Thursday, September 21, 2006

Are they or aren't they?

You know somebody has lost the plot when there are General Grand Chapter resolutions starting with:

"Change Landmark #5 to read...."

It doesn't matter what they're proposing to change it to. The point is, it's a Landmark. Landmarks are meant to be the very definitions of our Order and they are supposed to be unchangeable.

In a practical sense, we've already changed this particular Landmark so many times over the years that protecting it now would definitely be silly. I'm also not convinced that identity- and relationship-based qualifications for membership should ever have been Landmarks (are you listening, UGLE?).

But when we're cavalier with our Landmarks it isn't really a surprise that we don't know who we are, or why, any more.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Competing with consumption

Chris Jordan, local photographer, discusses our consumption-based culture in the Seattle Weekly:
It is always amazing for me to step outside our culture and visit a country like Brazil, where the priority is not money but joy. The people of Brazil are far less wealthy than we are, but they are visibly happier. You can see it in their faces and gestures, and hear it in their music, and see it in the way they spend their time. Coming back here can be depressing. America has lots [sic] its joy; we have become a nation consumed by greed, and our predominant national emotions are fear, hatred, and rage. It didn't used to be this way; even in my own lifetime I remember when people worked less, took more vacations, spent more time with their families, and were satisfied with fewer cars, smaller houses, and less stuff. Just a few years ago, our stoves and countertops didn't matter; now a $30,000 remodeled chef's kitchen with granite countertops is standard in most middle-class homes even if no one in the house cooks. Today's Honda Civic is far more luxurious than the best Mercedes of a couple of decades ago, yet everyone thinks they need more than a Honda Civic. We're driving insane cars, buying insane amounts of stuff, and working insane hours to pay for it all. In the last few decades, the economy and the gaining of material wealth have subverted everything else that we value. We are trying to fill the spiritual void with iPods and plasma TV's and so on, which at bottom is fundamentally empty and unfulfilling, so the cycle continues. [emphases added]
My OES Chapter has a 93-year-old member who scolded me once for complaining about being "too busy" for a statewide OES appointment. She told me that fifty years ago, she served in the same appointment when there were three times as many Chapters and events she was required to attend, while working full-time and raising four young sons. Especially in OES, our younger members jump to conclusions about 1950s stay-at-home wives having had lots more leisure time to spend on our Order. It just ain't so. Their generation was way, way more active and committed than we are today.

And yet we feel more drained by our everyday lives and burdened by the expectations of our Orders. The socioeconomic hamster wheel described above might shed a little light on why this is so, and why our contemporaries say they have "no time" for membership in our organizations (or, indeed, any organizations). Doubly so, considering that our organizations do nothing to feed our greed. No wonder it's so hard to get even our own members to show up to work in service to others. No wonder we seem irrelevant.

Dare I even mention that Freemasonry is expanding rapidly in Brazil?

Saturday, September 02, 2006

A "concept" Chapter: Service

I'm beginning to think that the old Chapters (which is to say, all of them in this Jurisdiction) are holding back needed reforms. We have too many of them, due to overexpansion. Traditions and history are a beautiful thing, but clinging to outdated practices isn't. All of our rosters are filled with inactive dues-check-writers, who don't participate or work on behalf of the Chapter, but who outnumber active members when it comes time to vote on lifesaving measures like mergers, dues increases, relocations, etc. Our buildings are boat anchors. Our Charters represent unnecessary separation among what few members we have left. Even our treasuries are a threat... some Chapters spend irresponsibly, others hoard unjustifiably.

So what about a fresh start? Could we get critical mass for a new Chapter? The Brethren of our Grand Lodge seem to be making small steps in this direction, with a handful of new "concept" or "affinity" Lodges chartered in the last decade or so. A DeMolay Lodge, a Spanish-speaking Lodge, and a Filipino Lodge are just the beginning. Could OES do the same?

There are lots of different directions we could take with concept Chapters, and there's no reason our Jurisdiction couldn't pursue several at once. Here's my latest idea:

A Service Chapter, dedicated exclusively to charity and community service. What would that mean?

In order to be effective, the Chapter should pick a single charity and focus all of its fundraising efforts on that one goal throughout the year and year after year. It doesn't matter so much what the charity is, as long as it's basically a worthy one, but it's probably a good idea to identify the basic nature of the charity in the Charter. The Chapter must politely decline requests to participate in any unrelated fundraising, including (especially) Grand Chapter projects, and should make this clear to the Grand Chapter from the outset.

The Chapter needs to be able to dedicate all of its fundraising efforts to charity, which means member dues must be set high enough to clear its non-discretionary expenses (rent, basic supplies, and the Grand Chapter assessment).

The Chapter must not spend its funds nor sanction its members spending their own funds on anything other than necessities and charity. From the outset, it should be accepted by all members that the Chapter will not give gifts or door prizes, pay for refreshments or meals, pay for decorations, programs, ode cards or rosters, and that its officers and members generally won't either. Chapter dress must be "dress of choice" every year. Meals should be potluck, and refreshments should be modest. If the Chapter desires to honor a distinguished visitor or a member's appointment, it should do so by making donations or through some other no-cost "gift" such as a special skit or entertainment. This needs to be consistent. Worthy Matrons who want to spend their own money still need to spend it on charity, not fluff.

The Chapter should have short meetings twice a month and avoid special meetings. It should invite the WGM to see its true work by attending a regular stated meeting (perhaps with a guest speaker explaining its charitable project) and it should never pair with another Chapter for OV. This should be agreed-upon with the Grand Chapter in advance and perhaps included in the Charter.

The Chapter might choose to set up investments with the idea of increasing its return for the benefit of its charity (or using interest income for operating costs), but otherwise it shouldn't hoard money in savings. It should never run a deficit, obviously.

Yes, there should be fellowship, because all work and no play makes a lot of tired Brothers and Sisters who barely know each other and can too easily forget what the point is.

I think it would be really radical and interesting to have a mandatory minimum level of participation and active community service by every member every year. Members who fail to meet the minimum could be, by Charter, automatically granted a "no-fault" demit. Those who wish to re-commit to the service requirement could simply petition for re-affiliation and be balloted upon.

With or without the participation requirement, this Chapter won't ever be "big" and shouldn't aspire to be. It needs to be profoundly selective about its membership and must not hesitate to blackball someone "nice" if they would threaten to dilute the Chapter's mandates.

This is the sort of thing where, if we could find just enough people to get behind the idea, we could create a powerhouse little Chapter and be a model for reform of OES. But if we can't find enough people to get off the ground at all, or if the workload turns out to be more than we can bear, or the whole idea gets co-opted by compromisers, all of which are entirely possible, then it wouldn't work at all.

I do not by any means suggest that all Chapters in a Grand Jurisdiction should be this way. I think they shouldn't be. A balance of formal traditional Chapters, Chapters for ritualists, Chapters primarily for fellowship, Chapters of Research, etc., are necessary for balance and to give prospective members meaningful alternatives. Maybe this new Chapter wouldn't have longtime members at all, but would have a shifting roster of workers who go in and out without any stigma attached to doing so.

We work absurdly hard just keeping our legacy Chapters above water. What if we directed our effort toward something that actually matters?