Monday, August 15, 2011

Guest Article: The Case Against Theme and “Affinity” Lodges

Brother Jack Roberts is a great thinker in Minnesota Masonry. I am ecstatic that he's agreed to write an article for this blog. Thank you Brother Jack.

In a recent post on The Millennial Freemason, W. Bro. Nick Johnson discussed whether our lodges would be more successful if they adopted a “theme model” instead of a “destination model.” He stated that “a lodge needs a hook…something that captures the attention and wonder of a man…to keep singing the song of Freemasonry in his heart.” W. Bro Nick gives the example of a lodge adopting a theme as its hook, such as using British ritual and dress, or following the principles of the Traditional Observance Lodges as outlined by the Masonic Restoration Foundation. I left a comment to W. Bro. Nick’s post, and he asked me to expound on my comment by writing a guest post for The Millennial Freemason. I appreciate this opportunity, W. Bro. Nick. You should be commended for giving someone the “floor” on your blog who does not necessarily agree with you.

In my opinion, theme lodges and affinity lodges are an unfortunate formalization of the ongoing dance we do to completely avoid the reason the Craft exists and our required work. Freemasonry already has a theme. It is identical across jurisdictions and time: to provide men with the knowledge and assistance to achieve self-enlightenment and constantly move along a road of self-improvement. At best, a theme lodge is one of many tools we use to assist each other to move along this road. At worst, it is a distraction and a sales gimmick wrapped in a fancy label.

In my 12+ years as a Master Mason, I’ve seen a growing tendency for lodges to compete with each other on a variety of selling points: convincing a Brother to join a lodge across town because it has “better” fellowship than his local lodge, or “better” ritual, or a “more traditional approach.” In our more passive-aggressive moods, we simply state “we stress fellowship at our lodge…” Theme lodges, for the most part, are just another form of self-advertising, targeting a niche audience – “we dress better than other lodges,” and “we use fancy European ritual – no Preston-Webb work here except when Grand Lodge makes us use it.”

Somewhere along the way, we sacrificed the foundation of why meet as Freemasons – our “theme” – by elevating how we achieve our goals to supreme importance. Fellowship, ritual proficiency, and unique themes have become the reason for existence for many lodges. Lodges spend their time and effort to being the best or most unique at everything except what truly matters.

We sell Masonry under the oft-quoted maxim of “making good men better.” The all-too-familiar rant against our Craft is that we consistently fail to follow through on this sales pitch. We fail to teach and encourage each other to live our principles. We fail to consistently provide our members with the intellectual support they need to improve themselves. Masonic “education” is seen merely as an elective course, to fit in the schedule if we have time, but it is never to prevent us from planning the next cook-off or cause our meeting to run too long and interfere with our post-lodge fellowship. We perpetuate the neglect of our true purpose with a smoke-and-mirrors approach, throwing ritual, fellowship, titles, charities, and – our latest fad in Minnesota – theme lodges, at Brothers, while ignoring the hard work of actually challenging men to develop spiritually. What benefit is it to us if we restrict our Masonic dealings and efforts to topics that deal with nothing more than the outer, and not the inner man?

Some Brothers may argue that they enjoy spending time with “like-minded men” who appreciate ritual like they do, or British regalia like they do, etc. etc. Brothers, every lodge is full of like-minded men. The beauty of Freemasonry, one of our hallmarks, is that it brings together men from all walks of life, where we meet upon the level and part upon the square.

Brothers, I am not arguing that theme lodges are a bad idea. If they can use their themes in a way that fulfills the ultimate purpose of Freemasonry, then they should be commended, as should any lodge that accomplishes this purpose. But a Lodge with an absence of education, a lodge that focuses on the how at the expense of the why, a lodge that does not provide the means for its Brothers to improve spiritually – this lodge is failing at its mission, no matter how formally its members dress, what form of ritual it uses, or how often its Brothers meet for dinner and call it “festive board.”

Bro. Jack P. Roberts
Nicollet Lodge No. 54, Saint Peter, MN
High Priest, Minnesota Chapter No. 1
Illustrious Master, Saint Paul Council No. 1

8 comments:

MP said...

Brothers, every lodge is full of like-minded men. The beauty of Freemasonry, one of our hallmarks, is that it brings together men from all walks of life, where we meet upon the level and part upon the square.

Not while we tolerate racism in freemasonry.
Why have we not de-recognized the GLs which still ignore their Prince Hall counterparts?
Don't give me the "grand lodge sovereignty" argument.
The US GLs ganged up on Minnesota for recognizing the GLdF - where was GL sovereignty there?

