by Christopher HodappOver the last week, several emails have been making the rounds out of the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of South Carolina concerning the January trial and expulsion of Past Grand Master Michael D. Smith. As reported here in February, Smith was expelled from the fraternity by current South Carolina Grand Master Walter C. "Cal" Disher II for violating his edict forbidding Masonic meetings conducted by Internet teleconferencing software, like Zoom. The charges brought against Smith were for authorizing Zoom meetings for the Scottish Rite Valleys throughout the state in his role as their SGIG for the Scottish Rite Southern Jurisdiction.
Now, the plot, as they say in cheap potboilers, thickens. The Grand Lodge of South Carolina will be holding its annual communication this week on April 22nd and 23rd. In the run-up to that session, South Carolina's Jurisprudence and Appeals & Grievances committees both convened last week to accomplish the usual preliminary business that commonly takes place just before Masonic grand sessions nearly everywhere.
It is the Jurisprudence Committee's job to look over the actions of the sitting Grand Master taken during his term of office to determine if he was correct in his decisions and activities, or if he violated any of the rules of their constitution (the South Carolina Ahimon Rezon). Typically, a grand master provides a lengthy report that outlines all of his activities since taking office in the written form of a formal address (or oration). And then the various committees weigh in on the GM's actions and report whether or not he violated any of their constitution.
Because of the COVID pandemic shut downs last year, GM Disher was compelled by state health laws and an abundance of caution for his more elderly and at-risk members to cancel their annual session in 2020, and all previously elected Grand Lodge officers would stay in their positions for another year. So GM Disher's address was quite lengthy after two years.
(South Carolina grand masters traditionally serve for two one-year terms. Disher was elected GM in 2019, so April 2020 through April 2021 was to have been his second term anyway, if tradition had been followed. With the annual meeting canceled, his second year in the job was a foregone conclusion, as in so many other U.S. jurisdictions this past year. Like it or not, grand lodges must adhere to the rules set down by federal, state and local governments. So I can't really work up support for those alleging anywhere that their grand masters usurped power last year by canceling annual meetings.)
GM Disher presented his whopping 42-page official address to the Jurisprudence Committee last week for review. On Thursday in a 6-3 decision, six Past Grand Masters on the Jurisprudence Committee ruled that the trial of PGM Mike Smith had been unfair, and rejected the portion of Disher's address dealing with Smith's guilty verdict and expulsion. In an anonymous email account of the vote sent to me that was attempting to support and justify the GM's actions, by failing to agree with his decision and actions, those six members of the Committee are themselves now guilty of a Masonic offense and may themselves face charges.
Then, in what was a second repudiation of GM Disher, on Friday, the Appeals & Grievances Committee reportedly ruled in an initial 4-2 decision that misconduct had taken place during the trial of PGM Smith, that the verdict should be nullified, and that Smith should be reinstated. According to multiple sources, Disher angrily retorted that, if Smith was reinstated by this decision, the Grand Lodge would be "liable for a lawsuit," and demanded the Committee re-vote. The result of that second vote was to uphold Disher's actions and the results of the trial. And because of the furore caused in the state by the initial online reporting of Smith's trial and expulsion, the result of the Committee's vote was not to be leaked ahead of time until it is presented on the floor of the annual meeting.
Obviously, that didn't work out so well. Gag rules rarely do.
There are still as-yet unanswered allegations that the arresting of Landrum Lodge charter (PGM Smith's mother lodge in which his son was Junior Warden) by GM Disher was also improper. It's probable that it too will be addressed in the Jurisprudence Committee's official report.
I've been sent conflicting information about these meetings and decisions, and there's a Rashomon-like feel to the widely differing descriptions of trials, conversations, votes, and (naturally) personalities involved. The unsettling image that emerges is an enormous Jenga tower falling to pieces, as charges, counter charges, longtime friendships, personal allegiances, and a seemingly endless string of more threats of suspensions and expulsions all unfold. In one stack of material, there are numerous statements, angrily tarring numerous longtime Masons with more allegations of 'un-Masonic conduct' for failing to rubber stamp the GM's decisions. 'They voted the wrong way too, and THAT'S un-Masonic! We'll have THEM up on charges next!' is the theme that runs throughout.
There's an unfortunate aura of the Caine Mutiny trial scene in much of this. And that's the material that is supposed to be making the case FOR the Grand Master.
The annual session will take place this coming Thursday and Friday, and the GM has placed limits on how many may attend – again due to COVID restrictions. Next in line for election as the new Grand Master is current Deputy Grand Master, O.B. Smith, but there are rumors that one or more other candidates for GM may be nominated from the floor. And the assembled members of the Grand Lodge of South Carolina must also vote to affirm or deny the Jurisprudence and Appeals & Grievances committee reports. If the result of those votes reverse the actions of GM Disher, it's entirely possible that PGM Mike Smith may be reinstated by their action.
Of course, the next question on the minds of many South Carolina Masons is, will the next elected GM (whoever it may be) allow the waters to calm and the Craft in his state to heal? Or will he follow in the footsteps of his predecessor and keep pursuing the example of more suspensions, expulsions and charter yanking in an attempt to enforce the 'authority and dignity' of the office by wrecking the Masonic careers of brethren who have devoted so much to the fraternity for so long? "Because I said so" is a lousy motivator for a voluntary organization that depends on the work and good will of its devoted members.
Would that there was a respected, gray-headed sage in South Carolina who could stand up on the floor of the annual meeting next week and make some calming and uniting statement or entreaty to cool the anger on all sides, set aside the trial decisions and expulsions, and convince the room to do what it takes to restore harmony without destroying Masonic careers. But I doubt that will happen, and more’s the pity. I fear this entire melodrama may result in the loss of far too many members resigning in disgust. And that’s the ultimate tragedy of this mess.