by Christopher Hodapp
Grand lodges all across the country – and around the world – have struggled over the last 10 months with the problem of how to hold their constitutionally-required annual meetings and grand officer elections. Because of the COVID pandemic shutdowns and the fears of spreading the virus throughout Masonry's population of older at-risk members, the tradition of normally advancing officers at annual meetings has been short circuited. Some jurisdictions have held online Zoom annual meetings (and even elections), some have reduced their in-person annual meeting to a simple quorum to transact their basic business and elections. But the majority have agreed to keep their grand officers in their places for an additional year in the hope that 2021 will be back to normal.
These are not easy decisions. Men who dedicate between five and ten years to slowly advance through their state's grand lodge officers' line set aside an enormous part of their personal lives and finances as they approach the Grand East. In a very large jurisdiction with hundreds of lodges, grand masters can spend the bulk of their year on the road visiting lodges, rededicating temples, presiding over numerous committee, foundation and trustee meetings, speaking at appendant body gatherings, along with out of state travel to national appendent body meetings, the Conference of Grand Masters, plus neighboring grand lodge meetings and events representing your state. It's common for a grand master to be on the road six and seven days a week. And very few jurisdictions pay their grand master any sort of stipend for giving up their family and business life for a year. Not every grand master is a retiree, and planning for that kind of deep commitment to the fraternity for a man who continues to work for a living is something few of us could be reasonably expected to do.
When 2020 – and now 2021 – ground our fraternity to a halt, it also yanked the foundation stones out from under the men in grand lodge lines who all had plans and hopes and goals to achieve in their year as grand master. Worse, it also threw a spanner in the works for the next men in line who were making their own future financial, domestic or retirement plans based on the serving their year in the Grand East.
In my own jurisdiction, our sitting Grand Master was elected in May 2019 and slated to be succeeded by his Deputy Grand Master last May. When our annual communication was delayed and rescheduled twice, it was clear there could be no meeting or election for 2020. I was actually present when our GL officers calmly talked about the best way to address this once in a lifetime situation. The decision was arrived at by mutual agreement that our current GM would remain for another year until May 2021, and all officers and committees would stay in place until then. But it seems that other jurisdictions have not been as harmonious in coming to their own decisions about officer advancement.
The Grand Lodge of New York has apparently had some internal struggles and disagreements about how to deal with this problem. New York is one of the largest jurisdictions in the country, and their grand masters are normally elected for two year terms. Last May's annual meeting was cancelled due to COVID. But a few weeks ago, Grand Master William M. Sardone announced that the May 2021 meeting (and its elections) would also be cancelled, and all officers would stay in place. Despite the fact that committees had been working on plans for a virtual, online annual meeting, GM Sardone apparently scuttled that idea.
In response, the following open letter was briefly posted a week ago on the Grand Lodge Facebook page, written by their Grand Treasurer, Steven Adam Rubin.
An Open Letter to our Grand Master
January 29, 2021
Dear Grand Master:
I know I speak for all of our brothers, that we are glad that you continue to recover from Covid and we pray for your continued good health. Yet, I listened with concern to your Thursday Night Zoom Meeting in which you announced that the Grand Lodge Session would not be held this May 2021 as is required by our Constitutions, foreshadowing the likelihood that we will not hold Grand Lodge for an extraordinary, two years. During the twelve years I served as one of our Grand Lodge’s two legal advisers, Proctor and Judge Advocate, I provided six (6) Grand Masters quiet counsel. Your pronouncement Thursday evening, without first seeking the input of any of your elected Officers, and seemingly disregarding the advice of your own Judge Advocate who has approved the Constitutionality of a Virtual Grand Lodge Session, has caused me to send you this Open Letter. I do so with respect for your Office and love for our Craft.
Grand Master, our Constitutions must be obeyed. Period. End of Discussion. It is a legal document that establishes guidelines that must be honored with the strictest of obedience. It is a mandate, not a suggestion. That is your duty as Grand Master. That is our duty as Master Masons. Indeed, that was your oath and obligation you swore to uphold when you placed your hands on the George Washington Bible and took your Oath of Office. The path you have started down is a dangerous one, for no one, not even a Grand Master is above the law.
Last year you unilaterally chose to “adjourn” Grand Lodge, arguing that you would employ a technique used in 1945 by a then Grand Master who was unable to hold a Grand Lodge Session because of war-time restrictions. Even though it was clear that you sought little, if any, exploration of technical options to conduct a remote, or Virtual Grand Lodge Session in May 2020, we never questioned your decision. Even when you chose not to “adjourn” Grand Lodge as you said you would, but ultimately canceled the 2020 Session, no one argued. For we recognized that these have been extraordinary times, and your brothers were not going to fault you for failing to ensure that a proper plan was implemented during the early days of the pandemic.
