The Provincial Grand Lodge of Munster has released an updated edition of John Day’s “Memoir of the Lady Freemason” and I couldn’t be more excited about it.
Largely because the re-release contains a considerable lot about Day himself, about whom I previously knew only a little more than I do about Ralph P. Lester.
Oh, and I got to contribute to the appendix 🙂
The new edition was officially released during the kick off the Cork Heritage Week in County Cork, Ireland, in August. Amid the initial speeches and celebrations, the Provincial Grand Lodge of Munster Grand Librarian and Archivist, W.Bro. David J. Butler, presented the first copy of the fifth edition to The Rt. Hon. The Lord Mayor of Cork, Councilor John Sheehan.
For those who don’t already know, “Memoir of the Lady Freemason,” of which the first edition was prepared and published in 1914, is about as close to a definitive biography as we have about the life and times of Elizabeth St. Leger Aldworth. Though the Provincial Grand Lodge of Munster’s website still refers to Aldworth as “the only Lady Freemason” – they’ve always been very friendly and cordial with me – it’s more accurate to say she was the first known woman Freemason in the modern history of the Craft.
The Grand Lodge of California, the state’s largest male-only Masonic body, apparently has suddenly concluded that it’s OK with women and mixed Freemasons. Seriously, they’re very chill about it.
This has been evolving for years, but it really became obvious when the May/June edition of California Freemason was issued. The entire edition is dedicated to the long history of women in Freemasonry – that is, as Freemasons – and not-at-all taking the old Malecraft line of ignoring, downplaying, and denying that past, present, and future.
They’re not even being condescending about it. Whoa O.O
The May/June issue of California Freemason includes articles about the universal appeal of Freemasonry “to men and women alike,” feminine symbols that “are threaded into the very fabric of Freemasonry,” and stories about women Freemasons and Co-Masons active in the U.S. All the articles are written as if the women Freemasons have existed for centuries (they have); there’s no problem with that (there isn’t), and that it is something that obviously should be taken for granted (it should).
The edition seems to be doing it’s level best to pretend that this has been the norm all along and invites the reader to buy into that. As if there never was any other less pleasant time in which Malecraft writers marginalized, downplayed, and ignored women-only and mixed Freemasonry.
The message is clear: this is the new line, dear reader. Let us forget the old.
Well, 1) some of us never bought into the old line, and 2) this is all very well and good, but it’s making me, as a masonic historian, more than a little nervous.
We’ve been here before.
This is not the first time that Malecraft Masons in California have been OK with Femalecraft and mixed Masons. The last time it happened, it didn’t turn out so well.
There are more than a few brothers and sisters who don’t want me to talk about that history because things are going well right now in California, and my talking about the unpleasant past, apparently, could endanger that.
“Just let it go,” one Femalecraft Mason said to me very recently. “Don’t screw this up for us.”
“Everything of a disagreeable and painful sort was forgotten, or passed over lightly; and a certain delicacy of feeling made everyone refrain from disputes which might engender bitterness and re-open old sores.”1
I can even see something Masonic about that.
However, the historian in me is more than a little alarmed because we have been here before. I hope it doesn’t go bad again, in the same way or in any other, but I can’t take for granted that it won’t.
Not that I can do anything more than watch while I hope for the best. I am but a common brother, no one great in any order.
Still, I am impudent enough to ask the Masonic movers and shakers at the actual center of all of this – far from the periphery where I stand, watch and hope – to please, PLEASE, just bear the unpleasant past in mind; and, above all, be cautious.
At least as cautious as I am trying to be.
The Masonic Order to which I belong, the Honorable Order of Universal Co-Masonry, United Federation of Lodges2 today is easily the largest Co-Masonic body in North America. Since its Masonic divorce from Le Droit Humain in the 1990s, the Order has grown to the point that it’s approaching the numbers of other mixed bodies in the world and now itself has become an international body.
That growth is its own mostly unwritten history, but this blog will be focused, instead, on why the developments in California are giving me pause.
