You know the point during the Stated Meeting when the Secretary casually waves the junk mail at his desk and offhandedly mutters, "We got a post card from the jerks at water company asking us to stop showering so long, a flier from another pest control place... Oh, and the usual Short Talk Bulletin from the Masonic Service Association is on my desk if anyone wants to read it."
Well, read it this month. Worshipful Masters need to snatch it up and read it aloud in lodge. And Grand Masters everywhere need to dig it out of the trash and look very carefully all the way through it.
The May 2019 STB is has a truly shock and awe title: Nebraska's Return To Proficiency.
How can that be? These are the 2010s — what bunch of thick-headed clots actually RAISES standards, when everybody knows that "modern men" don't care about such trivial tripe, and making something harder will only keep us all from Saving Freemasonry? Why, what a bunch of stuffy Victorians those Nebraska guys must be.
Well, it seems that way back in the Devonian Epoch of 1989, like so many other U.S. jurisdictions, Nebraska's Masonic brain trust decided that the biggest impediment to "modern men" who stubbornly didn't want to become Freemasons were really put off by that relic from the Stone Age, memorization of basic proficiency. And they allegedly ran screaming from the building after joining when anyone dared to suggest actually memorizing actual ritual parts. "Drop that derned proficiency memorization requirement," the Brethren sagely intoned, "and they'll flock in like hungry mosquitoes at a blood bank.Young men will be so suffused with an incandescent glow over the prospect of just learning grips and words that they'll give us their pants and choke the sidelines and we'll have to add more folding chairs!"
It'll Save Freemasonry, went the conventional wisdom.
Well, no, it didn't. And in fact, as the Grand Lodge of Nebraska concluded after studying trends and attitudes, causes and effects since 1989, it actually gutted Freemasonry. And way too many US jurisdictions dropped it in the 90s, which ultimately had a deleterious effect on the overall strength of the fraternity.
From the STB:
"[B]etween 1992 and 2017, except for coincidental spikes, the number of men raised began a steady and drastic decline. It wasn't unusual for seasoned veterans who learned the full-form proficiency to reminise with candidates about their time spent with a mentor. That relationship, they were often told, created a strong bond between them, as well as with the lodge."And THAT, my dear Brethren, was ALWAYS the point. Not rote regurgitation of long passages of little or no meaning from memory that had been learned in the deadly, isolated silence of a room from a printed book, or picking it up over quick sojourns at the bathroom book stack. The whole point from the very beginning of the introduction of the ritual into Freemasonry was ALWAYS about the initial one-on-one relationship between Master and Apprentice, Candidate and Mentor. In countless lodges prior to the 1990s, the model was almost uniformly that two men sponsored your petition, introduced you to the lodge, and then at least one became your Mentor in all things Masonic. No, this is not a Memorization Club. But as you met frequently under the excuse of "learning the work," you built that personal bond with each other that could never be broken. You learned about each other's lives and family in far more detail than some superficial passing acquaintance ever could. You became more to each other than just a guy you saw once a month across the room. And, in turn, you talked about much more than just why you had to take off a shoe or what the hell a hecatomb was - even though he explained that, too, and why it is important and where it came from. Mouth to ear, full-form proficiency was only tangentially about reciting words.
You didn't just join some club called the Freemasons. You BECAME a Freemason.
And then the wheels fell off. Nebraska was far from the only jurisdiction to dump full-form proficiency. Not by a long shot. Many states did it purely to more easily facilitate one day classes so candidates could dispense with that bothersome proving of their work between degrees in favor of"Blue Lightenings" or "Sidewalk to Shrine in a Day!". Yes, it momentarily plumped up membership tallies so a Grand Master could beam "Just LOOK how many we brought in during My Year!™" But the age-old model that strengthened friendships, built bonds, and made a new member truly a living, breathing part of his lodge was eroded and eventually broken. Today, it is soul-crushing to see the figures on how many men join Freemasonry and depart in less that two years - and frequently less.
And it has also decimated the ranks of 21st century Freemasons who actually know the ritual parts well enough to continue to confer degrees. The population of those able ritualists is aging and shrinking at an alarming speed, as Nebraska discovered to its collective horror. It's happening in your state, too. The deadly one-two punch of reduced proficiency, combined with fully written out ritual books (or the offhanded whisper to a candidate, "Just buy a Lester's and you can learn it on your own") has now delivered us to the point where increasing numbers of lodges can't confer their own degrees, and fewer are encouraged to take it on, or given a pass because it is quite absurdly accepted that "modern men" are just far busier than any other generation for three centuries and don't have any time to spend with another adult human being. There are all kinds of social ramifications wrapped up in this myth, and none of it bodes well as Americans continue to lose their basic interpersonal skills (which has been amply documented by sociologists).
