SHORT TALK BULLETIN - Vol.IX March, 1931 No.3
Every Master Mason understands that a summons is a command to attend the Communication of the lodge for which the summons is issued, or the occasion - funeral, trial, cornerstone laying; or other function - to which he is bidden. Every Master Mason knows why he must due answer make, either by attendance, or submitting an acceptable excuse, such as illness, absence beyond the length of his cable tow, or other inability to be present.
The summons appears to be very old; older perhaps in civil law than in Masonry, and it has there no considerable antiquity. Indeed, while the word does not appear in the Old Testament, both Numbers and Deuteronomy set forth instructions as to testimony of witnesses at trials, and by implication, if not by detailed statement, indicate that the presence of such witnesses was compulsory. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Bible Dictionary states that the Israelites summoned witnesses.
Civil summons was known in Rome, first by word of mouth, later by written citation to appear. In Chaucers Canterbury Tales (written about 1386) is a sompour or summoner to the ecclesiastical court. The use of summons in English procedure goes back into the dim distance where fact and mysticism meet. It was a part of the feudal system of England and the clan organization of Scotland. When the Baron in England or the Laird in Scotland summoned his fiefs and retainers, they answered in person. Failure to do so meant death. The safety of the Baron depended upon absolute fealty; the safety of the realm depended upon prompt obedience of the Laird to the call of the King. But importance of obedience to summons goes further back than that.
When King Arthur founded his mystic, if not mythical, Knights of the Round Table, one of the inflexible rules was that every knight must appear on a fixed day in every year to report to the table his acts and adventures of the past year. Only one excuse, other than death, was acceptable; that the Knight was on a quest that so required his attention as to render it impossible for him to appear. He was then expected to send an excuse for his disobedience of the requirement.
In the Anderson Charges of 1772, we read:
In Ancient times no Master could be absent from the lodge, especially when warned to appear at it, without incurring a severe censure.
In the Constitutions of the Cooke MS., about 1490. we are told that the Masters and Fellows were to be forewarned to come to the congregations. All the old records, and the testimony of writers since the revival, show that it was always the usage to summon the members to attend the meetings of the General Assembly or the particular lodges.
In the United States the use of the summons grows rarer with every passing year, as applied to a whole membership. In certain Jurisdictions the Master summons his lodge once a year, as much, perhaps, to keep the idea of the summons alive, as to assemble the whole lodge for any purpose. Occasionally lodges are summonsed regularly twice a year, a custom which doubtless grew out of the original once-a-year summons to come and pay dues, when such particular lodges decided to receive dues every six months. In some Jurisdictions the summons is used for the whole membership only upon extraordinary occasions, as when its proposed to finance a temple, or consider some extremely important question of policy such as giving up the Charter. In many Jurisdictions a lodge can not legally give, or surrender its Charter without the action being considered by the whole membership at a summonsed meeting.
Most jurisdictions would commonly use the summons to command witnesses at a Masonic trial. In some the master uses the summons to get a sufficient number of brethren present for Masonic Funerals. Unhappily, the press of modern life, the casual manner in which too many regard their Masonry, the laxness of some Masters and the laissez faire policy of some Grand Lodge leaders, has allowed the sanctity of the summons to be somewhat tarnished. A Mason is Masonicaly bound to :due answer make to a summons. Failure to answer a summons, then, is a Masonic offense, for which the offender may be tried.
But few who are interested in their lodges desire to see Masonic trials held, if they can by any possibility be avoided. Lodge trials often produce lack of harmony and disunion among the membership. To prefer charges and stage a trial for the apparent trivial offense of failure to answer a summons is sometimes held to be unwise. Yet, not always so. From a hundred instances one is chosen at random; the Grand Master of Louisiana wrote a letter to the Master and Wardens of a certain lodge, which read in part as follows:
Brother R, Norman Bauer, D.D.G.M., has reported to me that the proceedings of your lodge in the matter of the trial of Brother__________. My attention is especially called to the fact that out of a membership of more than 200, only 75 brothers answered the summons to be present at the trial. You are hereby directed to require of the brethren who were absent, to give a proper explanation of their failure to be present, and in the event satisfactory explanation is not given, you are directed to have charges filed against each of them who fails to provide you with a satisfactory explanation. The charges are to be, Un-Masonic Con-duct in failing to obey the summons of the lodge, in accordance with their obligation and in accordance with the requirements of Masonic Law. Into the question as to when it is wise and right to prefer charges for failure to answer a summons, and when the best interests of all are served by a mere reprimand to the guilty absentees, this paper cannot attempt to go. But it may be said that while failure to answer a summons may be deemed trivial, violation of an obligation cannot be so considered. Those who look at the matter from this standpoint, say that some disciplinary action is the only wise course to pursue.
