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A Little American Masonic Perspective in a Changing World

In a world of large populations and rapid changes that cause shifts in the traditional gravity centers, Anglo-Saxon pragmatism could truly have some surprises in store, which the pro–grand master of the United Grand Lodge of England, Spencer Douglas David Compton, Lord Northampton, has been toiling with in London. Some portentous echoes of possible movements in North America, like elsewhere in the world, are visible.

Translated into geostrategic concerns, these echoes could not help but have a considerable impact, first and foremost in the sphere of the most direct American influence as defined by the Monroe Doctrine. This U.S. governmental policy extended to the whole of Latin America and the Caribbean, two powerfully vital pools of Masonry, of which Cuba is no minor part despite the political opinions of the Castro regime. It is common knowledge that the relations between Cuban Masons and their American brethren have endured despite the embargo imposed by the United States. All this with the permission of Fidel Castro.

It is also by including all the background information in the potential arguments that we are best able to measure the full extent of the initiatives taken by the leaders of the United Grand Lodge of England since 2007, by means of a new kind of conventicle under the cover of study and research in Edinburgh. These efforts are worth lingering over for a moment, especially because in 2011, American Masons hastened to follow suit by organizing a similar exercise in Alexandria, Virginia. It is common knowledge that from the beginning this has involved conducting informal reflections in a research context to begin to imagine the contours of a Masonic universe that will not long escape the important changes experienced by our global village.

Because the Grand Lodges of Scotland and Ireland are stakeholders and associated with these impartial and unprecedented meetings between researchers who are officially devoted to a purely scientific approach, the more diligent American obediences have not been late in taking an interest in them as well. They saw there a window of opportunity to seize, thereby confirming again their immutable ability to enter a new dynamic of the Order. The opposite would have come as a surprise to all those who know this country of pioneers who always remain alert and ready to seize the opportunity to face new challenges. Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, an astute expert on the United States if ever there was one, was the “awakener of the shadow,” one of the first to alert the French public about this with his famous book Le défi américain (The American Challenge). (The original French title of my book, Le défi Maçonnerie américain, echoes his title.)

In fact, the equation is fairly simple: the Order will certainly be celebrating its tricentennial in 2017, but it is seriously threatened in the very heart of the land that served as its cradle. Its membership numbers have dropped dangerously. Its decline has been swift, and the United Grand Lodge of England no longer has more than 230,000 Masons, the median age of whom is high, moreover. (This amounts to a loss of some 140,000 members in ten years.) There has been a dramatic drop in younger members, and the number of lodges is rapidly shrinking. There are no longer more than eight thousand. The institutional uncoupling has been equally obvious since Tony Blair, when he was UK prime minister, adopted a hostile stance toward the United Grand Lodge of England. (His wife and children were Catholic, and he converted after leaving office.) Thus was undone definitively the trinity of throne-church-Masonry. Henceforth, the moment for pragmatism appears to have come, and the English have always shown the ability to be practical when it counts.

It was incontestably a consequence of this that the idea was launched in 2007 to engage in a new kind of dialogue, without too many preconditions, by momentarily putting the Landmarks to the side, and to sit around a table to engage in brainstorming peacefully and constructively, this time on the level of official representatives who wish to share a purely cerebral kind of thinking. The delegates of the three allied grand lodges (United Grand Lodge of England, Grand Lodge of Ireland, and Grand Lodge of Scotland) then presented the idea of classifying the different orders of Masonry into five main categories, the first three of which are

The recognized regulars, because, to make things simple, regularity is not enough on its own for recognition;

The unrecognized regulars;

Then, in a display of unprecedented boldness, in the third position would be the grand lodges for women, which obey the rules of regularity except for the truism that they initiate women, which obviously contravenes a Landmark.

This is likely the most significant new sign of the evolution of the mind-sets and the pragmatic realism of the British, soon shared by those in the United States, as the 2014 conference of the grand lodges in Baltimore can confirm. In fact, for the rest, the two other categories of historical continental irregular obediences are certainly mentioned in the catalog, but with no illusory expectations on either side for any doctrinal advances, and thus intervisits are not part of the agenda. These other categories of obediences, placed last, evidently overlay most particularly the ones that are mixed and thus seem today definitely too far removed from the regular galaxy to foster any hopes of institutional reconciliation in the foreseeable future. (When coupled with the developments that have taken place at the GODF since 2010 on the coed question, these conclusions speak for themselves.) But the fact remains that a signal for movement has been given, and this is what history tomorrow will retain, whatever the results of this kind of approach may be. The sliders are therefore moving.

The stakes can be summed up in a simple equation: advance by means of an international dialogue a framework in which Freemasons can still bring much to the table, on the condition that they truly break the cycle of eternal dogmatic and doctrinaire intolerance that does not spare institutions. But other experimental paths are being explored pragmatically. If this should lead to some still rather improbable consensus, the result would be a Masonic perestroika. Without being totally beatific, let’s place a modest wager, without excessive illusions or precautions, on the windows of opportunity that have been partially opened this way under the pressure of increasingly well-founded realities.

