We are all familiar with the Shriners. We have seen them our entire lives in the parades. We hear daily about the great deeds and unprecedented health care they have funded and provided for millions of children around the world. They are fun loving, friendly, charitable, carefree, and one could even say…noble.
After all, when you join the Shriners your title is “Noble.” I am a member of a Shrine in central Pennsylvania. We do lots of things. We have a blast. I would be hard pressed to say one negative word about the Shrine or any of my fellow nobles who I volunteer with. I would dare ANYONE to find a negative in the mission of the Shrine, which is HELPING CHILDREN.
With that said, this post will NOT be a glorification of the Shrine, or a demonization of the Shrine. This paper is to lay out the facts, and allow you to become educated on what is currently going on, and how it has come to the point we as Freemasons and Shriners are currently at.
What do we know about the Shrine?
For most of us, we joined the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, commonly known as Shriners, and often abbreviated as A.A.O.N.M.S. We were also known as the Shriners of North America. Although I am a member in good standing, and I support the mission of the Shrine, there are many aspects of the Shrine that have strayed from the origins of its creators.
When I say “most of us joined the A.A.O.N.M.S.” it is because the A.A.O.N.M.S. does not exist anymore. A few years ago (2010), with Shrine temples being built all around the globe in places like South America, Europe, and Southeast Asia, the Shriners of North America or the A.A.O.N.M.S. changed their name to be officially known as “Shriners International.” Makes sense right? Sure it does.
What most people in the community know, and what ALL Shriners know, is that membership in the Shrine has always been restricted to men who were also Master Masons, and up until a few years ago, also had to have reached a certain level of membership in either the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, or the York Rite of Freemasonry. These are two separate fraternities that give advanced, or other “degrees” of Masonry which help make a man understand the basic principles of the Craft and build upon the first three degrees.
Just a side note; the first three degrees are also known as the “blue lodge” or the “symbolic lodge.” They are what make you a Mason. The third degree in Masonry is the highest degree in Masonry. All other “higher degrees” simply reinforce and build upon what you are taught in your first three degrees. It is helpful, and would benefit us all, if we all looked at them as “other” degrees and not necessarily “higher” degrees.
What this requirement did was made sure the Mason who becomes a Noble understood the Craft, the working tools, and the life lessons taught in Masonry for Freemasons. This allowed a man to gain an understanding of the Craft while working to “reach” the Shrine. This is what made the Shrine a Masonic body. A man was not just pulled off the street; he worked, learned, and paid his dues. He had at least the very basic understanding of Masonry and blue lodge. He practiced Freemasonry as a way of life, and not just carried a card in his wallet. However, the requirement of Scottish or York Rite membership were dropped a few years ago, so now any man who is a Freemason can be made a Shriner. No further Masonic membership or education is required. One could blame these changes on dwindling membership or possibly rising cost of building maintenance. Whatever you may think the reasons were, this happened, and now, as a result, there is very little Masonic influence, activity or promotion in the Shrine for Masonry.
Still, this does not make any Shriner a bad guy, and it does not make the Shrine a bad organization. What it does, however, is removes most Masonic elements and knowledge from its requirements.
Here is where I have often heard the argument of; “So what, that means blue lodge gets (whatever amount of dues money) each year without having to do anything.” I also hear; “Without people becoming Shriners the Masons would die off.” Many people try to make the argument that people want to join the Shrine because “they do stuff.” While blue lodges simply pay the bills and stare at each other.
There is an argument to be made there. Absolutely, blue lodges are dry by today’s standards of entertainment. Blue lodges need to work harder. Blue lodges need education and better qualified men to lead the fraternity. I will shout this point from the rooftops all day long. If a man wants to do something for the good of the world, and volunteer, and help children, the Shrine is a great opportunity and organization for him to do so. Blue lodges do not offer too many public or fun activities. Some do, of course, but in general the purpose of blue lodge is to educate, refine character, and grow a good man…..not to entertain him. Many blue lodges have dropped the ball here. Blue lodges are supposed to take a man who wants to better himself in general, polish his rough edges, and teach him about the tools that will make him a better father, husband, and friend, and give him brotherly love, friendship, and help doing so.
The responsibility does not lie solely with the blue lodge though. There is also an expectation of the part of the member to actually want to be educated. He has to want to become a better man. He has to want to learn the working tools and apply them to his life. I could offer you chicken noodle soup all day long, but if you don’t want it, are not asking for it, and do not like chicken noodle soup, then my efforts will be lost no matter how much I try to peddle it to you.
There is also the case that many “straight to Shrine” men have a grudge almost against the symbolic lodge for having to pay dues to an organization they have no interest in. I know personally I work too hard for my money, and I wouldn’t want to be paying dues needlessly to an organization I have no interest in being a part of.
This brings us to where we are today. In today’s Masonic lodge we have a majority of members who have become so through ignorance, one day classes, or for the wrong reason in general. For anyone who wants to argue this point I ask them to ask the secretary of ANY lodge in America for membership statistics. See how many members they have, then attend a meeting and see how many show up. This is a fact.