It is not possible to blame modern conditions with all of our troubles! It is only fair to say that sometimes disrespect for law is caused either by the law or the law-giver. Grand Lodges themselves have not always looked very far ahead in legislating upon the summons.
The General Regulations of the Craft (1721) specifically state:
The Master of a particular Lodge has the right and authority of congregating the members of his lodge in a Chapter at pleasure, upon any emergency or occurrence, as well as to appoint the time and place of their usual forming.
The Regulations also specifically say : Every annual Grand Lodge has the inherent power and authority to make new Regulations or to alter these, for the real benefit of this ancient Fraternity, provided always that the old landmarks be carefully preserved. It is, then, perfectly within the power of a Grand Lodge to set up a new regulation regarding summons, or right to congregate the lodge. In some Jurisdictions this has been done, and the right of summons shared between the Master and the lodge; that is, the Master may summons when he thinks it wise; and the lodge can issue summons when it thinks wise.
But as has been proved often in the past and probably will again in the future, the power to set up a regulation is one thing; to make it right - or even legal - is another!
It is practically universal that a Master has complete charge of the work of his lodge; he is responsible for what it does; he opens and closes it at his pleasure; he says when degrees are to be conferred; he controls absolutely the debate on any question and can close it, curtail it, initiate it as he thinks wise, and can put, or refuse to put any motion which in his judgment is subversive of the peace and harmony of the Craft.
A lodge can only act, as a lodge, as a result of a Masters order, or of its own order - that it, its vote. If a lodge would spend money, a motion must put and voted upon. If it would receive a petition, the motion to receive must be put and balloted upon. If it would call off during a summer month, a motion to call off stated communications is put and balloted upon. (This, of course, if the Grand Lodge permits calling off.)
Hence, in a Jurisdiction in which the Grand Lodge has vested power to issue summons in the lodge, as well in the Master, the lodge must vote upon the question, which must be put. If a Master refused to put the question up Shall the lodge issue a summons the lodge could not vote upon it. If then, some brother feeling aggrieved, should appeal from this failure to put the question, to the Grand Master or the Grand Lodge, that higher authority would have to rule upon the right of a Master to control his work, if such an authority desired to discipline the Master for failure to permit the Grand Lodges other behest - the power of a lodge to summons - to be exercised! Let nothing in these words be construed as a criticism of the Grand Lodges which in their wisdom have altered the original General Regulations and given to lodges as well as to their Masters the right to summons. A Grand Lodge is supreme within its Jurisdiction. No matter how inconsistent with laws, usages, customs, landmarks, constitutions or immemorial practices of the Fraternity its enactments may be, within its Jurisdiction what a Grand Lodge says is law, and therefore right - or right, and therefore law! In Jurisdictions where the Grand Lodge has ruled upon any matter, that matter has been rightly decided for that Jurisdiction - aye, even if the Grand Lodge has ruled that black is white! In this connection it is interesting to read that actions of a Grand Lodge which has decided this matter one way, and then the other! In 1834 the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia decided that the Master had not the exclusive right to summons the members. In 1909 a proposed by-law of a constituent lodge was referred to the Grand Lodge committee on By-Laws. The proposed by-law read:
Whenever the lodge is called upon to attend the funeral of a deceased brother, the Worshipful Master shall summons a sufficient number of the resident members of the lodge, naming them in regular alphabetical order, and a brother so summoned shall be present or furnish an acceptable substitute. No brother attending a funeral in obedience to a summons shall again be called upon until his name is reached in regular order.