Oh, every GL can choose whom to recognize, and whom not to, so, when one GL does something all the others dislike, we can effectively blackmail them into doing what we want, but Architect forbid we call out 10 GLs for being racists, and tell them to wander alone in the darkness until they pull their heads out of their fourth point of contact and recognize PHA.

Some Masons are more interested in looking at the potential impact ritual has on the psyche of a candidate - how does it help make him better - how do those rituals and allegories mark him?
"Oh no, you're discussing occultism, and this is a Christian order - you don't belong."

Don't talk to me about us already having likeminded men - everyone comes to Masonry for a different reason, and those who come for a good ole boys club should be allowed to have it, and those who come for the philosophical discussions of Loge Les Neuf Sœurs should be allowed to have that.

Jason said...

Fraternal Greetings from Ohio! I am happy to have found this blog this morning and have thoroughly enjoyed what I have seen thus far.

To the latest post, specifically. I agree with Brother Jack that we must not sacrifice the "why" for the "how". But I believe that a "theme" lodge could certainly help some of our Brothers to find an interest in the "why". In my short time as a MM (1 1/2 years) I have come across many "passive Light-seekers". These are men who have a great interest in seeking what is behind the veil and making that spiritual connection that is interwoven throughout our ritual. However, for many reasons are not vocal about it. A "theme" type lodge provides an opportunity for them to explore it further without feeling like they are alone on the journey.

As to MP's comment. Prince Hall recognition is certainly an issue that needs to be resolved but is simply an example of a rough ashlar. Lack of this recognition does not align itself to the tenets of Freemasonry, and as such I am obligated to give wise counsel to those who are not behaving in accordance with those tenets.

I am fortunate enough to be a member of a GL jurisdiction that does recognize my Prince Hall Brothers. It is my sincere hope that the remaining GL's that you refer to will soon follow.

Your Brother,

Jason

The Millennial Freemason said...

Thanks Jason. I've had some great experiences at theme lodges because of the dedication to the theme. Lodges for many years became complacent because they were the only game in town. Now, many lodges are sharing buildings and each lodge needs to find a reason to exist.

I also agree with Bro Jack because many lodges, not only theme lodges, have lost the why in Freemasonry. Education is essential in lodge and too many lodges fail at bringing that education because they get bogged down on business. One simple way to get away from lodge business taking over lodge education is to have the education first and use committees to do most of the work.

Nick

The Millennial Freemason said...

Jason,

Would you like to write a guest article for this blog? Any topic that you'd like. Just send me an email.

Nick

Thomas Jackson said...

Jack, you might have actually visited one of those affinity lodges you disparage before posting your remarks.

Really. Most reviewers will at least page through a book before reviewing it. A visit may have challenged your pre-conceptions, which would have been better than writing blindly and in ignorance.

You confuse style over substance, essentially calling us 'surface,' which itself is a surface reading.

I wrote an essay on our discussion forums about affinity lodges, here: http://bit.ly/qEUGym . I won't repost the essay - read it by using the link. But suffice to say, that the affinity concept builds on the natural impulse to deepen roots for a CAUSE, which helps all organizations improve member retention, loyalty, attendence and satisfaction. I am convinced, ALL lodges can use some affinity to revitalize their membership.

Had you asked, or visited, we would have explained it. Better, you would have witnessed it.

Thomas Jackson
PGM, 2008-09
Founder, Churchill Lodge #351

John R. Gann said...

As a strong advocate of the "purpose-driven" lodge concept, I appreciate Jack's comments. He makes some good points, which point to the ideal of remembering the very foundational aspects of our fraternity. There is the real possibility that whatever "purpose" or strong cultural element a lodge has would dilute attention to the more fundamental nature of Masonry.

That being said, I remain an advocate that most lodges would benefit from having a discernable "purpose" that is in addition to its Masonic purpose of raising and educating members. Too many lodges are bland and lifeless; a purpose gives the members something to energize the lodge and may help rejuvinate it as an institution that adds many kinds of value to its Brothers. I view the idea of a "purpose-driven" lodge and the more fundamental "Masonic purpose" not as a dichotomoy - either/or - but cumulative; one feeds the other.

Petrovich1248 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Petrovich1248 said...

Brother Roberts complains that: "...theme lodges and affinity lodges are an unfortunate formalization of the ongoing dance we do to completely avoid the reason the Craft exists and our required work." And he adds that the theme of Freemasonry is: "to provide men with the knowledge and assistance to achieve self-enlightenment and constantly move along a road of self-improvement."

Amen. So, why does he have a problem with a lodge that has taken steps to improve itself by being more traditional? He answers by saying that a lodge that does these things "is a distraction and a sales gimmick wrapped in a fancy label."

He's a naysayer. Rather than work to improve the Craft, he criticizes those that do.