I wrote the following very long piece about the Knights Templar of the York Rite in the U.S. several years ago, and it became much too long to publish as a magazine piece. So, it vanished into my documents file. But the article I posted yesterday by Sir Knight Carson Smith got me to go and look for it. If you're not a member of the KT, feel free to give it a miss. If you are, go get a cup of coffee and let me give you something to think about.
Let's Make Knights
After years of hand-wringing and crying over plummeting membership numbers in Freemasonry, the combination of the declining death rate, the “Dan Brown Effect,” and in general, the return of Freemasonry into the common consciousness of the community, have all started to turn the tide for us. In most jurisdictions we are bringing in more members than are dying for the first time in decades.
So, like a dog chasing the UPS truck down a country road, the question today is, what do we do with it, now that we’ve caught it? The fraternity has had structural problems that have never been fixed that can be traced to when we had four times as many members in the 1950s. We have too many buildings, too many appendant body chapters, and in many cases, way too much bureaucracy for an organization that is 25% of the size it once was.
The good news is that the new wave of young men joining the Blue Lodges are becoming officers and stubbornly demanding that their lodge experience becomes more like what they had thought it would be when they joined. With some notable holdouts, Grand Lodges are mostly loosening their grip and allowing greater flexibility among lodges to be individuals and escape the cookie-cutter mold of meeting, reading the minutes, and fleeing. There is a greater interest in Masonic education than at any time in recent memory. Almost 50 so-called “Observant” style lodges have formed all over the country, but the greater influence of them has been on visiting brethren who take selected practices home to their Mother Lodges and adapt them to suit their own unique situations.
But what about the appendant bodies? One would think that, as membership initiations rise in the Blue Lodges, the Scottish Rite and York Rite would be growing as well. Yet, it doesn’t seem to be happening that way. Masons who advance through the officers’ chairs in the lodges seem to be perfectly happy retiring to the sidelines, instead of moving on to other groups. They have made the Lodge a place they are happiest in on Thursday nights, with little desire to go elsewhere.
I once chatted with a friend who was in the national leadership of a York Rite body, and I asked him about this. "Why should a Mason become a member of the York Rite?" His answer astonished me. “Well, in the Blue Lodge, you only have one opportunity to be the Master of a lodge. But in the York Rite, you have all kinds of opportunities to become an officer in a Masonic body!”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never once met a man who became a Mason because he wanted to be a lodge officer, and I have known very few Masons who enthusiastically wanted to volunteer to be an officer in anything after he joined.
In most cases in the U.S., Royal Arch Chapter and Cryptic Council meetings are everything the average Mason hates about going to lodge: a ritualistic opening, reading of the minutes and bills, closing, and escaping the building as quickly as possible. Most Chapters and Councils don’t even bother with a meal or any social interaction of any kind, and rarely feature anything remotely resembling education, or even discussion about their own ritual, symbolism, or history of their degrees.
Part of the problem is the overwhelming sense that the Chapter and Council are merely stepping stones to the more glamorous Knights Templar. In many jurisdictions, the three bodies share meeting spaces, officers, and even feature joint petition forms. The built-in inferiority complex is that the Chapter and Council degrees are something to be quickly dispensed with, and one-day York Rite conferrals only reinforce that belief.
The Scottish Rite Southern Jurisdiction has, in recent years, stressed its role as the “university of Freemasonry,” and created volumes of educational material, as well as its own teaching program. They have recognized that there is far more to the degrees of Freemasonry than can be gleaned by listening to the degree lectures or witnessing a mass conferral in a darkened auditorium. And they have responded to members who have begged for more information in a self-study format.
Taking their example, in 2012 the York Rite Sovereign College, in partnership with Brother Robert G. Davis, created the Companion Adept of the Temple, a self-study program that covers the degrees and orders of the Royal Arch, Cryptic Council and Knights Templar. Unfortunately, it has not been strongly promoted, and relatively few York Rite Masons even know it exists. But it is a step in the right direction. (You can read about the program, its online materials, and enrollment HERE.)