Yet, it was at that time, nearly one year ago that I, and others, urged you to marshal our forces, our Grand Lodge Committees and any brother with the requisite skill set who could provide clear guidance regarding the options and alternatives available to ensure that our Constitutional mandate--to hold a Grand Lodge Session-- would be met. What was done during these many months? What committees were charged with this mission? What were their findings? What were their conclusions? I certainly don’t know, and from what I have gathered, not many do. Instead, you have thrown around figures and conclusions and anecdotal evidence unsupported by documentary evidence, and ask us to disregard our Constitutions based upon hollow arguments.
Moreover, to give the impression to the Brethren that you are in constant communication with the Deputy Grand Master, for this and all matters, I seriously question, as a rumor has circulated that our Deputy Grand Master was not even informed that you were admitted to the hospital for four (4) days with Covid and pneumonia and that he only found out via the general email that was sent to all members following your release from the hospital. I don’t know if this is accurate, but if it is, it is certainly not the manner our brethren expect that our Grand Lodge operates when our Grand Master is hospitalized with such a serious condition.
Sadly, it would not surprise me if true, as you chose to keep the elected Grand Line out of your decision making process concerning the 2021 Grand Lodge Session. Indeed, when rumors began to circulate that you had disbanded the Deputy Grand Master’s IT team working on implementing plans for our May 2021 Grand Lodge Session, I thereafter sent you an email on November 10, 2020, copying our elected Grand Line Officers. In the email I urged you to include your elected Grand Line in the decision making process, so that we could assist you in this most important undertaking. Yet, you chose to ignore my email, not even offering the courtesy of a reply. So when you now ask that brothers only email you, I am sure you can understand my bemusement, and the smile that crossed my face, for that certainly did not work with my entreaty. Moreover, your suggestion that our brothers shouldn’t use social media to communicate with each other and express their views concerning your momentous decision, is most curious, as the request is coming from a Grand Master who disseminates nearly all of his messages to the Brethren via Facetime movies. Indeed, attempting to limit brothers’ First Amendment Rights and inhibit open and honest dialogue is the formula for tyranny. I am not suggesting that is what you seek, but actions do have consequences.
But I digress, for it was over two months later, following my November email--two days ago-- when you called a virtual meeting of the elected Grand Line, the day before you made your January 28, 2021 virtual announcement to the Craft. It was not input, advice, discussion or counsel you sought from the elected Grand Line Officers, but acquiescence. Grand Master, I have had conversations with your own Judge Advocate who has indicated that there is no Constitutional impediment or prohibition to a Virtual Grand Lodge Session. As the immediate Past Judge Advocate, I agree. If you are asking for Legal Authority, there you go. While you have failed to provide the names of the Past Grand Masters who you purport support your plan, in many respects it is irrelevant. For I love and respect all of our Past Grand Masters, but to suggest that they, and they alone, have the authority to determine the Constitutionality of your conduct, or permit you to follow some outdated and outmoded scheme employed some seventy-six (76) years ago, is simply not accurate--Factually, Legally and Masonically. As such, by not holding a Grand Lodge Session, either Virtually, In-Person or a combination of the two, you are violating our Constitutions. It is that simple.
Moreover, claiming that you are doing so to protect the vote of all of our members sounds rather hollow when I never once heard anyone's concern for the numerous Lodges that are disenfranchised each year because they can’t afford the travel costs to New York City. You suggested in your Zoom meeting that another reason not to have a Virtual Grand Lodge Session is because not everyone has a computer. Should any brother with a right to attend our Virtual Grand Lodge Session indicate that they do not have a computer to login, I am certain suitable accommodations would be made. The cynical suggestion that brothers would not assist their brothers, is simply not the Masonry I know and love.
To further suggest that the cost is prohibitive to permit a Virtual Grand Lodge Session flies in the face of the countless Grand Lodges and Concordant Bodies that have held Virtual Grand Sessions. Moreover, what was the Grand Lodge budget for foreign travel during your first two years? How many tens of thousand of dollars were spent? I seem to recall one first-class plane ticket to Scotland for nearly $10,000.00. Nor have I heard that Grand Lodge has waived Lodges’ per capita requirements. To suggest that the Grand Lodge of the State of New York can’t afford a Virtual Grand Lodge Session, or some hybrid, is hogwash. Indeed, as Judge Advocate, the Masonic Legal Adviser, of the Grand Chapter, Royal Arch Masons of the State of New York, I am aware of their plans for a Virtual Grand Chapter Session. With many of the same Constitutional requirements as our Grand Lodge’s, the cost I am informed, will be well below $10,000.00.