Likewise, in today’s Shrine, we have many men who have never been to a blue lodge meeting outside of their three degrees (or one day auditorium side show). We have men, good men, who are running a fraternity that claims Masonic association, but have very little association with it.
I have to stress; this does not make the Shrine a bad organization, it just makes it not a Masonic organization. The Moose, Elks, Rotary, Lions, and other clubs are also not a Masonic organization. They are not bad men, they are not bad organizations, they are just not Masonic. Looking at it that way, I know as an educated Freemason I could also become a Moose, Elk, Rotarian, or Lion and still be a Freemason. I would take the tenets of Freemasonry with me into any one of those groups the same as I take them to work with me, church with me, use in my home, and attempt to instill in my children. For me, Freemasonry is a lifestyle, not just an organization. Freemasonry for me is a system of morality, not a meeting once a month.
What do I think?
After seeing the strains come and go between the Shrine and Grand Lodges in different states and seeing men lose memberships in both organizations, I have to say, enough is enough. If you can’t play nice then don’t play at all. Shrine, you take your ball, and find a new team. Grand Lodges, you take your glove and find a new team. Play each other, encourage each other, and sometimes trade players, but don’t make it miserable for everyone in the league.
I liken it to a divorce. No person usually plans on divorce. No one wants to think of divorce. Couples try to work it out. They try to reason with each other. They try to heal wounds inflicted by each other. Sometimes couples can get past a rough road. Sometimes people just live miserable forever. Sometimes though, divorce is the best option. (There are loopholes in my analogy, I admit.)
One of the principle requirements for membership in Shrine is that you have to be a Mason in good standing; however, we are seeing Shrines backed and supported by the Imperial Potentate making exceptions to this rule. There are many reasons this is a sticky wicked.
The Shrine is a separate fraternity. On one hand they should have the ability and right to make their own decisions and their own rules, so in that aspect ….have at it. They should keep in mind, however, that in doing so they have now removed the Masonic membership requirement. If they are saying that a man no longer be a Mason in good standing for membership, then they should come out and state this. They have not done this.
What they have done, though, is issued statements, held meetings, and tried to explain their reasoning. At the end of the day, however, they have allowed non-Masons be members. They have relaxed membership requirements and made it easier to join, but at the end of the day, however, they have also allowed non-Masons be members.
The Grand Lodges on the other hand, Arkansas in particular, have to chill out a bit too. The Grand Lodge of Arkansas has declared the Shrine a clandestine Masonic body, (as the particular Shriner who maintained his membership even after being expelled from his Blue Lodge was from Arkansas) and by its decree, any Arkansas member associating with, holding membership in, or otherwise being at a Shrine functions will be expelled from the fraternity.
The members are forced now to make a hard choice. Both houses have suffered membership loss. Both houses have very loud and very strong arguments against each other. Both houses are also putting the general member of both organizations in an extremely bad place. Derision and contempt is now being suffered within the lodges.
It is worth noting that the Grand Master of Arkansas expelled the particular member at the root of this most recent conflict without trial. I take great issue with this. While I tend to side with the thought and practice that if Blue Lodge membership is the required for Shrine membership, then loss of Blue Lodge membership SHOULD take you out of all Masonic bodies, there is also a certain protocol to follow. I do not believe, based on the reports, releases, and letters from both sides of the current argument that there was a proper Masonic trial conducted or proper representation acknowledged by the Grand Master of Arkansas. To me, this makes this a private animosity. As any Mason can tell you, private animosities are not to be suffered in Freemasonry.
I acknowledge that being Grand Master comes with certain perks and benefits that may be implemented at will, however, it is an elected position, and in my opinion, there is a certain amount of respect and minimum courtesy due to an accused member. It should not be run as an “off with his head” dictatorship.
We have shown, the Shrine has had a slow and gradual evolution of change from an organization of knowledgeable Freemasons to an organization of great men, but who have no knowledge whatsoever about the Masonic Fraternity. We have witnessed the Imperial Potentate make exceptions to the Masonic membership requirement. We have seen infighting and un-masonic conduct on both parties. Enough is enough!
This should be no surprise to anyone. It will eventually happen, so why pull the Band-Aid off slowly. Rip it off and be done with it. We have come a long way from A.A.O.N.M.S…..which could be rearranged to let people know that a Shriner was also A.M.A.S.O.N…..They are not A.A.O.N.M.S. any more, they are not Masonic.
So what if the Shrine were to cut ties?
First, let me be clear, I have never before this year wanted to see this happen. I remained hopeful that Shrine and Freemasonry could walk arm in arm for generations to come. However, after years of watching men be made Masons, and hear of men “waiting till’ there is another one day class” , becoming Worshipful Master, educating myself in the scholar program, and actually being brought to the light of Freemasonry, I honestly believe a complete and total separation is the best thing for harmony and good order of both houses.
If the Shrine and Freemasonry would become separate, it would not be the end of the world. I do not think for one moment either organization would dwindle and cease to exist. On the contrary, I think both organizations would become more prosperous.
For most people who join lodge just to go to Shrine, it works out for them. They have no interest in Freemasonry, and they currently get no Masonic teaching in Shrine, so they win.
