(Some details of this story have been updated as of 11AM 7/7/2019.)
It's not over yet, but the long-running feud between the Grand Lodge of Arkansas and Shriners International may at last be coming to a positive resolution.
Since November 2012, the Grand Lodge of Arkansas has forbidden the Masons in its jurisdiction to be members of the Shrine. The Grand Master at that time, Robert L. Jackson, issued a letter that declared the Shrine "clandestine" in Arkansas, and all Masons in the state were suddenly ordered to either quit their Shrine membership, or "self-expel" themselves (a curious, irreversible procedure that few - if any - other grand lodges practice).
The argument at that time concerned an Arkansas Mason who held a dual membership in another state, along with belonging to an Arkansas Shrine. He was brought up on Masonic charges and expelled in Arkansas, but was not suspended by the Shrine at that time because his other state's Grand Lodge had not taken any action against him. The Shrine's position was that he was still legally a Freemason outside of Arkansas, and therefore was still entitled to remain a Shriner. MW PGM Jackson disagreed, ordered the Shrine to expel him, they refused, and so he issued his edict.
The result was an enormous drop in Masonic membership in Arkansas that far exceeded the comparative membership losses that any other Masonic jurisdiction has suffered in the U.S. The sheer number of expulsions in Arkansas since 2013 has been staggering.
Jackson's order might have meant the end of the Shrine in Arkansas. Because of the untenable situation in which they found themselves, Shriners International changed its bylaws and created a loophole for Arkansas that permitted non-Masons to become Shriners there. That by-law change has been in place since 2013.
Meanwhile, PGM Robert Jackson went on to become the Grand Secretary of Arkansas in 2016. Numerous Arkansas Masons reported that his office allegedly stopped issuing letters of good standing to fleeing Arkansas Masons who attempted to transfer their membership to jurisdictions in other states like Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and elsewhere. The Grand Lodges of Oklahoma and Kansas both withdrew amity with Arkansas, partially over these issues.
Jackson was suspended in 2017 by then-GM Carl E. Nelson, along with Grand Treasurer, PGM Ronnie Hedge. Hedge is now one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Grand Lodge of Arkansas (which is a whole different story). At the end of his term as Grand Master in 2018, PGM Nelson was elected as Grand Secretary.
But a new wrinkle developed earlier this summer. The outgoing 2018-19 Grand Master Bradley Phillips (photo) issued a Grand Master's Recommendation at the 2019 Arkansas annual meeting that finally has proposed a way to end to the needless impasse with the Shrine.
The Recommendation reclassifies the Shrine in Arkansas from a clandestine organization to a civic one for the next three years; permits non-Mason Arkansas Shriners to petition lodges; permits self-expelled Arkansas Masons to petition for reinstatement, along with all other Masons in the state who had previously been expelled by former Grand Masters or trial commissions over their Shrine memberships or activities; and the decisions to reinstate such expelled Masons will rest in the hands of local lodges, not the Grand Lodge or its officers. At the end of three years, if all members of Arkansas Shrines have become Masons in that state (or in another jurisdiction recognized by Arkansas) once again, the Shrine will again be classified as a fully recognized fraternal organization under Arkansas Masonic code. In return, all remaining Shriners in Arkansas who have NOT become Masons by the end of the three year period will be expected to be suspended by the Shrine, and the non-Mason loophole created by this whole imbroglio by the Shrine will be ended.
(I have only seen page one of the Recommendation. Click image below to enlarge.)
The attending delegates at the annual meeting overwhelmingly voted in favor of the proposal, and Phillips was also elected as their new Grand Secretary, replacing Carl Nelson. The adopted recommendation also has the support of current 2019-20 Arkansas Grand Master Jesse Don Sexton.
This past week in Nashville, Shriners International held its 145th annual Imperial Session. The Arkansas Recommendation was partially re-drafted as a Resolution for the Shrine, and was enthusiastically adopted by their delegates. This has now resulted in the Shrine organizing a working group from the Grand Lodge of Arkansas and members of the Sahara and Scimitar Shrines in Arkansas to begin the transition process outlined.
By the time you read this, if I understand the original Recommendation correctly, the Shrine is no longer considered "clandestine" by Arkansas, and is merely to be treated as a civic organization now. (Please contact the Grand Secretary's office to verify this, as I may be misunderstanding the actual timing.)
Further, Shriners International will move forward with a plan to restore regular Masonic membership as a prerequisite for becoming a Shriner once again into their bylaws, as it historically has been before. The working group's complete report is due no later than the end of this year.
And then, if all goes well within the proposed three year time frame, all of this stürm und drang will finally come to an end, and Masonic careers of countless dedicated Arkansas brethren that have been devastated by this feud may be restored at last.
(The adopted Shrine Resolution can be seen below. Click to enlarge.)