But I really want to concentrate here on the Knights Templar. I recently had an exchange on membership in a Masonic discussion forum with fellow Sir Knights in the Knights Templar. One brother was lamenting that Freemasonry, and especially the Templars, had missed the public relations boat in the wake of films like The Da Vinci Code, National Treasure, Kingdom of Heaven, and others. Unfortunately, he opened up a real of juicy worms for me, because what is going on in modern Templary is distressing as we approach our bicentennial celebration next month.
After each Triennial Conclave, it is usually obvious that more and more Commandaries continue to lose their drill teams to attrition. My own, Raper Commandary No. 1 in Indianapolis, has a long and legendary history. Our social room has an astonishing array of trophies and photographs from well over a century of excellence and participation in parades and drill team competition, and they remain the Commandery with more first place awards in drilling than any other in the country. But our Grand Commanders in Indiana, along with many others across the country, have lamented that interest in such activities has long been declining along with the number of Masons who choose the York Rite path to further their Masonic experience.
For the first 130 years of its existence, the Shrine required membership in the Blue Lodge, as well as the as completion of either the Scottish Rite or York Rite degrees before allowing a Mason to petition. That changed in the early 2000s, and now any Freemason is free to join the Shrine and participate in their programs, clubs and antics. This left the Scottish and York Rite scrambling. For over a century, they had a guaranteed stream of candidates who passed through on their way to the Shrine. But today, each appendant degree path is now forced to stand alone on its own merits.
I had the honor of writing and producing a video for the York Rite, and especially for the Knights Templar, in Indiana over a dozen years ago for my dear and departed friend Larry Kaminsky that is STILL being used, and I have a deep and abiding affection for the Templar Orders. I have been given honors in Templary over the years that were certainly not deserved, because I have not labored long and diligently in their service enough to receive such rewards. I have the greatest respect and admiration for the men who have kept Templarism alive for so many years, and for those who dedicate so much time and effort to its degrees and drill teams.
Nevertheless, I have a deep concern that the Masonic Knights Templar are at a serious crossroads. The numbers are certainly pointing a boney finger in that direction. And so I will ask some of the same questions of the Templars as a state and national organization as I have in the past of Freemasonry. Please, fellow Sir Knights, be patient. I am not performing a hatchet job here. But I will speak frankly, because no one seems to be confronting these issues head on.
My friend Carson Smith is the most active , passionate, and enthusiastic Knight Templar I know. His participation and hard work have made him legendary in our state, and he has top line signed more than 130 petitions for new York Rite Masons. He freely admits that the Knights Templar are the most expensive of any Masonic body to belong to, as well as requiring more work than any other. His belief is simply that being a Knight Templar is not for everybody. Neither of those viewpoints are particularly wrong.
But what makes the Templars as they exist today attractive to young Freemasons, or to young men off the street who would have to become Masons first? And I'm not asking this to be glib or argumentative. I mean it as a serious point of discussion. What does the average Commandery offer to its new members that will keep them coming back and keep them active? Apart from having a tenuous, if at all existent, connection (that the national organization denies, by the way) to an excommunicated and condemned religious order, what is modern Templary doing to connect its members to their crusading namesakes?
The panic all across the country over the inability to mount drill teams ignores the plain fact that marching in a $1,000 uniform with a Gilbert and Sullivan hat appeals to a smaller and smaller group of men. While drilling was the national fad in the 1870s, simply because 75 per cent of the adult male population had previously been in the military, over 140 years later it holds little fascination. This is in no way is meant to denigrate the dedication of the men in the drill teams. But call and ask every one of your existing Commandery members and see how many care a fig about being in or even going to watch a drill team. You'll be shocked. Or maybe you won't be.
