“The Time has come to speak…”
by Bro\Alain de KEGHEL ( Sovereign Grand Commander
Supreme Council A.A.S.R.-GODF)
On April 17, 2000, Brother Alain de KEGHEL, a, French Mason of Grand Orient de France, introduced perspectives of Freemasonry at the beginning of the third millennium. Latin American Readers will find here adapted excerpts from this conference as a contribution to a worldwide Masonic dialogue.
…The time has come to speak. The time has come to engage fraternally in a deep and sustained analysis of the international Masonic landscape. All Brethren of good will are looking toward a more open-minded, more tolerant, and more Masonic approach to our Brotherhood. To that end, increasing numbers of Masons from around the world are making the necessary efforts to build a bridge of Light. It is a bridge of Light which does not end at national borders or within the institutional limits of Masonic bodies where-so-ever they might be found around the world. It is a bridge that is built in order to overcome prejudices, and to open eyes, minds, and hearts, to the inherited legacies of our diverse and rich traditions.
It is indeed a great privilege and rare opportunity to gather with Brethren of the five continents in order to share different experiences, and to try, to open more widely the doors of understanding. So let us attempt to overcome the friction of difference that far too often marks the realities of the profane world, and as a consequence also tarnishes our Masonic world. We should do this not for the unworthy goal of Masonic proselytizing, but simply to attempt a modest dialogue between men and Masons of good will, between Brethren of distinct Masonic streams that are each, in fact, a lasting source of treasure. Why? We do it because similar efforts have always strengthened our spiritual, philosophical, philantropical and traditional Order.
The Masonic Order has endured through the vicissitudes of time, culture, civilizations and society. However, it has survived through the centuries not by following passively the movements of civil society, but rather it often has been at the forefront of change within society. In those moments of leadership it has been at its’ strongest. This extraordinary heritage is a matter of fact. It is also a reminder of our moral and social responsibility today in our contemporary global world.
Because French Masons realize fairly well how difficult it is for some of our Brethren across the Atlantic including in Latin America to understand how it came to pass in France that there is such a great variety of Masonic bodies and Masonic streams, it would be of value to discuss France to some degree. In doing so, we should not, nor will I, hesitate to address difficult topics like the Landmarks and The Great Architect of the Universe. Such an approach will allow us to go deeper into these sensitive matters. Another sensitive issue is women in Freemasonry. We should not attempt to escape diplomatically any of the real issues.
. This is necessary because it is our duty to test our discrimination and open our minds towards the future of the Masonic Order at the turn of the 21st Century and of the third millennium. However, in order to do this adequately, it is obvious that we first need to know each other much better than we do.
To be direct and to the point, I will first offer a few words concerning the Grand Orient of France: No it is not a communist organization! No, it has not relinguished The Great Architect of the Universe. No, it has never initiated women. BUT… yes, it is the oldest traditional Masonic body in France, and its very strong commitment in the establishment of Freemasonry in the early years of Latin America is well documented.
YES, the Grand Orient with more than 42,000 Brethren is the largest French Masonic organization in a country which counts a total of roughly 120,000 men as members working in a Lodge.
History and persecutions in former times explain why continental Europe does not total today much more than some 250,000 Freemasons. Out of this number, nearly half are French. To be more complete in this presentation, it should be added that France has benefited from an additional important feminine Masonic stream since the early 20th Century.
As many of you will know, a great turmoil began in 1877 as the Delegates of the Lodges of the Grand Orient de France while attending the annual General Assembly made a decision to lift the mandatory obligation to refer to T.G.A.O.T.U. One must today realize that this happened in the context of French post-revolutionary society which had fought successfully for a separation of the State from the Catholic Church.
In earlier times under the Kingdom there was no desire to accept any level of ecumenism by established religion. There simply was no tolerance of different beliefs in established religion. After the Revolution of 1789, the Catholic Church as an institution tried desperately to regain the temporal power it had lost. It was in this context that the Concordat of 1801 had as its first consequence for French Freemasons their effective excommunication. It fueled a radicalization of the relationships between the Catholic Church and the Grand Orient whose membership at this time deist was in its majority but still supportive of the gains of the Revolution.
