I've seen it often — a candidate enters the Lodge room to receive his Fellowcraft or Master Mason degree. In each, the Senior Deacon leads the candidate around the room, stopping at stations for an interrogation. The officers at those stations ask if the candidate has made suitable proficiency in the preceding degree.
"He has," replies the Senior Deacon… as he shakes his head "no." Muffled snickering from around the room usually follows.
You see, about 15 years ago my jurisdiction — Missouri — dropped the requirement for proficiencies. Many of our Brothers considered that decision to be the worst thing that had happened in our state since the Pony Express went belly up; and it's not exactly breaking news that the debate continues — those Senior Deacons aren't shaking their heads for nothing.
I recall receiving the pamphlet with the proficiencies when I became an Entered Apprentice. (Yes, in Missouri they're written down, in code, but still a practice some consider heretical.) Discovering I had to memorize the material gave the word "daunting" new meaning. Somehow, though, I "manned-up" and learned them for all three degrees.
Having gone through the experience I consider it one of the highlights of my Masonic journey. I spent time with my mentor who not only took me through the rote memorization process, but also explained things along the way. At the end, I felt a great sense of accomplishment. I also found all that memory work paved the way for learning other parts in the future. Frankly, I wouldn't trade it for anything.
I'm still not sure, however, where I fall in the debate we're still having 15 years after the proficiencies went away. I think there is a feeling that the lack of proficiencies increases membership; or maybe a better way of putting that is having proficiencies might scare some men away. I have to say, in all those years we haven't had them, I've seen men come through who are some of the finest Brothers I know. We wouldn't want to do without them. But would they have joined anyway?
In the end, I probably fall somewhere in the middle of the road. I really think it should take more of a commitment to join the fraternity than it does, say, to become a member of your local Public TV station. We should require new Brothers to demonstrate at least a knowledge of signs, passwords and maybe even learn the obligation.
Going through some old Missouri records recently I noticed one more interesting fact to consider — historically, there were a lot of Brothers who were initiated, passed and raised in a matter of days — sometimes, in fact, on the same day. Meriwether Lewis, for example, was initiated on January 28, 1797, and received his Second and Third Degrees on the following evening. Obviously, he did not learn "suitable proficiencies" in that time span.
Lewis and many others who came into the fraternity that way served the Craft well. Don't we become a little more proficient in Freemasonry every day, with every meeting, every experience? Perhaps we should look at proficiency as something other than memorizing a boatload of material. To me, understanding that material is proficiency, and it doesn't come overnight.
I wonder what would happen the next time I'm asked if the candidate has obtained suitable proficiency if I responded, "Define proficiency."
You're right… maybe not a good idea.