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Resolved: The Shrine – for its own good and that of Freemasonry – should drop its Master Mason membership requirement

By Karen Kidd, PM
(I speak only for me)

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 Dummiesblog this 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.

Decline in Shrine membership has, of course, tracked the decline of membership in the larger traditionally male-only grand lodges in North America, which means fewer members now struggle to raise funds to boost the Shrine’s shrinking endowment. More hands are needed so it’s now surprise that the rise of whispers about dropping the Shrine’s Master Mason membership requirement can be tracked along the same timeline.

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.

Which they apparently did this month. In addition to Sexton’s edict, Shriners International has signaled that it will restore the Master Mason membership requirement in Arkansas.

The experiment is over.

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.

 

Manufactured ‘problem’ of Atheism among formerly believing brothers

By Karen Kidd, PM
(I speak only for me)

Atheism is not contagious.

I promise, it isn’t.

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.

Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria . . .

I wish I was making this up.

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.

The UGLE announcement lead to one of the more cringe-worthy headlines about Freemasonry in years (The Guardian is like that) but one would think it would have just ended there.

It didn’t.

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.

Mercy!

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.”

He’s right.

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.

Meanwhile, just keep chatting among yourselves.