Universal Co-Masonry has its largest North American presence in California. In no other state or province (outside of Colorado, the state in which the Order’s headquarters is located), does the Order have more lodges of multiple bodies than in California. There are more Blue Lodges of Universal Co-Masonry in California than any other state, including Colorado.
Some of the earliest Lodges of the order were consecrated in California and, then as now, those Lodges tend(ed) to be among the strongest in the Order.
Perhaps that was partly why Bro. Louis Goaziou, a leading founder and President and Grand Commander of Co-Masonry in North America during the first part of the 20th century, tried to steer the Order toward closer relations with Malecraft Masonry in the U.S. His aim seems to have been more about détente and acknowledgment rather than full on amity, recognition and other front office agreements.
Such things, really, are not necessary.
In the decades prior, Co-Masons largely preferred to operate under the radar of the Malecraft. The Malecraft were to be acknowledged and respected but close relations were ill advised. The Malecraft, after all, had a habit of throwing persecutions.
I’ll refrain from reciting the usual litany of that very unmasonic behavior in any great detail and just say that co-masons generally felt the Malecraft were, for good reason, best avoided.
Goaziou, who had been arrested in 1908 in Pennsylvania for being a Co-Mason and personally faced other Malecraft persecution,3 certainly agreed with that preference. However, as the years wore on and co-masonry grew, Goaziou seems to have developed a vision of how things could be if the various branches of Freemasonry could just get along.
There was, after all, much to be gained. In addition to harmony and that “certain delicacy of feeling,” a standing down of unpleasantness would be good for Co-Masonry. The Order would be allowed to grow without hiding its light under a bushel and, perhaps, the Malecraft would be willing to assist in that by opening their premises for Co-Masons to rent.
If better relations were possible, Goaziou decided there was too much to be gained for him to not at least try.
In the early 1920s, Bro. Goaziou took the first modest steps, mostly just a bit of outreach. When Goaziou traveled to Co-Masonic Lodges, he worked in visits to Malecraft Lodges.
Those Malecraft lodges, which Goaziou and other Co-Masons habitually referred to as “Lodges of F and AM,” were more than ready to receive him. Within a few years, he was speaking with Malecraft brothers who had “Grand” in their Masonic titles, and he developed a wide-ranging correspondence with many of the world’s leading Malecraft scholars of the day.
Soon Bro. Goaziou was receiving invitations to speak in open lodge, or at least with the lodge at refreshment, and the talks he gave were very well received. For example, he gave a talk on March 2, 1926 during a meeting of Rockridge Masonic Lodge No. 468, F and AM4 in Oakland, California on the topic of “Women in Masonry.” A local newspaper reporter was present, and Goaziou himself later reported to Co-masons in the Order that he was strongly encouraged by this particular lodge visit.
“There is hope for the future when it becomes possible for your Grand Commander to speak on ‘Women in Masonry’ before Lodges of F and AM.”5
During that stop in Oakland, Bro. Goaziou also visited five other Malecraft Lodges and had to turn down invitations to visit others for lack of time.
I could go on quite a while about events and developments in this largely successful effort to heal divisions between Co-Masonry and Malecraft Masonry in California, as well as the rest of the country. Things were looking very promising, much as they are in California now, but . . .
The bottom line was this: it went very badly. So badly, that it hasn’t been tried again until very recently.
I could go into great detail about how badly it went but this is a blog, not a book.6 Very long story short, a few Malecraft Masons of the bottom-feeding sort, who didn’t think much of Goaziou’s efforts or of healing divisions in Freemasonry, began to agitate for legal action against Co-Masons in North America.
The supposed basis for that legal action was never very clear but the overall subject seems to have been, “Get’em.”
In the early spring of 1929, articles slandering Co-Masonry began to appear in third-rate Masonic publications, largely written by the same few authors who acted very like trolls on the Internet today. The articles continued well into the summer and began to be picked up by more mainstream publications – Masonic and otherwise. Imagine the attention it would attract if the New York Times republished something first published in InfoWars.