Realization of the existential peril could explain a new type of approach, for want of anything revolutionary. Who could have imagined for even a moment that obediences that had always been considered irregular, according to the canons of the Landmarks, would be included in a strategy initiated by London? However, we can see the serious nature of lodge work there, which, when stamped “historical,” is considered in a perspective that is quite far from any regularization of relations. It is important to neither underestimate nor remain ignorant of these tectonic plate movements and to not nurture vain hopes by way of renunciations that the weight of history excludes.

Distrust and resistance have not been slow in putting in an appearance. Their first consequence was the replacement in 2009 of the English pro–grand master Lord Northampton, who wielded authority in a practical manner but who was evidently deemed too innovative by a dyed-in-the-wool conservative faction. Another consequence was the withdrawal of the United Grand Lodge of England, which financed the Centre for Research into Freemasonry at the University of Sheffield, which was headed by the Swede Andreas Önnerfors, who was overly receptive, in the opinion of the conservatives, to the uninhibited academic overtures that until that time had been supported and subsidized by the executive branch of the obedience. The inevitable result was the closing of the center, and we can clearly see here the limits of the influence of the reform elements that are still toiling to establish themselves, while the flagship is still trying to determine its course or even taking on water.

And if America were to pick up the baton? Already the topic of discussion for the Conference of North American Grand Masters includes some revealing clues of their thoughts on refocusing the Masonic debate around values: how to restore a sense of citizenship, become a moral compass, and stress the difference. Even if the grand lodges listened without coming to any conclusions, it appears that a space of discussion and reflection was opened, which marks a rupture with the usual monotony.

It is also important to note that Masonic works of scholarship have rarely shown such great variety and richness, which until recently has not been the case in the various contexts of the research lodges on both sides of the Atlantic. However, for years now the Research Society of the Southern Jurisdiction has welcomed researchers of whom it demands no conformance with any criteria of regularity and makes no conditions concerning recognitions. The only thing that matters is their qualification.

The various research centers have the Quatuor Coronati Lodge in London for a model. And even if this “authentic school” of Masonic research has lost a little of its luster, its rigorous scientific method has earned it disciples in both the Old and New Worlds. The work performed there remains noteworthy. The centers offer a surprising contrast between the dominant obediential dogmatism and the high degree of scientific standards of the researchers, who work with a great mental freedom. These cenacles, with whom are sometimes pragmatically integrated Masons who do not heed the canons of the Landmarks, work free of the searchlights that, like funhouse mirrors, maintain futile illusions of power. These protected spaces are also often laboratories of ideas and the ideal sites for top-rate encounters without any preconditions. They are possible experimental crucibles for exploring the future and imagining a foreseeable Copernican transformation of the United Grand Lodge of England, with the consequences and repercussions that this would bring about in North America. We have not reached this point yet, but the tricentennial of the Order is upon us and can still hold some surprises.

For the time being, we should not lose sight of the resistance noted earlier that testifies to the difficulty involved in moving forward on the path of the center of union that the founders of the Order had in mind, as noted in Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723. A very recent warning was issued by the representative of the United Grand Lodge of England at the closing of the October 2013 session of the lodge Quatuor Coronati against “undesirable effects that certain positions could have on regularity and unity,” which was noted during the session of the Bayreuth research lodge and was immediately passed along by the Senate of the United Grand Lodges of Germany and the grand masters of the German obediences. However, this served merely to remind members of the eminently humanist and nonreligious vocation of the Masonic order, but it was sufficient to inflame the debate between the supporters of a continental European tradition and the unconditional deists.

In the final analysis, and by placing the challenges of the moment within a global context, including the United States, despite a small note of modest optimism, the destiny of the United Grand Lodge of England remains more uncertain than ever. This is a dimension that cannot be concealed when the question of analyzing the major stakes is raised. The consequences of its almost unavoidable weakening cannot fail to have worldwide repercussions because of its historical significance and the powerful Masonic networks founded upon it—in a mechanism that has been perfectly mastered until the present.

What could these consequences be? What role could American Masonry, which is also weakened but still quite powerful and in possession of resources we should not underestimate, and which shares fairly similar interests, play in filling the vacuum? Will the pragmatic and conscious elements of those tackling the major risks allow them the time they need to overcome the final pitfalls? And what could the effects be on the obediences connected to the United Grand Lodge of England and on our own liberal networks? These would be our questions.

We can already see the emergence of these major stakes at the large meetings, like that of the Conference of the Grand Masters, where an evolution could be sensed. But it will still be necessary to engage in a substantial study of prospective changes that remains to be undertaken by the forecasters, by placing at the epicenter, henceforth and with a new realism, no longer London but the American grand lodges. Between a congealed tradition and a decline, there is most certainly a reformist middle ground on which there is still time for Masons of goodwill and all sensibilities to labor, mindful only of the center of union, which is to say without anyone being unreasonably constrained.

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