Change is slow, even within the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. We all know that. Change interrupts the status quo, and it’s difficult for many people to adjust and re-calibrate the routine to which they have grown accustomed. But we all also know that everything must evolve, or it will stagnate and eventually die. It will go the way of pterodactyls, puffins and passenger pigeons. The need to evolve and change applies to organizations, as well. The landscape of North America is littered with the remains of thousands of fraternal orders and organizations that failed to adjust to their times.
Odd Fellowship has survived for over 200 years, in large part because the members and leadership of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows recognized the need to evolve and change. Odd Fellowship today is quite different, in significant respects, than Odd Fellowship 200 years ago, or even 100 years ago. The Ritual and the Codes have evolved. Changes, big and small, have occurred over the years and decades to match the times. For example, there was a time in Odd Fellowship when good people could not join simply because of their race, national origin or gender. Thankfully, the Order evolved to a more tolerant and less restrictive place. And words have been used in the ritual which have become archaic. Over time, many of these archaic terms have been phased out and replaced.
The pace of change, however, is slow and frustrating to many members of our Order. Let me give you a recent (and prime) example.
In 2017, under the leadership and authorship of Past Grand Chaplain of California Linnea Bredenberg and Past Grand Master of California Michael Greezeiger, two alternative Initiatory Degrees were presented to Sovereign Grand Lodge. (Brother Michael, by the way, is the author of an excellent and well-read “Primer” about our Order.) One of these alternative initiations is a long form and one is a short form conducted as a gathering around a banquet table. The alternative degrees cover the necessary elements that the traditional initiation covers, but they are more intimate, use far fewer (and more modern) words, and there is a lot less movement – so it is much more efficient. Adopting these alternatives would be a major modernization for our Order. So, much to the delight (and pleasant surprise) of progressive members, the Sovereign Grand Lodge, back in 2017, adopted it as an alternative way to initiate new Odd Fellows. I am aware of Lodges that have been chomping at the bit to use the banquet initiation form.
Yet here we are in 2023, SIX YEARS after adoption by Sovereign Grand Lodge, and Lodges are still not permitted to use these alternative forms of initiation. I think you will find the backstory to this delay both interesting and revealing. One of the co-authors of the new ritual, PFM Michael Greenzeiger recently filled me in on this backstory. Here it is, in Brother Michael’s words:
“The project started circa 2014 when I pitched the idea to then-DSGM Jimmy Humphrey at our GL sessions to rewrite the Initiatory degree from scratch to bring back a lot of the poetry and drama which had been systematically removed as the degree was dumbed down over the last 100+ years or so. He was on board and also suggested we create a shorter version which could be done in more like 15 minutes. Linnea and I decided to take this on and to frame the short version as a banquet form. I took primary responsibility for the long form and she did for the short form, but we always helped edit and refine each other’s work.
The basic approach we used was that I got my hands on every old copy of the Initiatory Degree that I could from 1797 through the present, and I proceeded to analyze each phase of the Initiatory and identify the best historical versions of each portion. This analysis allowed me to understand certain symbolic facets of the degree which were largely opaque to readers of the 2003 version (e.g. that the speeches of the Scene Supporters are actually happening in the context of a philosophical discussion at a funeral). To create the long form, I took what I considered the best language from across all the different versions which made the symbolic narrative and the lessons of the Odd Fellowship the most clear and accessible. We wrote linking text to combine these versions and also tweaked some of the explanations to reflect what we understood to be the lessons to be learned by Millenials and younger generations based on their upbringings which were different from our own. The strong majority of the text was direct quotations from historical versions, however.
After completing the long form, Linnea led the development of the “short form” also often called the ‘Feast of Odd Fellowship.’ Our intention for that version is that it still contain all the major symbolic touchstones of the long form, but in a form which could be conducted with only 5 officers, minimal props and very little floor work. We wanted it to be a degree that even lodges which don’t like Ritual could get behind – I mean, who doesn’t like a good banquet? Even if lodges aren’t into the Ritual, we still feel they deserve to be able to engage with the timeless lessons of our Order.
Jimmy arranged for the 2016 resolution authorizing the two new Initiatory degrees (the long form being intended to replace the 2003 version of which I am not a fan) to be submitted to SGL by Grand Reps from multiple jurisdictions. It held over for a year as the Code mandates and I attended the 2017 sessions in St. Louis to meet with the Ritualistic Works Committee and push for its adoption. The Committee was very sympathetic to our efforts to improve the degree and further pointed out that the short form could be a great benefit to our members who had difficulties with mobility since it is done seated around a table. They made some minor edits, but largely left our work intact. The one big change they required, actually, was that rather than replace the 2003 version (which they felt many would want to continue using due to familiarity) they instead choose to add ours as two alternative versions. With the recommendation of Ritualistic Works, the degrees passed pretty convincingly.
After that, however, I did some reading in the Code and at the time there was that provision which required that the Ritual changes be ‘in print’ before becoming official. It had become clear that the Sovereign Grand Secretary was not in favor of the new degrees . . . . In order to prevent what could have become a pocket veto, I drafted a resolution which mandated that the two new degrees be distributed electronically by the SGS to the Grand Secretaries and from the Grand Secretaries to the lodges in their jurisdictions and that this distribution be considered publication for the purpose of allowing the Ritual amendments to take effect. This resolution passed.
Ultimately, the Sovereign Grand Secretery distributed the degree as required . . . . ,
The ‘in print’ issue has continued to present a challenge, so in 2021 I drafted a Bill for SGL to switch to using modern “print on demand” methods for Ritual books, similar to what I used for the Odd Fellows’ Primer. Another key change in this Bill was that now Ritual changes would go into effect immediately upon passage, rather than waiting for publication. This bill passed last summer so now that excuse for why our Ritual changes won’t go through should be moot.
I don’t know what’s going to happen this summer at SGL, but I’ve heard some whisperings that there’s a movement brewing to try to get our Initiatory changes (which were adopted by the RW Committee and SGL) repealed. In particular, I’m told that the entire Jurisdiction of WV voted unanimously at their sessions to not only ban the use of the degrees in their jurisdiction but to require that any visitor from outside the jurisdiction be asked if they were initiated with the new degrees and if so, they are not to be recognized as Odd Fellows. Suffice to say, I think this is basically insubordination to SGL if an individual jurisdiction is stating that they will not accept all SGL-recognized Odd Fellows as Odd Fellows and can only be bad for our Order.
That’s the long and short of it, but the story continues so we’ll see what happens in August!”
Change used to be slow. Now, in 2023, change is becoming even slower.
F – L – T
Past Grand Master
Jurisdiction of California
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