One should therefore consider today the different social context. It is necessary to look at the historic landscape. It can then be better understood how the moral intentions of these Brothers was not a plan, as some incorrectly assert today, “to chase God out of the Temple.” Rather, it was a very clear protective action taken against what was at that time a very hostile Church. The Masons in that time, believed their decision was a way to return to the original and very liberal spirit of the Constitution of James Anderson. That was the heart of the matter. The focus was on Anderson’s Constitution as it had been written in 1717, before the changes made in 1723. This would mean, as well, a focus on Anderson’s Constitution well before the extensive changes undertaken in 1813, and before the 1929 modifications with their so-called “eight fundamental obligations”.
It is not the purpose here to place too much emphasis on this most sensitive and controversial issue, because it an issue which all too easily pollutes Masonic relations and discussion. Unfortunately, there is not much substantive reasoning at all on the topic today. For example, there is very little examination of the historical facts, as a necessary background to the discussion. The matter has sadly poisoned the relations between different Masonic streams. It has produced a Masonic reaction which many Masons around the world still do not understand: a kind of Masonic equivalent to the Pope has emerged with established rules of excommunication and a kind of “grand Masonic Inquisitor.”
In France, most Bretheren simply did not care about this break in the Masonic family. They regarded this evolution in the breakdown of relations with regret and sadness, nevertheless, they lived their lives as Masons and they went their own way. This is how it was in the past, and it is still so today. .
You of course realize that Freemasonry developed in a different way in France as well as in many Latin American countries. There is no need to lock ourselves into unnecessary compartments and singular ways of thinking. We need to be concerned about the weakness that results from unnecessary divisions. We would be much wiser to prefer a universal perspective because our way of thinking is a legacy of the great philosophers and writers of the time of the Enlightenment: Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Diderot, and before them of individuals such Ephraïm Chambers, with his “Encyclopedia or Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences,” first published in 1728. This heritage of openness, healthy inquisitiveness, and universality, still has not exhausted itself.. We must leave the heritage of our humanist and Enlightenment values to future generations.
The essential point is that our Masonic message is still of value. The great, generous and original ideal of Freemasonry to “unite people who otherwise would have remained at perpetual distance” is also a modern and vital message to our contemporary society endangered by egoism, ethnocentrism and crude materialism. At this time, everyone is speaking of globalization. But where are we as Freemasons in the contemporary world? Are we not at risk in our current situation? Is it not possible that the world will pass us by in the new millennium if we do not actively engage with humanity once again and give the message that is expected from us?
We may feel uncomfortable about the present and the future for good reason. It may be that collectively we are no longer addressing the real issues of our time as our ancient Brothers did so well in their day. Are we dealing with the issues that have real relevance to our modern time and place as they did? We have to be at the same time ambitious for others and humble and modest for ourselves in thinking about this. We certainly must have ambition and high hopes for the progress of our society, for our fellow citizens, for our sons and daughters, for the upcoming generations. But in doing so, we cannot act properly, or adequately, merely by looking backwards at the undoubtedly great achievements of our predecessors. That will not work.
In most Latin American countries, you have been fortunate enough in having a series of prestigious heads of state and great Libertadors as members of our Brotherhood. What about today? What can we do to return to a greater effectiveness, relevance, and visibility in our respective societies?
Each of us has a different kind of commitment and expertise that we bring to the common good and to the work of improving the lives of those around us. Our talents can be political, religious, social, economical, whatever. Always working in reference to our ethical values as Masons, we should be more sensitive to the important issues confronting modern society: education, discrimination, the preservation of individual rights in a computerized society, rules of ethics in biotechnology, the proper and careful management of genetic modified organisms and of modern medicine, problems of environment, as well as of aging people, youth and violence, challenges like drugs, tobacco and alcohol abuses. Young people will expect this from each one of us before they join our Lodges. They will not join if we neglect the vital issues.
