Gordon Charlton, WM, Internet Lodge 9659EC, 1998 - 1999
In writing this report I am permitting myself two vanities, the first being that of speaking subjectively rather than trying to represent the opinions of Internet Lodge, and the second is in imagining, as with other ideas I have introduced into the Lodge during my term as Master, that it will be of enduring value, and repeated by those who succeed me.
At the time of writing it is the latter part of February, 1999 and we have just passed the end of the first calender year of the Lodge's existence, and are in the build-up to the Installation of WBro. Belton, the Senior Warden and WM Elect. As with the previous meetings of the Lodge it is promising to be a more substantial affair than we had imagined prior to the Consecration. In particular we are to be honoured by the presence of the Provincial Grand Master, RWB Helmsley and a number of his Officers, which means that the DC is in consultation with the Provincial DC and, as is the way of the Lodge, he is keeping the administrative team updated by email.
There have been four Meetings to date, including the Consecration, which was in Freemasons' Hall in Manchester, the home of the Lodge. This largely
set the tone for the rest of the meetings. Once the provincial team had withdrawn and what had been a Provincial Meeting became a Lodge Meeting the Founders and guests broke into spontaneous applause, which was a surprising and uplifting event, and very encouraging. Nonetheless we retained sufficient decorum to complete the meeting in due form, and repaired to the Festive Board for a sumptuous meal. The Festive Board included a few atypical moments, including the presentation to the Provincial Grand Master of three volumes of messages of best wishes sent via email from Brethren around the world. I think it is fair to comment that what the latter part of the meeting lacked in solemnity it made up for in joy and rejoicing.
The subsequent meetings were held in the Twickenham, Birmingham and Sheffield areas, and consisted respectively of an illustrated talk by a Lodge member about the Biblical history surrounding the building of the Temples at Jerusalem, a talk by the previous year's Prestonian Lecturer entitled Trials and Tribulations of a Masonic Apologist which examined Freemasonry's response to the criticisms leveled against it, and, most recently, the Internet Lodge Festival.
The Festival Meeting was originally intended as a substitute for the more traditional Ladies Night, but very quickly expanded to be a full day's entertainment with several aspects to it. For the Brethren it started with a short Lodge meeting to deal with various housekeeping matters, while our non-Masonic guests received a talk from a representative of Aidis Trust, the Master's charity for the year. This is a non-Masonic charity providing computer equipment for disabled people, and in keeping with the origins of the Lodge. It also has an incidental Masonic connection, in that it is under the patronage of HRH The Duke of Kent. The talk was introduced by my wife, to whom I owe thanks for her support during the formation of the Lodge and my year in the East. She also spoke amusingly (I am told) about her life as both a Masonic and a Computer widow, and promoted the idea of family involvement in Masonry.
After the Meeting the Brethren stayed in regalia while the guests entered the Lodge room for a talk by a Past Master of Amadeus Lodge about Mozart's contribution to Freemasonry with musical accompaniment by the Sheffield and District Masonic Choir. The afternoon was rounded off by a talk about openness in Freemasonry, some light operetta and a hot and cold buffet meal. In the evening we travelled en-masse to the theatre to see a production of Amadeus priorto it going to the West End. All in all it was a very full day, and went with scarcely a hitch.From an administrative point of view the Festival exemplified many of the strengths of the Lodge, in particular its ability to poll the opinions of its membership as and when required, and to utilise the skills, abilities and knowledge of individual members without regard to time or location. In many respects the General Purposes Committee is rather redundant in a Lodge which has the facility to discuss matters amongst the entire membership at any time, and for subgroups of the Lodge to form and change in a very fluid (and occasionally bewildering) manner.
This facility is largely based on the Lodge mailing list, an email based discussion group which is restricted to members of the Lodge, and which varies in tone between committee meeting and Festive Board as circumstances dictate. In common with other Internet based aspects of the Lodge a substantial portion of the year was spent wondering how to make best use of this novel tool, and in resolving differences between the hierarchical structure of a Masonic Lodge, and the non-hierarchical nature of network based discussion. This remains an ongoing task, apparently best approached by observing what works and what does not, and building on successes. Some attempts have been made to formalise and document the structures that appear to have evolved, and it is likely that this will be finalised only when we have accrued sufficient experience in what is both new to Freemasonry and unique to Internet Lodge.
