but has, in my lodge’s opinion, completely reformed himself… because a foreign Grand Master wanted to “make a point” (but that’s a story for another day).
The problem, of course, lies in the history of our organization, the philosophy that a Grand Lodge’s power is total over the Masonic activity that takes place within the boundaries of its Grand Jurisdiction, and the fact that certain kinds of people are sometimes drawn to the Office of Grand Master. The first two problems are due to tradition; the last is due to human nature.
History informs us that the unrestricted, disorganized spread of Freemasonry has led to our current state. With competing Grand Lodges in different parts of Europe, with different traditions and rituals consecrating different Grand Lodges in the New World, and with each of those Grand Lodges forming lodges and Grand Lodges of their own, we ended up with an inordinate number of lodges and Grand Lodges forming alliances and agreements until we ended up with situations where the Grand Lodge of DC (along with the Grand Lodges of Scotland, New York, and maybe others I don’t know about) has a constituent lodge in, of all places, Lebanon. With no Grand Lodge in Lebanon, it’s pretty much an open market on whichever Grand Lodge opens lodges there.
Such unrestricted spreading of lodges will sometimes lead to brethren in an area creating a new Grand Lodge. The Grand Lodge of California, for example, was founded by California Lodge #4 of DC (now California Lodge #1 of the Grand Lodge of California), among others. But other times, this unrestricted spread of lodges has led to inter-Grand Lodge Conflict. Case in point: the Grand Lodges of New York and DC briefly withdrew fraternal relations with each other in 2008 because two Grand Masters disagreed about the proper procedure for getting along in Masonically-“unorganized” Lebanon. I had been a Master Mason for only two years at this point, and it started me on my skeptical-of-having-so-many-Grand-Lodges trajectory.
Which brings us to the main reason why the system persists. I suppose it is theoretically possible for a massive, grassroots movement within various Grand Lodges to agree to form a real Grand Lodge of the United States (rather than the Conference of Grand Masters of North America, which is at best like a United Nations of Freemasonry), but I suspect that the answer lies much closer to the realities of today’s intra-fraternal relationships. Not all Grand Masters are tinpot dictators, though there are certainly a few out there—the men who see Grand Masterhood as the pinnacle of power in their worlds. The men occupying the Oriental Chair in the Grand East who are most effective are those men who take to heart the charge that the only disagreements should be to contend who can best work and best agree.
And so we return to the subject discussed by WB Homan: there are Grand Masters who use the fractured nature of our fraternal system to make political points over the lives and work of individual Masons because they feel it is in their power to do so. What these brethren forget is that though a belief in a Grand Architect of the Universe is a requirement, no particular religion should be discussed in Lodge. This tradition at least as old as Anderson’s Constitutions (first published in England in 1723), and by the accounts of the Constitutions, at least as old as the Protestant Reformation in England. What the Grand Masters of Georgia and Tennessee are doing, in essence, is bringing what I suspect to be privately held religious beliefs and opinions about the legal ramifications of a Supreme Court decision into the Lodge. Since WB Homan has already outlined a response to this position, I will not repeat it.
But where does Masonry go from here? That, to me, is the bigger question. We have a fractious system with positions where certain individuals hold sway over a section of our Fraternity, the results of which may alienate members and prevent organizational expansion. Unlike some of our appendant bodies who have a national or international governing structure (i.e. the Imperial Divan and Imperial Potentate), Blue Lodge Masonry does not.
I mentioned earlier the Conference of Grand Masters of North America which exists to provide an official interlocutory for Grand Masters, but I do not believe that this goes far enough. When Freemasons are increasingly in the public eye, as WB Homan alludes, we need a more consistent message. Case in point: earlier this year, a group of people in Los Angeles were arrested for impersonating police officers, calling themselves the “Masonic Fraternal Police Department.” What was the response from Freemasonry in general? No, seriously, I’d like to know, because I haven’t been able to find anything online from the Grand Lodge of California or the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of California. And that’s only the subject of damage control. There are a handful of Masons in Congress and in other places in the public eye, but when was the last time there was any kind of positive national attention to our fraternity? Shriner’s Hospital for Children is probably the best-known Masonically-affiliated charity, but when was the last time you saw anything positive written about Masons written by the mainstream national press?
With no unified stance on anything, is it any wonder that our Fraternity is dying? Word does not spread “mouth to ear” alone anymore, and the continuing fracturing by continuing to bring in politics and one fundamentalist interpretation of one religion into our governance is destroying our organization. Yes, it is time that the Grand Masters of Tennessee and Georgia stop forcing their individual beliefs on their constituent lodges, but this is but a symptom of a larger problem: how to make Freemasonry relevant, responsive, and ready for the 21st century.
Thank you Bro. Joshua Rubin for you contribution this week!
If you would like to be the next contributor to From The Mentor’s Mouth, send me an email. I hope you will.