In a rude and uncivil 21st century, when we pass more and more laws to replace decency, manners and common sense, would it not make more sense for the modern Knights Templars to make our new mission the making of modern gentlemen?
I mean teach everything — etiquette, fencing, shooting, dancing, and more. Bring in a local fencing instructor, teach interested members how to fight with a foil, and hold fencing competitions instead of drill teams. Teach them how to tie a bow tie and what classic books every gentleman should have a passing knowledge of. Teach them about sending real thank you cards, holding doors for women, how to choose the right wine and a good cigar. Teach them all those things that our grandparents used to teach us, but have been forgotten by society these days.
Make every Commandery meeting something to look forward to. Appoint a Commandery Historian, whose job it is to provide some kind of reading or paper or lesson or video at every meeting. The Knights Templar are uniquely positioned to educate an ignorant membership about the history of the Middle East, who the players were and are, and why the current residents are shooting at each other these days. Bring in a local college professor to talk about medieval religious architecture, or the Crusades, or comparative religion, or religious and political upheavals in the Levant. We send ministers to the Holy Land as part of our national charity. Why not send your active Commandery members for a week instead? Or at least teach our members about the Holy Land.
Let’s start making concepts of chivalry and knighthood something worth emulating again. Isn't that a better mission than marching in a parking lot?
Honestly, when I joined the KT, I really thought this stuff would be going on. The Order of the Temple, done on one candidate at a time, is the greatest, most moving, and downright coolest degree in all of Freemasonry. But once it was over, it became the same contemptible reading of minutes and bitching about non-participation that took place in the lodges. The night of the first Commandery meeting I ever attended, the Recorder got up and read the minutes. He was in his 80s, and on a portable oxygen machine. But he read the minutes of several meetings, event descriptions and announcements, messages from the Grand Commandery and Grand Encampment, and more. He read nonstop for 40 minutes. That was cruel and unusual punishment for him and the rest of us.
After he finished, another new member sitting next to me stood up and said, "Instead of listening to that kind of thing again, I would rather have steel pins thrust through my eyeballs. I move that we print and circulate the minutes." The place erupted with protests. One older member actually said, "But if we don't read the minutes, what would we do?"
I joined what I thought was an order of knighthood. I have tremendous hope for the potential of that organization, but it is up to the new generation of leaders to redefine the goals of the Knights Templar, and fast, before it expires.
Please, do not take offense at this, but the answer is NOT to drag as many warm bodies in from the Blue Lodges as soon as we yank them out of Hiram's grave. More members, brought in faster, who become disillusioned and pissed off that much quicker, will become our biggest detractors when they demit. If all they see is an eternal hand out for more dues money for ever more degrees and appendant bodies, only to find an empty experience at the end of each one, and a promise for better if they join yet another appendant body, I promise all of you, it will be our undoing.
We are poised at an important moment in time, with a brief opportunity to prosper from renewed interest. But that won't happen if we continue to give new members a diluted, unfulfilled, boring, irrelevant and just plain bad experience (and that is true of EVERY Masonic organization). Many have spoken of trying to appeal to new members as a side effect of Templar interest in the popular culture. So, let's say I sit through Kingdom of Heaven or read one of the many books involving Templars that clogged up the New York Times Best Seller List several years ago, or play a hot round of Assassin's Creed, or see a History Channel show about the crusading warrior monks. I go on the net and say, "Hot damn! Templars! Right here in my home town! I want to be a part of that!” What is the end result of that excitement? What do they get, versus what they thought they were getting? What have we, with our public relations or our private talks with them, "sold" them, versus what they find once they are in the Commandery? I'm only asking. And I'm only reacting to my own feelings and many, many remarks I have overheard from former Templars over the last 15 years. That's not a sales problem. That's a retention problem, a problem with the programming, and what a man gets as opposed to what he thought he was getting.
