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Some reflections on Speculative Freemasonry
Jane Austen wrote: “It is a truth universally acknowledge that a single man in possession of a fortune must be in need of a wife.” It is also a truth universally acknowledged that a master mason in possession of one sheet of A4 may possibly read it but given three he will will invariably put them aside and go off and make a coffee.
Freemasonry is a system of morality and there is no simple way in which you can cut it without having to use a lot of explanatory words. It follows that however eloquent a writer may be in trying to describe the highways and byways of Freemasonry, other than in the simplest descriptions, his articles can rarely be brief.
In days of yore – well, since Hiram, anyway – Masons would have been most grateful for almost anything that helped explain the reasons why such and such was so and so and almost all of our writer’s words would have been enthusiastically appreciated. Even then though, many masons were – shall we say – more intent on the quality of the roast beef for dinner than they were on the niceties of the rubric and, sadly, doors of lodges of instruction were rarely graced by more than a small proportion of a lodge’s membership.
However today our Mentors, Preceptors and Proposers are faced with a new challenge. Newspaper sales are dipping sharply – who needs to plough through all the verbiage when your i Phone can give you the bare essentials at a glance? The BBC is boring. The younger generation is accustomed to their information being offered in tasty mouthfuls – in ‘power point presentations’, 30 second TV clips, 85 character message blocks, on-line tweets and bullet points, streaming services etc., etc., etc.
So, why are we still writing all these learned papers for Provincial magazines, Preceptor’s Pages and Solomon if they are not likely to be read by those for whom they were really written? Yes, the Mentors and Preceptors and Proposers are reading them (with great satisfaction) but if the aim has been to assist retention of the younger ‘many’, not just the more elderly ‘few’, we must ask why, if the new mason won’t even pick up newspaper or tune into the BBC, why on earth would he take precious time away from twiddling with his
i phone to read about the significance of 1717 or 1813?
To resolve this may one suggest that we accept the new generation is probably burdened by information overload. Modern media allows information to swirl over and around the mind at a frightening speed and inevitably becomes as easily forgotten as it was easily gained. We must find a tactful way of interrupting this flow and persuading the mind to play a more active role. A Solomon paper read cold to an average LoI will, in general, be heard in respectful silence but, with minds agog awaiting the next agenda item, it will rarely be absorbed.
So how do we make our Solomon relevant and, in both senses, helpfully retentive? May one suggest that while our papers may well continue unchanged in spirit they should never be read without being at the heart of a related discussion project. The discussion and the paper should be conceived as an entity. The pleasing drone of the Preceptor’s voice will flow over a Fellowcraft’s mind as a bumble bee is both heard and not heard from the depths of a summer deckchair. It is only when we force this flow of passive information to solidify into active and personal thought that the listener, the Mason, will really become involved. He then has to search for the right words to express his personal opinion – his own adrenalin will have created from the thought a reality.
This is when and why we can turn to our privileged membership of the body of Speculative Freemasons. In 1717 our forebears saw membership as an opportunity, yes, to meet convivially but essentially to converse, discuss and debate the moral and philosophical issues of the day – in other words to speculate. Should we not return to this little used word in out title and encourage not the remorseless flow of fact but of wider discussion in our LoIs? Rehearsal for rehearsal’s sake is a waste of a man’s free time. Opportunity to listen to another man’s inner thoughts and to offer in turn one’s own opinion will always be a privilege.
Technique will be king. A blanket question will receive only a blanker response. Simply ask Fred about the paper just read and he will stutter and stammer and say little more than it was interesting. Charlie will merely say he agrees with Fred. Tom unsurprisingly agrees with Charlie etc. No, something more penetrating is required from our Preceptors and Mentors. Perhaps two papers can be compared. Often it will take the form of a range of questions, perhaps two teams being rewarded in a competitive analysis of the theme. On other days one might invite two or three Masons to offer personal and prepared critiques for debate.
But won’t this take a lot of preparation time? Of course, of course – but the goal is well-worth it. The secret of a good LoI is as of good ritual in the encouragement of a chap’s pride that comes from making a useful personal contribution to a group effort or the glow of participation and ownership that invariably follows.
Is the day of the naked Masonic paper over? No, far from it, but are we sure our Solomon papers have as yet revealed all their unleashed potential?