By that autumn, an effort was underway to pressure the Grand Lodge of California “to take legal action against the Co-Masonic Lodges,” Goaziou warned in his October Circular.
There was as much to lose as there had been to gain. The math was simple enough. If the Grand Lodge of California took legal action against Co-Masonry, other Malecraft Grand Lodges were likely to follow. Legally, Co-Masonry was on very strong ground and probably could/would win any such litigation. Practically, however, Co-Masonry did not then have the resources to fight such a battle and probably would go under if it had to.
For months, Co-Masons held their breath, but Goaziou ultimately received word through back channels that the Grand Lodge of California had decided no such legal action would be taken. Co-Masonry in North America had missed a bullet.
Bro. Goaziou also continued to receive invitations to speak in Malecraft Lodges, and his many friends in Malecraft Masonry encouraged him to continue his efforts at healing the divisions.
However, Goaziou and other Co-Masons had suffered a terrible scare and collectively returned to the prior preference of avoiding Malecraft Freemasonry. Goaziou himself announced that he had been wrong to make the effort and that, “to avoid a recurrence of a similar incident,” he would refrain from those efforts.
It was over.
Now, here we are, about 90 years later. It’s 2019 and things are, again, looking promising in California.
A Masonic Philosophical Society meeting in San Diego, California, attended by California Co-Masons [Photo by Maria Isabel Sattui]
Today, not only does Universal Co-Masonry have its greatest presence – outside of headquarters in Colorado – in California, Femalecraft Freemasonry is very much on the rise in the state. Recently, Lodge Aletheia, active in Los Angeles under charter from the Women’s Grand Lodge of Belgium and which traces its history to the 1980s, gave a symposium and had no qualms about advertising it. They weren’t afraid at all.
It is now masonically safer to openly be a Co- or Femalecraft Mason in California. The May/June California Freemason seems to be further encouraging a certain giddy lack of circumspection.
I’ve also heard that the May/June issue of California Freemason itself has prompted significant conversations within the Grand Lodge of California, and that some of the discussions are about how to better show respect and appreciation for the many different threads of Masonry, without violating anyone’s obligations.
Which really isn’t all that difficult. Seriously, it really isn’t. It’s just not something that would have happened even five years ago.
And yet all this – and more – is happening out in the open without the Grand Lodge of California having a snit about it. No threats of lawsuits, getting the state’s General Assembly to move against Co- and Femalecraft Masonry, accosting non-Malecraft Freemasons on the street, breaking into their premises or any other bits of ugliness that could have been expected not very long ago.
Like everyone else, I want to feel very encouraged about that. In a way, I suppose I am feeling encouraged. I’m just feeling it in a very cautious sort of way.
Because that unpleasant history did happen and forgetting history usually tempts a repeat cycle. Still, I suppose the détente in California – if that’s what’s happening – is a good thing.
Y’all carry on, though I hope you will be cautious. I’ll just wait here in the periphery and see how it goes.
______________________________________ 1 See page 27 of the WBro the Rev F. De P. Castells’ “Origin of the Masonic Degrees” (A Lewis, London, 1928). 2 Formerly know as the Honorable Order of American Co-Masonry, American Federation of Human Rights. 3 Yup, it was illegal to be a Co-Mason in Pennsylvania in 1908. If you want to know more about that persecution, as well as the historical points I’m trying to make in this blog, read this. 4Merged to help form Oakland Durant Rockridge Lodge #188, F & AM in 1983. 5 Goaziou’s Circular 74 issued May 1, 1926. 6 Seriously, if you want to know, read this.
Brother Nellie McCool 33°, an aviator in her youth during World War II, flew again late this past spring and just might do it again next year.
“It was great,” Bro. Nellie told me last time I saw her. “It was a lot of fun. I’m happy I got to do it.”
