THE MAGICAL LODGE
Part Three: Patterns In Organization
John Michael Greer
During the time when the lodge system was central to magic in the Western world, a great deal of nonsense and unneeded mystification about lodges and lodge methods went into circulation both in the magical community and outside it, both from romancers of the Dion Fortune variety and from Illuminati-hunting paranoids of the sort still published by John Birch Society presses. The resulting fog, combined with the habit of oaths of secrecy, has kept the whole subject of the lodge system far more obscure than it needs to be.
The lodge, in fact, can best be seen as a fairly simple technology of social organization, adapted for the purpose of bringing about specific changes in consciousness in its members. The differences between a lodge and other kinds of social structures come out of this. In the lodge system as it exists in the Western world, these changes in consciousness are structured through formal ritual processes called initiations, which are themselves simply uses of another technology, one of personal transformation.
Both these technologies have a standard form in the Western world. Despite the usual claims of vast age circulated by magical and fraternal orders alike, these forms seem to have been developed in the latter part of the Renaissance, largely out of the remains of the old medieval guild system. Both went through a second period of development in the nineteenth century, during the golden age of fraternal orders in England and America.
From the perspective of the present, it's hard to imagine just how important these systems were in the Western world as recently as a hundred years ago. In 1897, it's estimated, forty per cent of all adult Americans, of both genders and all ethnic backgrounds, belonged to at least one fraternal lodge. The rituals of these lodges were and are, in point of fact, the traditional initiation rituals of our culture, and the lodges themselves -- democratically run, on the whole, and controlled by the local membership -- also served as the foundation of a whole system, now all but forgotten, of decentralized social organization and mutual help.
With needs and (often) members in common, the lodge systems operating throughout these periods tended to share a great deal of technical material, so that even fine details of practice are identical in many different systems: for example, three knocks with a gavel or the equivalent will bring the members to their feet in nearly any lodge in North America. More important than these similarities of detail, though, are basic similarities of form and function, which are reflected in the lodge system in common structures of organization.
Functions and Officers
A lodge, as an organization intended to carry out the work of initiation, has to be able to provide the various items needed for that work, and to organize the people involved in the process. Neither of these requirements is a particularly large burden -- most initiations, magical or fraternal, can be performed competently given half a dozen trained people and a few hundred dollars' worth of costumes and props -- but both need to be met regularly and reliably if the lodge is to function well.
The way in which these requirements are met is as much a part of the "standard kit" of lodge technique as the shape of the lodge room or the standard processes of initiation. Typically, each major task will have a specific officer to oversee it. Money is handled by a treasurer, necessary paperwork by a secretary; a chief officer presides over meetings of the lodge, and a second officer assists the chief and fills in when he or she is absent. There is usually an officer responsible for props and officers' regalia, and there may be another who serves as director for the rituals of initiation; still other officers will have charge of other aspects of the lodge's practical or ceremonial work. The principle behind all these offices is simple: responsibility is divided, so that no one person has too much to do, but it is also defined, so there's never any doubt about who is supposed to do what. There is always somewhere for the buck to stop.
This system of formal offices with set responsibilities has another advantage, one which goes against the grain of some of the stronger trends of our present culture. In a lodge setting, leadership is a function of office, not of personality; the chief officer of a lodge is not necessarily the most charismatic person in the lodge, or for that matter the worst bully, but he or she still presides over lodge meetings and has the final say in certain matters. Similarly, the duties and powers of each office are defined by lodge bylaws, not simply by interpersonal jockeying and buck-passing. This does not eliminate the political problems which so often occur in less organized groups -- politics are inevitable whenever two human beings come within shouting distance -- but it tends to keep politics from interfering with the work of the lodge.
This stress on offices rather than personalities is reinforced by a number of other parts of standard lodge practice. The different officers will have specific places to sit, defined in the physical and symbolic architecture of the lodge room; they will also wear symbolic regalia of office, which are formally conferred on them when they take office and just as formally passed on to their successors at the end of their terms. The point made by both these practices is that it is the position rather than the person which holds whatever authority is involved.
Decision-making in a Lodge
Not all responsibilities in a lodge setting are routine enough that they can be assigned to a single officer. In fraternal lodges, in particular, a great deal of stress has been placed on bringing the whole lodge in on the more important decisions. The most obvious of these is the assignment of members to the different offices, but most decisions which involve lodge money also go to the membership as well, and so does the question of whether a given person will be admitted into the lodge.
These decisions, in fraternal lodges, are almost universally made by a vote of lodge members. This is one of the great strengths of the traditional lodge system; it helps prevent abuses of power, and allows the voices of all lodge members to be heard. Unfortunately, it's a strength which has not usually been carried over into the magical community, where lodges have more often been oligarchies run by a clique of senior members. This habit has one excuse, which is that it can keep teachings from being watered down by a majority which does not understand them; still, there's a long history of abuse and exploitation on the part of lodges which are run this way. A possible compromise might be to place authority over rituals and instruction in the hands of a circle of senior members, but keep day-to-day control over lodge business on a democratic basis. Control of money, above all, needs to be in the hands of the membership of each lodge; the temptation to dip into the lodge cookie jar has been too great for far too many "Secret Chiefs."
Decisions in the lodge are generally made by majority vote, except in certain specific cases. This has some problems -- it can lead to the tyranny of the majority over a minority -- but (unlike consensus-based systems) it has the advantage of ensuring that some decision does get made. Votes on special matters, such as bylaws or the expulsion of a member, may require a two-thirds vote. Voting on candidates for membership, though, is done on a far more exacting basis. In most lodges, a very small number of votes against admission -- two or three -- is enough to exclude a candidate. (The vote is usually taken with white and black balls, hence the term "blackballed.") This may seem unreasonable, but it has a solid basis in practical experience. One of the most common factors in the breakup of lodges is personal quarrels between members. If more than one or two lodge members dislikes a candidate enough to vote against admission, the risk of that dislike becoming a problem within the lodge is a real one. A lodge, again, is a specific group of people who work together for the purpose of offering a specific initiation. It is not, and does not need to be, open to everyone.