And if for no other reason, Masons who travel outside of their own jurisdiction armed only with bare bones proficiency and a dues card may have an uncomfortable moment at a strange lodge that still adheres to the old, tried and true method of trying a visitor by the catechism that every Mason used to be conversant with. If you never learn it, you may be turned away by a lodge across state lines or around the world, depending on that lodge's preferences.
Here is the scope of Nebraska's problem in black and blue:
"After a survey of [Deputy Grand Custodians] of Nebraska's 130+ lodges in 2017, two-thirds were found unable to confer degrees because members didn't know ritual.Many believed this was because of the then-long-standing shorter proficiency. As experienced ritualists died, there were not enough willing to memorize the parts, creating a major void in the work of lodges."Was this dramatic shift in Nebraska's rules this year some devious change cooked up by some stern, cranky ritualaterian Grand Master as his last "Get off my lawn" croak of defiance against kids these days? Nope. It was overwhelmingly approved by a full 2/3 of Nebraska's voting members of Grand Lodge.
Nebraska has also created schools for learning the parts, reinvigorated its statewide Deputy Grand Custodian of the work corps of teachers, offered coins and awards to new and improved ritualists, and more. Additionally, their Grand Lodge publications and other venues advanced this issue after it failed with just 62% of the vote in 2018. That had been tried cold with no real promotion, but by 2019, the state's Masons were overwhelmingly supportive in the wake of now Past Grand Master Patrick Barger's hard work and promotion of the idea.
Jerry Seinfeld was once asked why he wore a suit onstage in this casual era: "It's a signal," he answered. "I'm not loafing up here."
Years ago, one of the biggest uproars I ever received was over a simple photograph I posted of a lineup of Masons in an unidentified lodge, with their faces and identities obscured. They were all dressed like four alarm slobs to be raised as Master Masons - ripped pants, sloppy football jerseys or inappropriate tee shirts, sagging shorts. I had made no commentary save for the headline, "Standards: we used to have them." I received so much hate mail over it and shrieks from Masons horrified that I would make such a passing judgement, combined with the usual twisted false bromides about "the interior of a man is what Masonry regards!" I finally, reluctantly, took it down when the Master of the actual lodge contacted me and told me how badly it had hurt these new Brethren, who had actually been ill-served by the members of their own lodge who failed to uphold standards their lodge had formerly practiced for over a century. It hadn't been a stumble on the part of the candidates, but on the other members who decided that Freemasonry wasn't important enough anymore to ask them to even show up in presentable clothing for this once in a lifetime event, because "that stuff doesn't matter anymore.".
Similarly, when Dwight Smith wrote his booklet Whither Are We Traveling? in the 1960s, he wrote the following:
QUESTION 9: HASN’T THE SO-CALLED CENTURY OF THE COMMON MAN CONTRIBUTED TO MAKING OUR FRATERNITY A LITTLE TOO COMMON?
An old legend which comes to us from the Napoleonic Wars tells of a youth, too young to fight, who was permitted to carry the regimental banner. During one bitter engagement his unit was advancing on the enemy under heavy fire. In his youthful zeal the boy went so far ahead of the regiment that he was almost out of contact. The commanding officer send a runner bearing the message, “Bring the standard back to the line.”
With heroic recklessness the lad sent back the ringing reply, “Bring the line up to the standard.”So once again, I am saying, Standards: We Used To Have Them. Nebraska has taken this bold step to draw a line in the sand, and say at last, "This is the new standard once again." Be better, not easier, or cheaper, or faster, or with less bother. This has been the standard that helped link us with three centuries of heritage and reputation as the best of the best, and everyone from garbage collectors and pipe fitters to presidents and kings have done this irritating thing you find to be a quaint annoyance. It connects you with every single Freemason in the face of the Earth in a way no dues card or golden ring ever can. It's a shared language we all have in common, even if we have nothing else. It is a tool of our Craft. It's part of the price of admission.
And it proves you're not loafing up here.
Learn it, and become part of this endless chain to pass on to those who haven't even been born yet.
Because of the immediate popularity of this particular Short Talk Bulletin in the wake of this discussion, the MSA has made it available in its entirety online as a pdf. See it HERE.