Bro. Nellie, 97, went up in the cockpit of a Boeing Stearman, the same sort used to train aviators during the 1930s and 40s, on June 19, thanks to Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation.
The Carson City, Nevada-based non-profit, staffed largely by volunteers and dependent on donations to continue their mission, dedicated to seniors and U.S. Military veterans, which made it possible for Bro. Nellie and the other former aviators in her group to make the flight.
As of the date of this blog, 4005 “dream flights” have flown via the foundation.
Bro. Nellie McCool as an aviator trainee during World War II
After the war, the WASPs were disbanded and McCool went on to earn her Ph.D. in Psychology from Colorado College and worked at several Colorado schools, including North Junior High, South Security School, and Harrison Senior High School. In the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, McCool worked in intelligence at NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain Complex. Later, she served 12 years in the guidance, counseling, job development and placement section of the state’s Board of Community Colleges and Occupational Education and she was director of the ABC for Self-Help Inc. counseling service.
Bro. Nellie also is a brother of the 33° and a member of the Supreme Council of the Honorable Order of Universal Co-Masonry, headquartered in Larkspur, Colorado, only a few miles from her home in Castle Rock.
She didn’t hesitate when the chance to fly again was offered by Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation.
“Today, many of our former United States military pilots live in senior communities,” the foundation says on its website. “We want to take them back to a place in time when they were invincible, ruling the sky as proud military aviators.
As of the date of this blog, 4005 “dream flights” have flown, thanks to the foundation.
As she did decades ago, Bro. Nellie climbed onto the wing of the Boeing Stearman to get to the cockpit for the flight over and around the Colorado Springs area, which included Garden of the Gods and Prospect Lake.
“When you’re up there, looking down, everything is in miniature,” Bro. Nellie said. “All your problems seem very small.”
If you’re planning to show up in Georgia wearing a tank top, short-shorts, and flip flops, better keep it to Stone Mountain Park, Hearse Ghost Tours, Jimmy Carter National Historic Site and other such places. The Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Georgia, the largest male-only Freemasonic obedience in the state, is having none of it.
“No Mason shall attend any Meeting wearing shorts, an uncollared shirt, t-shirt, exercise wear, open-toed shoes, sandals, or flip flops unless medically necessary,” Grand Lodge of Georgia Grand Master Michael H. Wilson said in his edict issued late last month.
Nothing herein shall be construed as prohibiting a Brother from wearing jeans or overalls with a collared shirt or any required medical device. Nothing herein shall be construed as requiring a Brother to wear a suit, sport coat, tie, or tuxedo unless the Worshipful Master so directs.
The first thing that caught my attention was the notion that medical situations exist that require the wearing of flip flops (apparently it isn’t just a post-mani-ped thing). Once I got over that, it occurred to me just how damning it is that a Grand Master anywhere has to tell Freemasons how to dress in Lodge; that enough Brethren there don’t already know.
And if they don’t already know that . . . well, it’s yet another sign that we’re doomed.
Granted, the Georgia edict inevitably would puzzle a Freemason, such as myself, hailing from an Order where everyone wears pretty much the same thing in lodge (guys wear white suits, gals wear white robes, it’s all very standardized).
Something like the Georgia edict just wouldn’t come up in the Order to which I belong. It just wouldn’t. The Brethren in that Order already know, they don’t have to be told. That said . . .
I think Georgia’s back story also is relevant as the Grand Lodge of Georgia has long been an outlier in Freemasonry.
In 2009, a Lodge under that obedience filed suit in DeKalb County Superior Court after the Grand Master of Georgia decreed a Masonic trial would be conducted to hear complaints about the lodge’s decision to enter a Brother of color.
That same year, in a more hushed up controversy, the Grand Lodge of Georgia pressured the allegedly independent Order of Eastern Star (OES) to expel its Co-Masonic members or lose the right to meeting in premises owned by Freemasons under the male-only body in that state. The Georgia OES dutifully ferreted out and expelled those members found to be Co-Masons, including one sister who had been a member of the OES for 25 years.