In some fashion the young will always demand that we be relevant to society. For our part, we can respect our obligations and still address the genuine issues of our society. If Freemasons do not engage the world in front of them, they will without doubt lose the best and brightest of our youth. Fraternal relations are not enough. The youth of our respective societies have many opportunities for socializing elsewhere more in keeping with their own expectations. Nevertheless, how can there be Freemasonry without the most talented of our youth petitioning to join with us in service?
An additional problem, and opportunity, confronting Masonry is that our own Brethren are beginning to ask how it has come to pass that, because of revisiting the very fluid idea of Landmarks in the lasr century, we have, in the process, managed to destroy relations between each other, that is to say, between the different Masonic traditions? It is quite remarkable when you stop to think about it. By comparison with churches which knowingly defend dogmas, we are performing shamefully. Let us take the example of the Roman Catholic Church, which today extends the metaphorical hands of the Pope all around the world even to non-Christian churches and communities including Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. How does it come to pass that Freemasons remain at the turn of this century unable to conduct some kind of similar Masonic dialogue on an equally large scale? This would by no means necessarily require of any Mason that they change anything about their Masonry. It simply means they could sit around a table, speaking respectfully to each other about Masonry, and about the serious issues of modern times. It could mean they sit and discuss how best to get rid of our self-imposed rules, all of which are mere posturing.
It is precisely these Rules and Regulations, which make a universal dialogue among all Freemasons virtually impossible. Is it not a kind of a paradox that today the Roman Catholic Church has lifted the excommunication of Freemasons that I spoke about earlier but that Freemasons of different disciplines in fact excommunicate each other? Is it a sane and normal situation?
Having always made this argument, and being supportive of constructive change, I notice in this regard that some significant changes are beginning to occur.
Of course, none of us today has a miraculous “ready-made” solution to suggest. We can only work to find a solution step by step. That is how we can all be pragmatic and helpful. The first step is simply to take into consideration the simple truth that there are different Masonic streams. Each of these traditions reflects specific historical, sociological, cultural, religious, spiritual and national realities. We need to take them into account, as they are, and not as we think they should be. No one of us is so privileged with wisdom that it would entitle us to enforce a universal Masonic creed. We have to be aware that illusions take us nowhere. But we can see the result today of closed and self-righteous thinking. It is very frustrating to all of us. Practically, we have to abandon any illusion or vain hope to change the remarkable and healthy diversity in order to reunify Masonic streams. Why would we want to do that?
Referring back again to the French case, even the Grande Loge Nationale Française whom you recognize, is in fact French. It is, in truth, so different from the American Masonic heritage that it could be properly considered closer to all other French Masonic bodies than to your own Lodges. But since it obeys the Masonic Rules edited more than once in London, this makes it in fact different and allows its members to attend your tiled Lodge meetings. This is a reality that is not at all offending to French Masons. That is the way it is.
Starting from this matter of fact, why should we not seriously consider the very real option of becoming more dynamic, more imaginative, more creative and positive in order to develop a new kind of relationship? This would not necessarily imply any kind of formal recognition. It would also not harm our respective rules and regulations and would not lead us to violate any of our solemn obligations? That makes common sense.
Again let us take the example of the Roman Catholic Church: it meets and conducts a sophisticated and ambitious dialogue with the other religious communities, but it does not perform church services in which Ministers of different disciplines work together ritualistically. In other words it places its heart, and service, in favor of ecumenism, but this kind of ecumenism and openness does not result in confusion or the violation of obligations for its Ministers.
Why could we Freemasons of different lineages not act in a similar way? We need not attend tiled Lodge Meetings together. No single French Brother from the Grand Orient should ever expect to attend such a stated communication simply because we respect your identity, your specific commitment, your discipline and your Tradition. However, on a reciprocal basis it is possible that we can make progress. It would require tolerance and an open-minded spirit. But the time has come to sit together. In one way, or another, we need to make sincere efforts to forge new kinds of relationships that are conducive to dialogue. We need adequate mechanisms and tools that enable true Masonic cooperation. It would be easier to use various existing channels: historians and scholars, for example, could profitably join efforts in building toward mutual understanding and knowledge. Joint working Committees could be inaugurated in order to share thoughts on a range of issues outside of the Temple and without Ritual.