The Committee on By-Laws reported that the lodge had no right to pass this by-law, in spite of the ancient decision of 1834, on the ground that while lodges have the right, subject to Grand Lodge approval, to fix the time and place of their stated communications, they have neither right nor power to legislate as to the time or place of special meetings, which are wholly under the control of the Master. In concluding its report, which was unanimously adopted by the Grand Lodge and thus became the law in the District of Columbia, superseding the decision of 1834, the committee said:
The Master has the sole authority to convene his lodge in special communications; he may compel the attendance of the members by summons; he alone can exercise this power and in its exercise he is not subject to the will of the lodge because he is the judge of the exigency or emergency that may require a special meeting. These powers are inherent in the office of Master, and no by-law is needed to validate their exercise and none is legal which attempts to curtail, control or direct them. That their exercise has been entrusted to the Master alone is doubtless due to the fact that the Grand Lodge looks to him, and not to the lodge, to see that the business of the lodge is properly conducted. There is good Masonic authority for this decision, which, of course, is law only in Jurisdictions which have so ruled. Mackeys Masonic Jurisprudence states:
No motion to adjourn, or to close, or to call from labor to refreshment can ever be admitted in a Masonic Lodge. Such a motion would be an interference with the prerogative of the Master and could not, therefore, be entertained. The Master has the right to convene the lodge at any time and is the judge of any emergency that may require a special meeting. Without his consent, except on the night of the Stated or regular communications, the lodge cannot be congregated and, therefore, any business transacted at a called or special communication without his sanction or consent would be illegal and void.
Simons (Principals of Masonic Jurisprudence) says:
It is an immemorial usage - and therefore a landmark - that none but the Master (when he is present) can congregate the brethren. Under this prerogative the Master may call or summon a meeting of his lodge at any time he thinks proper. The summon can be issued by authority of the Master only, while he remains in discharge of his functions, and is a preemptory order which must be obeyed, under penalty, unless the excuse of the defaulter be of the most undeniable validity.
In one Jurisdiction where it is held that the lodge as well as the Master may issue a summons, failure to answer a summons is treated with first, a merciful, then an iron hand. The brother who is summoned but does not answer is re-summoned to the next communication of the lodge. If he does not then answer with a valid excuse he shall be put to trial and if found guilty, may be reprimanded, suspended, or expelled, in the judgment of the lodge. Any intelligent student of Freemasonry must have noted that its Jurisprudence is largely concerned with what may be done, rather than what may not; with duties and responsibilities, rather than prohibitions and penalties. The gentle way of Masonry is to set up the right, and believe that every brother will adhere to it, rather than the wrong, forbidden under penalty of some punishment. The best way to recreate the old respect which Masons had for a summons is not by trial and punishment, but by education and persuasion.
The vast majority of men are honest. Most brethren want to do what is right. Most Masons want to live up to their obligations, perform their duties, give as much as they get. The exceptions stand out more because they are exceptions than because of their number. In a certain Jurisdiction in which it is customary to summons the membership once a year, Masters have long been distressed because so many members ignored the summons.
One Master believed that members ignored the summons from the lack of understanding of its importance, and their own obligation to answer it. His lodge has 191 members. He wrote 191 letters to go with the yearly summons. The letters were short, but they were cordial, personal, brotherly. They explained what the summons was, why it was issued, the duty of the brother to due answer make and closed with the assurance of the Masters certainty that there was no question of its being answered, once it was understood. One hundred and sixty-five members answered in person; twenty-one replied by letter giving good reasons why they could not come!. In large lodges a summons may be all but an impossibility. A lodge with a thousand members could not crowd them into the usual lodge room if all responded to a summons. Summons by such lodges presupposes a special and sufficiently large place in which to meet. Lodges with widely scattered members - as in small towns in large and sparsely populated states - may make the summons a real hardship on members who may have to travel long distances to answer. It is for such reasons as these that the summons is used less and less merely because it is not possible to use, and more and more, when it is used, for only vital and essential matters. Whether used once a year or oftener by Grand Lodge rule; or seldom, and only by the discretion of the Worshipful Master, respect for the summons may be inculcated by education, by talks in lodge, by letters accompanying the summons, and by word of mouth communication from member to member.
Enforcement, by Masonic trial and punishment, is essential when Grand Lodge so orders; unless it is mandatory, the gentler way will usually be found the wiser - and the more effective because it is more Masonic!