The following year, then Grand Lodge of California Grand Master M. David Perry declared Georgia’s outlawing of Homosexuality to be “a sectarian stand which is inconsistent with and does not support the General Regulations of Freemasonry.” With that, the Grand Lodge of California withdrew recognition from Georgia and the Grand Lodge of Tennessee, which had issued its own similar edicts and other paper. The Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia likewise withdrew recognition from the grand lodges in Georgia and Tennessee.
I bring all that up to point out that a dress code edict is a very mild edict to come out of Georgia.
Chris Hodapp, in his always delightful and informative “Freemasons for Dummies” blog, argues that this edict points up a debate between “Exterior” Freemasons and “Interior” Freemasons. The Exterior brethren apparently feel that attire not fit for a visit with the Queen, attending a Nobel Prize event, or a five-star restaurant is an affront to the Craft; while Interior brothers opine that it’s what’s in a Freemason’s heart that counts and are just fine being clothed for Lodge as if they’re going to Denny’s.
It makes me wonder how far the latter group is from advocating showing up sky clad for lodge meetings, but that would be a very distracting digression. Maybe another blog.
Per usual, I can see a middle ground between the two extremes and how the latest edict out of Georgia might be trying to find it; but I also see something deeper going on here. It seems both extremes have forgotten more than a little history; and what they should already know without being told.
Historically, dress in a Lodge of Freemasons wasn’t all about showing respect to the Craft (who gets along just fine, regardless of how we dress). It’s supposed to be about recognizing how we meet, act and part with everyone but most especially with our brethren.
In the beginning, dressing for Lodge meant attire just a little less fit for a monarch’s court. It wasn’t a specific dress code or requirement so much as that’s how folks in the propertied upper classes, the group most attracted to Freemasonry during that period, dressed when they were out in public. It would be disrespectful to others to dress otherwise.
Likewise, dressing up for lodge wasn’t about dressing well or showing respect to the Craft so much as it was about being the equal of every Brother in the Lodge. With everyone dressed more or less the same, it’s difficult to identify someone’s social rank, especially in a dimly lit room.
One piece of Masonic garb that once was de rigueur, but now isn’t so much in the U.S., are the white cotton gloves. The idea behind them in Freemasonry was/is that two Brothers shaking hands could not determine each other’s profession based on the roughness, or lack thereof, of their hands.
It wasn’t about the gloves, it was how the Brothers viewed each other: as equals.
As the decades wore on, Lodge attire continued to track what its members wore in public, where even hobos wore a suit jacket and a hat – always a hat. However, though folks generally wore much the same thing – and not a tank top in sight – it still remained obvious who everyone was in life, based on their clothing. If you were going someplace very special, you still expressed it by wearing your best, even if it basically was a grander version of what you wore all the time.
On that level, it could seem only natural that Lodge attire would track clothing fashion trends outside the Lodge, where things started getting very casual in the late 1960s. That view would ignore the very important exceptions to those casual trends that everyone recognized and still recognizes.
Even in our very casual age, folks still know when they should dress up and when they don’t need to. Folks don’t have to be told that they must dress up when they attend a wedding or go someplace else they consider very special. They don’t need to be told that, they just know.
Apparently in Georgia, enough of the brethren need to be told that the Lodge is a very special place that an edict is necessary.
I imagine those same brothers do know to dress up for their friend’s wedding but they are just fine with wearing PT shorts, a club T-shirt, and tube socks to Lodge. Because they don’t know the Lodge is very special to them.
If they don’t know that, then what else don’t they know?
Civilization is slipping and there are many signs of that. This is one of them.
There are times that I probably shouldn’t say anything, but I do anyway.
This blog is one of those times.