Other innovations include the establishment of a "Docushare" website. Docushare is a proprietary technology which enables members of the Lodge to add items to the Lodge website in a straight-forward manner, and also to access a secure, password protected area only available to members of the Lodge. This means that administrative officers such as the Secretary and Treasurer can share a common database, and members can consult Lodge records without taking up the Secretary's time. We are also using it to make documents available for examination and comment prior to transfer to the public side of the site, and to build up a Lodge "family album" to enable its widely dispersed membership to get to know each other better. It also has sophisticated search facilities which lend themselves well to research uses.
The public website is by any reasonable standards successful, having had close on forty thousand visitors since the Consecration, when the website went online. As with any ongoing project it is not possible to establish well defined criteria for success, and we are constantly looking for new ways to develop the site and add to the content. It is my hope that in the coming years it will develop as both a valuable resource for Masonic researchers, and an accurate and representative description of Freemasonry in action for non-Masonic visitors.
It would be unrealistic to portray the first year of any Lodge as without challenges, and Internet Lodge has had a few, mostly stemming from misconceptions during the formation of the Lodge. I imagined that the membership would be quite small, given that only a small percentage of Brethren are involved in Freemasonry on the Internet, and that those who joined would do so for the same reasons that the Lodge was formed. In hindsight these were rather foolish assumptions. The membership rose from 52 founders to over 150 members over the year, and each undoubtedly had his own reason for joining.
This has meant that the financial management of the Lodge has been rather more complex than expected and, when coupled with the demands of their public and private avocations, our first two treasurers were not satisfied with the quality of service they were able to offer the Lodge. This has been resolved by the appointment of a Brother skilled in accountancy and with a no-nonsense approach well suited to the job. The administration of the Lodge has further been improved by the distribution of Secretarial duties amongst several Brethren.
It is also worth noting that the Lodge is more reliant on conventional committee meetings to resolve matters that had been hoped. This is partly due to the limitations of email, which, while far faster than the postal service is still a very sparse mode of communication when compared to face to face discussion. It is also partly due, perhaps, to the novel nature of the Lodge. Brethren come to a new Lodge, whether as joiners or founders, with a preconceived notion of how Lodge business is conducted, and we all find it difficult to overcome preconceptions, especially when the alternative is not clearly established. Nonetheless there has been some improvement over the year, and the Master Elect has made it clear that he intends to build on this.
Amongst the successes, which certainly outweigh the difficulties, was the engendering of a principle of openness, both within the Lodge, and in public. Within the Lodge, after a period of not knowing what the mailing list was for, the Brethren are now willing to discuss matters openly, even in such traditionally problematic areas as finance. This enables all the members of the Lodge to contribute to Lodge decisions, not just those who are able to attend a particular meeting. It has also, as a side effect, made the reading of minutes in Lodge meetings much quicker. All the Secretary has to say is "The minutes having previously been circulated and discussed..." Similar considerations apply to propositions for vote in open Lodge and reports from the Charity Steward, Almoner and so on. The public aspects, the website and Festival Meeting, have been covered above.
Another success of particular note was in the Almoner's role, which was quickly adapted to the facilities offered by the Internet, with the Almoner updating us on the health of ailing members on a sometimes daily basis, and advising us where to send get well cards, or if email messages would be appropriate.
In conclusion, even though my term is not quite over, I am very pleased with the first year of the Lodge, and am confident that it will continue to be a successful and thriving Lodge. I am still not quite sure how to define the Lodge - my best attempt is based on private correspondence with one of our overseas members who observed we were involved in Research and Development, so perhaps we are an R&D Lodge! This is best exemplified by perhaps our most significant project, run by Bros. Berry and White, to equip any Lodge that wants it with a Lodge email address, a similar facility having been provided to members of Internet Lodge from soon after the Consecration. I look forward to many more such initiatives.
We have successfully united in the Grand Design of"being happy and communicating happiness."
Long may we continue to do so.