This would be a first step. It would considerably strengthen our credibility as a whole in a fast globalizing world where our voice could count, as it should count, and as it once did. If we can talk with each other, we could speak to the world in ways that are heard clearly and with Wisdom, Strength and Beauty. In doing so, we would seriously commit ourselves collectively while always faithfully preserving our individual Masonic identities.
Let us work to be a new kind of Freemason. One who is candid, and practical, but capable of utopian hopes that have ever been at the heart of real change in society and in revolution. In fact, to return to the opening part of my remarks, I am speaking about the same type of bold and vital Freemasonry that helped to launch most revolutions to free your countries and to pave the way to democracy. Let us dream from Hermanos Marty y Simon Bolivar! In our dreams, in our thinking, and in our practical steps, we must move to become active players in life. We stand at the Landmark of a new millennium and we should act and prosper accordingly.
Toward these noble ends, we can recall to mind the proposals of the Grand Commander of the German Scottish Rite, Ill\ Br\ Gunter MUENZBERG, 10 years ago in Mexico Ciudad. He stated then: that “In a world which has changed so much, Freemasonry must come out of its old shell. Simply compare where we are with the time our organization was founded and you will understand the crux of the matter… Problems have been proclaimed often in recent decades by many far-sighted Freemasons, but these problems, and their solutions, have not been incorporated into the strategic thinking of the sclerotic Masonic institutions themselves.
…The Masonic institutions should present the moral law in appropriate, flexible outer forms. This exoteric work and duty would be made fundamentally easier, and factually possible, if the different Masonic systems would bring the norms, values, and insights, mainly esoteric, of their Masonic thinking into expression in a contemporary Magna Charta, or rule…that would not be dogmatic, rather, it would be flexible and adaptable through time, and place, and yet valid for all freemasons. This could replace the confusing wide array of misunderstood “Landmarks” currently in existence. Parallel to this necessary task, the different Masonic organizations can and must develop relevant socio-ethical concepts in their respective countries. Freemasonry is a political factor, whether it wants to be or not. It cannot close its eyes concerning either the environment, or the people.
The Masonic institutions should, of course, not get involved in politics. This would be a blind alley, and not to be pursued. Bridge building is only possible, if the type of institutions that I am speaking about remain neutral. Completely different, however, is the situation of each single Brother. He should participate fully in society, in public life, and especially in the open and tolerant discourses where opinions are formed. The Brother should construct his views on the basis of Masonic thought, as laid out within our constitution(s), within the theories of our rituals….
The underlying theory of principles to which our rituals orient themselves is the categorical imperative of Kant, which always condemns shallowness, and which requires the active engagement of the individual in life…. “Moving something.” In our time, a new “Enlightenment” is called for, but this also will require “New Charges.”
In what directions should we move? We should move toward the duties and responsibilities of rejuvenation within our Craft. This includes the duty to orient ourselves multi-culturally, multi-nationally, and always with flexible and supple thinking, to existing circumstances…These actions will act in a natural and helpful way and they will tend to prevent Masonry from splitting into so-called “irregularities”….
Only when we follow these, or similar, paths can we engage in effective service to humanity as a strong, vibrant, diverse, and universal organization. If we do nothing today, in another 10 to 20 years, the call for reformations will be heard even more loudly…” [end of quote].
These remarks were made ten years ago in Mexico Ciudad. Almost nothing has happened since this desperate cry. This message still resonates today in our ears both as a warning and a legacy.
Let us be the brave Bretheren who are today able to undertake the difficult tasks of change faithfully, but also with courage and realism. It will be well worth the effort for all of us. When you work toward such goals one thing is certain. You will always be able to rely on Brethren of good will from around the world, not only in France, in the great Masonic task of building the ever new Temple of humanity….