On Tuesday, July 16, Grand Lodge of Arkansas Grand Master Jesse D. Sexton issued an edict that recognizes Shriners International as a “civic organization,” according to Chris Hodapp’s “Freemasons for Dummies” blogthis week. The edict officially ends the troubles between the Grand Lodge and Shriners International that has gone on for more than half a decade.
“The result of this decision permits Arkansas Masons to again be members of Shriners International for the first time since 2013,” Hodapp’s blog says (with the italics being mine).
DISCLAIMER: I’m a Co-Mason. The Order to which I belong doesn’t have any connections to any “Shrine” along the lines of Shriners International and does just fine without it; but I still have an opinion, notwithstanding.
The use of “allow” and “permit” in reference to Freemasons – “free” being, literally, the operative word – always makes me twitch, particularly when it refers to Freemasons in the so-called “free world.” So far as I know, I didn’t give up my free association rights when I was initiated but . . .
Well, somehow, it seems the Grand Lodge of Arkansas has been suspending those rights quite a lot since November 2012, when the male-only Grand Lodge declared the Shrine “clandestine”and forbade Masons in its jurisdiction to become members of the Shrine. The Grand Lodge “expelled numerous Masons” who joined anyway or tried to transfer to other jurisdictions not having a spat with the Shrine, Hodapp’s blog says.
Hodapp described the spat, which he calls “the long-running feud between the Grand Lodge of Arkansas and Shriners International,” in previous editions of the Freemasons for Dummies blog (not to be confused with his wonderful book by the same name). There’s no need for me to give more than a little background here and then move on to explain why it’s giving me fits.
Shriners International describes itself as a “fraternity based on fun, fellowship and the Masonic principles of brotherly love, relief and truth.” It claims almost 200 temples – “chapters” for folks who are spooked by the word “temple” – in thousands of clubs worldwide.
Shriners do have a certain reputation when it comes to the “fun” (I love those fezzes and little cars) and, yes, they are all men. That last bit has more to do with the Shrine’s weirdly unrelated requirement that their members must be Master Masons in good standing in the larger male-only grand lodges in North America. Members of those grand lodges are all men, so it follows that all Shriners are men.
Before anyone arches their back and starts hissing about that, “Shriners’ ladies” [don’t start!] can join independent organizations in which women work toward the same causes as does the Shrine. Those women-only organizations are Daughters of the Nile, The Ladies’ Oriental Shrine of North America, and The Shrine Guilds of America, all of which, like the Shrine, support Shriners Hospitals for Children.
I’m not at all fussed about the gender-centricity of all that because the Shrine is NOT Freemasonry.
What the Shrine is, in fact, is mostly about the good work they do. The Shrine and its auxiliary organizations have for generations supported Shriners Hospitals for Children’s 22 healthcare systems in the United States, Mexico and Canada.
Until June 2012, patients in Shriners Hospitals received care without charge and the healthcare systems still offer free care to children not covered by insurance and will waive out-of-pocket costs not covered by insurance.
The change in 2012 is generally blamed on the drop in the size of the Shrine’s endowment due to stock market losses during the Great Recession and that’s true enough. It just isn’t the entire story.
After all, dropping that requirement would allow the Shrine to increase its membership numbers and, with the inevitable influx or more members for the great work the Shrine does, the endowment could be better supported.
The counter to that is the terror – and I’m here to tell you, the terror is real – that dropping that membership requirement would effectively destroy male-only Freemasonry in North America, at least in the larger gender-based grand lodges. Those Freemasons who buy into the terror argue that there are a good many men who join Freemasonry on this continent only to get to the Shrine.
That’s a bit bewildering to a Freemason such as me who sees Freemasonry as its own thing, as opposed to a pathway to something else but, well, there it is.
It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to those who buy into the terror, I just think it’s mistaken.
If male-only Freemasonry needs the Shrine to survive, then maybe it should be allowed fail. If the male-only grand lodges require another organization to survive, then those grand lodges are already dead.