For Blue Lodges, we would see men joining who WANT to join. No longer would we have to say things like, “Shrine factory”, “ McMason” , “ Straight to Shrine Guy” or any other negative stigma placed on a man who is just joining to go to Shrine. They would no longer be the problem of Blue Lodge. It would be painful to see the split, but it would take all conflict out of who can do what. One organization would no longer have to make an argument against the other.
For the Shrine, they would get what they want… sovereignty. They would never again have to worry about who is expelled. They would never again have to worry about some outside, uncontrollable force giving them the shaft for any reason. They would be free to govern themselves without fear or discontent or divergence of the Grand Jurisdiction which it resides.
The members of BOTH organizations win. Any Mason would be able to join the Shrine. I don’t see a split as having the organizations declare each other clandestine and forbid membership in each other’s organizations. It happens to be this way currently in Arkansas because of the membership requirement that is currently in existence. Once membership requirements would be dropped, and the Shrine is no longer a Masonic body, they Grand Lodges would not be able to govern its members or forbid them from membership.
This would be the exact same as a Mason who is also a Lion or a Moose. A Grand Lodge cannot tell a man he cannot be a Moose or an Elk or a Lion. A Grand Lodge has zero control over a member’s personal choices outside of Freemasonry as long as the other organizations are not claiming to be a Masonic organization. A Freemason is still a Freemason if he is an Elk. A Freemason would still be a Freemason if he was a Shriner.
Another great thing that would come out of this is that we, as Masons, would finally lose the false sense of achievement by joining the Shrine. For years many men carried this misguided notion that the Shrine was somehow the top of the Masonic chain. Men carried this belief that when they finally “reached” the Shrine they were in some way superior Masons. At one time this was actually true. I disagree with the notion, but it was true in practice. A man became a Master Mason, went up one side or the other (York or Scottish) and then one day was able to dawn his Fez. If we still had this requirement of advancement then I would be making a different argument at this time, but as it currently stands, there are next to NO ACTUAL requirements to join Shrine. One needs not be anything but a one day class Mason to walk in, slap a fez on, and start helping children. This is great for the Shrine, but robs the new Shriner into an extra set of yearly dues.
This also affects the Blue lodge as it adds one more person to the records who will NEVER do anything good for the craft. This damages the Craft because now we have thousands of Freemasons out in the world claiming to be Freemasons, acting as though they know what they are talking about, making new drone card carriers, and watering down the beauty of Freemasonry. These men carry no knowledge of the symbolic lodge. They carry no desire for advancement in the symbolic lodge, and many of them, out of ignorance, do not conduct themselves as Masons should do.
Any other solutions?
Well, maybe. Although I am currently of the mindset that the two organizations should be separate and unreliable upon each other, I do think there is an option available that could place a temporary patch on things and maintain a Masonic connection.
Many organizations have turned to associate membership and limited memberships. I am not a veteran of a foreign war, but I do enjoy going out to the club. The VFW is by far an excellent example of associate members having the privileges of attending and helping and being a part of most VFW functions, at the same time not being a full member.
If the Shrine wants to hold onto any sort of Masonic affiliation and not drop it from their side completely, I can foresee a situation where the Shrine opens up to associate or limited memberships that allow men to be made nobles, wear a fez, participate, and be a part of the Shrine, while at the same time limiting them to non-Divan or other elected positions.
Masonic membership could be required as part of any elected office of the Shrine including both the Divine and the sub-organizations and Units of the Shrine. This would maintain a Quasi-Masonic connection to the fraternity, and allow men to participate without being Masons. Elected officers however would need to maintain Masonic membership.
Why do I think this would work? It would work because it sort of already is working this way. This is true for not just buddies and friends of Shriners, but also of the wives and girlfriends of Shriners. I know at our yearly Circus there are many wives, friends, helpers, and otherwise non-Masons who come out to support and assist in running the many booths of the Shrine Circus. Likewise, in Parades there are ladies who drive the trucks, hand out candy and do other things of that nature. There are certain “Shriner Only” parades or duties, but for the most part outsiders have been a HUGE part of the Shrine for years. There have been some outsiders in my Shrine that participate more than many of the Shriners themselves.
Most men who come to Shrine events really have no interest in moving up the Divan or becoming Potentate. Most men just want to have a good time and help the children. This solution would allow a Masonic connection and understanding to run the show, but would also allow the general member to just be a Shriner. If a member is expelled from the Masonic fraternity, he could still be a participating Shriner, just not an elected officer.
Of course, this is just one more wall in the middle of the long road to eventual separation. I am certain that it will happen in my lifetime, and this would just prolong it for a few more years. I am sure the exact situation would pop its head up a few more years down the road when a Potentate, like in the current Arkansas fiasco, is expelled or dropped from the books of his blue lodge. Also, if sometime down the road a particular group or unit becomes popular, but has no participating Master Masons left to be elected to office, then would the group just cease? Who knows? Like I said, this would be just another wall to slow down the eventual separation.
That is my opinion. I’d love to hear yours.
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