While working in Washington DC I lived with the Senior Warden of a Traditional Observance Lodge. Traditional Observance Lodges can be a controversial issue for some and many have written in defense of and opposition to their concepts. While most Masons are neutral to the subject, there seem to be some who vehemently oppose it for poor and/or false reasons. I am here to defend the concept against ignorance, but at the same time my goal is to point out that best practices is not inherent to any style of Lodge, Traditional Observance or other. I'd also like to make it clear that these are my views, not the views of any Masonic body that I am a member or officer of.
In reading some of the writings of those who oppose Traditional Observance Lodges one would think that those style Lodges have thrown aside the ritual of Craft Masonry as well as the Ancient Landmarks, and have adopted some clandestine policies in an attempt to be a pseudo-religion. Within a week of living on the East Coast I had the pleasure of attending a Traditional Observance Lodge, and most of the arguments against Traditional Observance Lodges were proven as false. Looking back on my experiences and seeing this opposition, I've seen some demonizing Traditional Observance Lodges using propaganda and illogical arguments reminiscent of anti-Masons and conspiracy theorists that claim Freemasonry is evil, corrupt, elitist, and a religion.
When I attended the Traditional Observance Lodge they were initiating a new member as an Entered Apprentice. Like visiting any Lodge it was interesting to see some of the differences from Idaho work. The ritual work was done very well; the officers knew their parts and the side-liners kept silent in respect to the ritual work being done. Once finished they closed the Lodge and we adjourned to the dining room where they held a Festive Board. The food and brotherhood was great: general chit-chat among the Brothers, several toasts, and singing some songs from Anderson's Constitution. In weeks to come, my roommate hosted an educational night for the Lodge where Entered Apprentices came and learned more about the first degree of Freemasonry, not just the catechism required by their Grand Lodge; nothing outlandish, but looking back at lectures written by William Preston and other celebrated Brothers as well as going over the Tracing Board for that degree. In talking with the Junior Warden, I learned quite a bit about what actually goes on in Traditional Observance Lodges versus what others say it is. The goal is simply to return to the practices of early Freemasonry that made Freemasonry great. They are trying to improve the initiatic experience for the candidate by looking back on the history of Freemasonry and using the practices and traditions that are successful.
In "Masonic Reformation" I discuss the "Factory Era" of Freemasonry where Lodges were far more interested in initiating for the sake of initiating, often to get to some of the concordant or appendant orders, while education and understanding of the symbolism fell by the way side. Dues didn't increase with time (and inflation) and for some Freemasonry became nothing more than a fork and knife club. As the years have gone by Freemasonry has decreased and many have speculated on what to do, but few Lodges were doing anything about it. From my observation Traditional Observance Lodges did what many talked about doing. They found something that worked for them. In talking with my roommate and the Junior Warden as well as attending Lodge I saw nothing that contradicted our ritual or the Ancient Landmarks of the Craft. If anything they've attempted to ensure that they make a good first impression on the candidate while ensuring the solemnity of the ritual is upheld. Now, this is not to say some Lodges may exaggerate the adoption of elements that some see as clandestine (even though some of the same elements can be found in groups like the York Rite), but Traditional Observance Lodge is not a unified Lodge system, the Masonic Restoration Foundation isn't the centralized authority over Traditional Observance Lodges; each Tradtional Observance Lodge still reports and is beholden to their Grand Lodge. Each Traditional Observance Lodge finds elements that works for them and adopts them.
I think some of the opinions held against Traditional Observance is held simply because of pride. Some believe that Traditional Observance Lodges are not operating within what they see as acceptable while not realizing most Traditional Observance Lodges are adopting practices used in the early days by our forefathers and which were erroneously thrown away during the Factory Era. The phrase "that's how we've always done it" is a phrase often mocked by many Masons, particularly younger ones, today and for good reason. For too long many Masons have attempted to label recent "customs" of the Lodge as "tradition" or permanent policy. One need only look at Lodge records and see that that isn't "how we've always done it.". These same Brothers would rather keep the current course and further steer the ship of Masonry through superfluous icebergs. Now having said all this, I will agree with one thing said by one anti-Traditional Observance individual: we don't need Traditional Observance Lodges or the MRF to improve Freemasonry. These emerged though out of a need and due to failing policies. Had more Lodges not adopted failing policies and kept actual traditions therefore keeping Freemasonry from straying from its path, the "Traditional Observance Lodge" wouldn't need to exist. Instead of condemning the Traditional Observance movement for attempting to improve Freemasonry, for both for the Lodge and the member, we should be looking at our own Lodges and analyzing the practices. Are the practices of your Lodge allowing for growth, for education, for mentoring, and for self-improvement? We say that Freemasonry is the greatest Fraternity in all the world, but yet so many treat it like it was nothing more than a chapter of Kiwanis or Rotary; I'm not saying anything is wrong with either group, but they are not Freemasonry and vice versa.