But they are not and they will not die even if the Shrine completely withdraws its Master Mason membership requirement. We know that thanks to the unintended experiment that has been the troubles in Arkansas, which bears out the flaw in the terror. Freemasonry did not die in Arkansas and neither did the Shrine.
Arkansas was the test case. When the troubles began between that state’s largest Grand Lodge and the Shrine, Shriners International in 2013 changed its bylaws to allow non-Masons in Arkansas to join. Hodapp blogged about that development in July of that year, announcing, “The slippery slope has begun.”
Only, it really didn’t.
In the past six years, there has been no real move to yank Shriners International’s Master Mason membership requirement outside of Arkansas, which means the experiment happened only in that one U.S. state. Over the past six years, the state’s largest male-only grand lodge has suffered a drop in the number of is members, largely because it expelled Freemasons who decided to join the Shrine anyway. Still others transferred membership to other grand lodges still on good terms with the Shrine.
However, while the number of Freemasons in good standing in the Grand Lodge of Arkansas went down, the grand lodge did not die; and the Shrine’s bylaw change allowed it to shore up its own membership until the troubles in that state passed.
From my position of safety – seriously, I have no ball to drop in this ballot box – I also would hope that the Grand Lodge of Arkansas and the Shrine learned a few things. Obviously, the Shrine dropping its Master Mason membership requirement didn’t destroy male-only Freemasonry in Arkansas’ largest grand lodge; and the Shrine weathered the storm without the Grand Lodge of Arkansas. They are not mutually exclusive, they can part ways and walk their separate paths.
It can happen.
I think, for the sake of male-only Freemasonry and the Shrine, it should happen.
I also think there’s a larger lesson to be learned from this experiment. Imagine how much better things would have been, for both organizations, had the Grand Lodge of Arkansas not forbade its members from joining a nonMasonic (the Shrine is NOT Freemasonry), philanthropic organization that does so much good in the world. The Grand Lodge of Arkansas would not have suffered such a drop in membership numbers over more than half a decade and the Shrine could have continued its good work without all the drama.
What business is it of any grand lodge what other “civic organization” its members join? Why should U.S.-based Freemasons put up with any imposition on their constitutional rights?
It has been an interesting experiment to observe. From my position of safety, that of a cranky old Co-Masonic past master (highly strung opinions apparently emerge once the 47th Proposition of Euclid is imposed), I believe the experiment was a success. And should be tried again.
For now, Shriners International and the Grand Lodge of Arkansas are, publicly at least, returning to their historical rapprochement. However, I cannot be the only one who has noticed a change.
It seems, however, that some brethren in lodges under the United Grand Lodge of England aren’t so sure. These whispering brothers have spent the better part of six months worried that maybe – just maybe – they’ll soon have to endure the presence of Brothers who were initiated believing but later decided there is no god.
And, to hear these brothers – not me – tell it, if this “problem” isn’t resolved it will lead to the UGLE becoming just like those so-called “godless,” “atheistic” Masonic orders in France.
For folks who have no idea what I’m talking about, the UGLE is one of many Masonic orders upon the planet that require candidates for admission believe in a Supreme Being or Power. A new UGLE policy about gender reassignment issued last summer, in addition to selective reading of official statements issued since, has some brethren in the UGLE convinced that this is the atheists’ backdoor into their Lodges. Which, apparently, 1) atheists are eager to find and 2) is a bad thing.
The scuttlebutt began when the UGLE announced its “gender reassignment policy” this past August to line up with the U.K.’s Gender Recognition Act and the Equality Act. The policy says that a Brother who is initiated into a UGLE lodge as a man and who later undergoes gender reassignment and identifies as a woman is allowed to remain.
“A Freemason who after initiation ceases to be a man does not cease to be a Freemason,” the UGLE’s announcement in the Aug. 1 edition of its magazine, Freemasonry Today, rather poetically said.
