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