To further argue that it is not feasible to hold a Virtual Grand Lodge Session, or some hybrid option, because of technical concerns, also proves specious. Indeed, the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania and its Commandery, the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, the Grand Lodge of Maine, the Grand Lodge of Wisconsin, the Grand Lodge of New Mexico and its York Rite Bodies, the Grand Lodge of South Dakota, the Grand Lodge of Michigan, the Grand Lodge of North Carolina, the Grand Lodge of Illinois and the Grand Lodge of Colorado, are just a small sampling of the many Grand Jurisdictions that have held either Virtual, In-Person, or hybrid Grand Sessions this past year. I am further aware that General Grand Chapter International Royal Arch Masons, General Grand Council International (Cryptic Masons), and other International Masonic Bodies have all held Virtual Sessions. In fact , I am informed that some of those bodies handled approximately 600-700 Virtual Participants, some even logging in worldwide! Were there hiccups? Probably, but those Bodies should be applauded for their efforts. Will there be technical issues at our Virtual Grand Lodge Session? Probably, but what a small price to pay to fulfill our Constitutional obligation--or at least to try!
The point is, so many Grand Lodges and Concordant Bodies from around the country, and the world, have seen fit to get it done. Found the will. Found the path forward to hold their Grand Jurisdiction’s Grand Session and fulfill their Constitutional obligations. Indeed, as I am sure you know, even the Conference of Grand Masters and Conference of Grand Secretaries are being conducted remotely this year. Yet, the Grand Lodge of the State of New York can’t? To not try, to simply cancel a Constitutionally mandated Grand Lodge Session because of some anecdotal evidence, exaggerated concern, or fear of the natural limitations in whatever option is chosen, is simply a dereliction of our duty. Indeed, how can our Grand Body operate for yet another year without passing a budget? How can you justify not attempting to find some solution that would ensure the thoughtful exercise of our membership’s rights to elect its Leadership, including the Trustees of the Masonic Hall and Home, the Masonic Medical Research Institute, the Chancellor Robert R Livingston Library and the Masonic War Veterans. Your decision, not only disenfranchises our membership, but has serious implications for the lawful governance of our Institution.
What is most troubling about your pronouncement Grand Master, is that it has been said by some, that long ago you were made aware that our Grand Lodge does have the ability to hold secure and credentialed elections for all voting members; that long ago you were made aware that our Grand Lodge does have the technology and tools to hold a 100% Virtual Grand Lodge Session using industry standard video conferencing services at a minimal cost; that long ago you were made aware that our Grand Lodge does have the ability to use Groupable to ensure that only those brothers legally permitted to attend this Virtual Session are in attendance.
Some have further suggested that you were provided multiple plans that would ensure a Constitutionally viable Virtual Grand Lodge Session while keeping Brothers socially distant and safe; and that you were further informed that a Virtual Grand Lodge Session could ensure that a proper and legal election could be held, even providing for brothers being nominated “from the floor”. In other words, conducting the business of Grand Lodge virtually and securely. Is this correct? Were you provided this information and refused to act? Did you disband the Deputy Grand Master’s IT Team? Why have we not heard from these brothers, or those you indicate “advised” you regarding the options that you now claim are not feasible? Why is it that after so many months, you have for the first time merely provided anecdotal evidence with nothing substantive or concrete to support your extraordinary position, disenfranchising an entire Grand Lodge in the process? No brother prefers a Virtual Lodge meeting or Virtual Grand Lodge Session, to in-person. That will come, God willing soon. Until then, if a Virtual Grand Lodge Session, or some hybrid, is the only realistic option available, then that is what we must do to ensure that the business of Masonry and the business of our Grand Lodge is conducted and that we are satisfying our Constitutional duty. When you suggest that our brothers would prefer to not hold our Constitutionally mandated Grand Lodge Session because of an intolerance to potential technical difficulties that may occur during a Virtual Session, you underestimate our brothers and do a disservice to their integrity.
Grand Master, some have suggested that this is nothing short of a power grab, a Grand Master unwilling to give up power. I do not suggest that this is your motivation. I would like to think that your ill conceived decision emanates from a lack of information, or proper advice, rather than some nefarious, self-indulgent, motivation. Should you wish to serve a fourth year, however, while repugnant to the Spirit of our Constitutions as we have relied upon the good will of brothers for nearly a century to voluntarily step down after two years of service, as there are no “official” term limits, you could in theory run. Not holding a Grand Lodge Session, thereby extending your term of Office beyond that which is permitted under our Constitutions and then holding a future Grand Lodge Session only when you deem acceptable, is simply not an option. I hope you will agree, we do not have Kings in Masonry, we have Brothers.
I urge you to reconsider this destructive path you have started down. I urge you to reconsider your decision, authorize a Virtual Grand Lodge Session, or some suitable and acceptable alternative, for history will be our judge.
Fraternally and Respectfully Submitted,
RW Steven Adam Rubin
Grand Lodge of the State of New York