What started as a whisper campaign between Brothers and in online chat ultimately surfaced in a letter to the editor in this past September edition of The Square, written by “A thoughtful Brother ‘M Mason'” (Seriously? Didn’t we get over pseudonymous letters to the editor in the 19th Century?). The letter pointed up the “larger problem” of “the decline in the belief in God” and that the gender reassignment policy suggests “those who change their minds after becoming a member but no longer believe should be quite safe.”
“Simply apply the rules for gender reassigned men and then the belief-reassigned brothers can all ‘come out’ as being no believers and without a VSL and happily be members,” the anonymous letter said. “If an Obligation is required then they can simply affirm in front of all present. For UGLE to do otherwise to those who are belief-reassigned masons would seem to me also to be discrimination.”
It seems having “belief-reassigned” Brothers around is an issue for this “thoughtful Brother.”
The UGLE decided it was necessary to respond to this pseudonymous letter, which UGLE Grand Secretary David Staples did in his own letter to the editor in the December edition of The Square. Staples wrote that the UGLE got legal advice for “this difficult area regarding gender reassignment,” that lay members weren’t consulted “because complying with the law is mandatory” but that “we fully support the right of Masons to hold diverse views, provided that they ensure their actions are courteous and lawful.”
Staples didn’t directly mention the fears of “thoughtful Brother,” and others like him, about an alleged bloom of belief-reassigned members in their lodges but what he did say about complying with the law being “mandatory” alarmed more than a few.
The same month that Staples’ letter was published in The Square, Freemasonry Today published a Q&A by UGLE Head of Legal Services Donald Taylor about the order’s gender reassignment policy. Taylor, like Staples, didn’t address the question about belief reassignment – neither seemed at all eager to dignify that topic – but Taylor did include this little chestnut:
“The law in this area is liable to change, and policy and guidance may be amended from time to time. “
Which Taylor clearly intended to be in reference to gender reassignment but the whispering Brothers latched onto it and re-purposed it as a reference to a UGLE belief-reassignment policy that they feel must be in the works. The bottom line of these assumptions appears to be that having a belief-reassigned Brother in Lodge is worse than having a female Brother in lodge.
Just for full disclosure, the order to which I belong requires applicants evince belief in a Supreme Power before they are admitted. I asked, there’s no policy about what happens if/when ever a Brother stops believing in a Supreme Power, though there probably would be an informal conversation. Rules are not made until they are broken and, anyway, my observation is that Brothers who belief-reassign (the editors love it when I invent verbs) either keep quiet about it or as quietly leave. It’s a situation that seems to take care of itself, it is not actually a problem.
Unless it is made to be.
If you haven’t noticed by now, I don’t feel this is a real issue. I tend to equate belief-reassignment in Freemasonry, even in the “dogmatic” orders that require belief in a Supreme Being or Power, to suddenly losing an arm or leg. Many orders – though not all – won’t accept an applicant in a wheelchair, otherwise crippled or even just missing a finger joint because that applicant would not be up to the rigors of the ritual.
However, I have personal experience with what happens when a Brother admitted hale and strong at their initiation becomes less so sometime after. I’m not so nimble as I was when I was entered more than a decade ago but I know that I won’t be kicked out, even if I become even more infirm, just because I’m less up to the rigors of the ritual. It’s how I was admitted that matters, not what tricks life plays me.
I think Belief-reassignment could be treated the same way, that a Brother initiated believing in a Supreme Being or Power but who later comes to believe otherwise could be allowed to remain. So why is this an issue? Really?
That answer – the real one – is a subliminal thing that has nothing to do with words the whispering brethren actually utter. As one Brother recently and succinctly put it in one online forum:
“For all those Brothers in the throes of this debate, I really wish you would stop pretending this is about faith and protecting – or not – the requirement of belief in a supreme being or power. Because it isn’t about that at all.”
What it’s really about is Republican – classically defined, not the party-type thing in the U.S. – politics and how to keep it quarantined in places that have no monarch; specifically across the channel in France.
And even that isn’t what people think it is. In my next blog, I’ll try to provide some historical context for what this debate really is about.