About a decade ago, a group of us in Indiana started a medieval period recreation Templar degree team, called Levant Preceptory. We dress in chainmaille, hauberks, steel helmets, tunics, and wield broadswords. When we make an arch of steel, by God, you hear it. The goal was - and remains - to present the Order of the Temple in an effective, evocative, and more memorable way, in authentic looking wardrobe that makes more sense to initiates in the setting of the ritual. We travel all over the Midwest and perform the ritual only once or twice a year. We operate simply as a degree team under an existing Commandery charter, so we weren't required to do all of the bureaucratic and tactical requirements of starting a new Commandery. And we are very welcoming to any Knights who want to participate with us, from all over our state, and even one brother from an adjoining one. There are no dues, it's all strictly voluntary, and every member has to track down his own equipment online and pay for it himself. When we go on the road, every Sir Knight has to pay his own way. A complete outfit can be had for about the same cost as a new chapeau.
We do it for the love of it. But what makes it an important illustration to examine is that our members are comprised of many Templars from all over the state who have no interest in drilling, do not hold office, do not regularly attend meetings, and would likely have otherwise demitted eventually from their Commanderies. They pay their York Rite dues every year specifically to do this once or twice annually.
It's just an idea that happened to work for us. Feel free to steal it and claim it as your own, or find another one. Find a way to experiment, while working within the restrictions that exist within our rules — or work your butt off to change them. But I'm begging all Sir Knights everywhere: try everything, and if that doesn't work, try something else. Don't go down without a fight, because what we have is too meaningful and impressive and important to let it wither and fade.
I am not pretending for a minute that every Mason or Templar wants research papers, education, esotericism, dressing in chainmaille, or fencing lessons. I AM suggesting that Freemasonry has, as its stated mission, the goal of making good men better ones. Freemasonry itself is in an important time of change, and Masonic leaders all across the country are trying to reconcile our past with the demands of the future. I AM suggesting that the KT is in serious need of making those kinds of plans as well, and fails to do so at its peril.
I am by no means proclaiming that there is but one path to Freemasonry or Templary. No one begs for greater variety in this fraternity more than I do. But pay heed to what the membership retention numbers are doing, and that is a reflection of the end product: the Commandery experience when the Orders have finally been conferred. Membership drives have proved that the men can be delivered to the door, sometimes even in droves. But the bulk of them do not return, and do not remain.
We have an opportunity to truly make knights, in every sense of the word. We have a unique marketing niche. We have name recognition. We have our own history as well as our legendary namesakes' to call upon. Perhaps Kingdom of Heaven and The Da Vinci Code were missed opportunities. The History Channel just announced a new dramatic series featuring the Knights Templar called Knightfall will be premiering later this year, so we'll probably get a bump again. But I believe we are missing a far larger opportunity here. If we are conferring knighthood in an age when knights are rare, then we could make it so much more than just one interesting night at lodge, followed by a hard-pressure insistence on, yes, marching in a parking lot.
My apologies to lovers of the drill team, but look at your membership rolls and participation in them. You are in the vast minority. And after every Triennial, even more slip away. I'm not trying to be flippant or insulting, honestly. But I'm asking all active and non-active Knights Templar to think very hard about this. The time has come to make difficult decisions, or this will be a moot discussion in a very short time. Don't like my ideas? That's not going to hurt my feelings. I grew up in advertising, and we yelled at each other all the time. But show me yours. More important, show your Commandery yours. Because I DO know that doing nothing but the same failed thing over and over will always yield the same failed results.
The question for the future direction of the Knights Templar is, do we stay exactly as we have been for 140 years when the post-war uniform manufacturers almost single-handedly turned us, the Knights of Columbus, the Knights of Pythias, the Grand Army of the Republic, and two dozen other groups into cookie-cutter, marching teams in Army surplus equipment? That IS what happened, you know. Or do we seize this moment to make substantive changes to make 21st century knights? I believe there is a void in both society and in Masonry that could be filled that way.