I'm not saying that Lodges need to mirror exactly what Traditional Observance Lodges do, but rather should look at practices that reform Freemasonry and go back to time that made Freemasonry famous and immortalized. There are some practices that are symptoms of a healthy Lodge such as:
Quality over Quantity: So many "stay the course" Masons are proud that their Lodge has a large number of members, but when asked how many attend meetings it usually very minimal. What good is having a large membership number if none of them come to meetings? Dues and money can't confer the degree in place of a person. During the "Factory Era" we gloried in our large numbers because it allowed dues to be kept at an unreasonably low level and now with declining membership so many still refuse to raise dues for a variety of excuses. In my opinion, it is better to have a Lodge of 20 Masons who were all active than a Lodge of hundreds where no one attends Lodge.
Communication: A Lodge who keeps in close contact with a Mason is one who will see that Mason more likely to attend Lodge. If a Mason doesn't know what events are coming up they won't attend. Communication is a source of information, promotes motivation, helps in socializing, and assists in the governance, planning, and implementation of Lodge operations, goals, and plans. This isn't just the job for the Master or Wardens, but should be a job delegated to several Brothers to ensure Brothers are called, and should include a newsletter or email from the Lodge's Secretary.
Understanding not Just Memorization: Too many think that just because a Mason can repeat the words of the ritual that they have an understanding. Such thought is false. Education needs to be a focus for the Lodge, whether during a formal meeting, hosting a visiting lecturer, or having education nights at someone's house. If we cannot understand our history, the ritual, and the symbols we will continue to fail our members. Simply hoping a new Master Mason tossed aside to learn and study on his own while focusing on speedily initiating the next new candidate is bad practice and led to what Freemasonry is now, a shadow of what it once was. Without such focus, we would fail to have a proper education and so much would fall into the fog of history and obscurity.
Proper Attire: Nothing bugs me more than when members, and even officers, show up looking like it's just another day sitting around the house. The attire of the Brethren should never detract from the dignity and decorum of the institution. Some Lodges may feel the need to wear tuxedos to show respect to the solemnity and reverence to the ceremonies, rituals, customs, and traditions of Freemasonry. A tuxedo isn't going to work with every Lodge, but as Masons we should attempt have a standard for dress attire and wear at least our "Sunday Best."
Slow Down: Don't be in such a hurry to rush a candidate through the degrees. This isn't just a result of the Factory Era, but also from some events like the Morgan Affair. Lodges should allow candidates to take their time progressing from degree to the next. We need to ensure that a newly initiated Brother sets a proper base to his education and knowledge of the mysteries of Freemasonry; every good structure needs a strong foundation.
Be Active: This means not just in the Lodge. One characteristic seen with all healthy Lodges is that they are active, both in and out of Lodge. This could take the form of community events, brotherhood nights, trips, tours, and so on, and which includes involving the family not just Masons.
Every Lodge is unique, it has its own personality and characteristics. This is why I say that each Lodge needs to find the best practices that works for them. It's very apparent the "way we've always done it" isn't working as demonstrated by so many Lodges showing poor results in attendance and retention. Staying the course with a cheapened and rushed version of Freemasonry does not and will not work. Change is needed because if we keep with the same poor policies then we'll just get the same poor results we've been seeing in the last several decades and to think otherwise is the very definition of insanity.
To call Brothers "clandestine" or "elitist" simply because what their Lodge is different from yours is illogical and not very Brotherly; no one should hasten to label someone simply because someone took pride in their experience and sought to share it. Instead of infighting and petty politics about who is right or who is wrong, we should be united and celebrating as Brothers, we should be finding what works and what is sustainable.