What happens at lodge meetings?
Lodges are the basic, and the oldest, organisations in Freemasonry. What goes on in lodges is partly the formal business that any association has to do, such as the consideration of minutes of the previous meeting, and dealing with propositions for membership, accounts of general and charitable funds, subscriptions, donations, and the like. Once a year a new Master is elected and at the next meeting he is installed and appoints and invests his officers (i.e. the active players in the ceremonies which the lodge prepares for those becoming Freemasons).
However, the real core of Freemasonry is the ceremonies which involve admitting new masons and teaching them Freemasonry's moral message.
The moral message is not peculiar to Freemasonry, but is common to many systems - natural equality, dependence on others, benevolence, intellectual truth, inevitable death, fidelity - all under God. The method of teaching is Freemasonry's own, a series of ritual dramas, based on ancient mythology and stonemasons' customs and tools, in which the members of the lodge work together to get the message across to each new member.
Despite popular myths, Masonic ceremonies are not at all secret and printed copies are freely available (its history is incidentally fascinating). The quality of its language is readily apparent and the actions are not hard to imagine. However, merely reading the printed word does not explain that the ceremonies are delivered from memory, nor how everyone in a lodge (and not just the officers directly concerned) concentrates on familiar words and actions which are new to the candidate or how effectively the ceremony makes an impression on the candidate.
Of the various officers of the lodge, some are obligatory while others are optional. Those that lodges have to have are a Master, a Senior Warden, a Junior Warden, a Treasurer, a Secretary, an Almoner, a Charity Steward, a Senior Deacon, a Junior Deacon, and Inner Guard and a Tyler. The optional officers are a Chaplain, a Director of Ceremonies, an Assistant Director of Ceremonies, an Organist, an Assistant Secretary and a Steward or Stewards.
The appointment of all officers, except the Master and Treasurer (who are elected by ballot), and the Tyler, (who is elected if he is not a member of the lodge) is in the sole discretion of the Master.
All Freemasons are styled and may be addressed by other Freemasons as 'Brother'. An Installed Master is styled 'Worshipful Brother'. While in the chair of his lodge, he is described and addressed as Worshipful Master and after his period of office he becomes a Past Master.
Through the Secretary, the Master formally convenes a lodge's regular meetings but he is not a free agent as there is no power to cancel a meeting, nor is he any longer permitted to summon an emergency meeting without authority from Grand Lodge. This last limitation was imposed soon after World War II when it was clear that if they were not controlled in some way lodges would take in far more candidates than they could absorb.
Rule 180 of the Book of Constitutions requires the Master to admonish any behaviour in the lodge liable to disrupt the harmony of the meeting, and if it persists, to censure it, or even exclude the Brother causing the disharmony for the remainder of the meeting if the majority of the members agree.
It is undoubtedly the Master's prerogative to decide what is to be the business transacted at each lodge meeting, but much of this is governed by the bye-laws of the lodge and the Book of Constitutions. When it comes to performing the ceremonies (what we call working the ritual) a way of doing this peculiar to the lodge will have probably evolved over the years, and the Master of the lodge will do well to fall in with this. He has, however, more freedom in seeking assistance or in deciding to go it alone with the actual ceremonies.
From the point of view of legislation, neither Master nor lodge has any absolute authority, since no by-law or amendment can be effective until it has been approved by a higher authority. In any case the Grand Master's approval would not be given to any by-law or amendment which was at odds to the Book of Constitutions.
When it comes to internal discipline, a lodge is free to exclude one of its members 'for sufficient cause', provided that it goes the right constitutional way about it.
A lodge has indeed much of the semblance of a democracy with one man one vote on all matters of domestic concern, but it is, in addition, governed not only by its by-laws, which as we have seen are subject to outside control, but also by the Book of Constitutions itself.