A recent discussion brought up the topic of why O.T.O. sees so much attrition among its initiate members, especially at the more junior degrees. This question is one that as a sitting lodge master and a local leader for many years now I have given considerable thought to. When one asks former members why they’ve parted ways, the answers are all over the place. My own conclusions about this phenomenon I think pull the bulk of these disparate reasons together under one umbrella and offer a way that that we can do better going forward.
Initiation is Service
We retain very few Man of Earth initiates over time because very few people are intended for the demands and rigors of initiate membership in O.T.O.. Ultimately, if people are not oriented toward service, they will leave. If they don’t understand their will as including the service of making the world more Thelemic or don’t see M∴M∴M∴ as an effective means of accomplishing that aim, they will leave.
Being an O.T.O. initiate is hard work. It’s expensive. It bonds you to your brethren (many of whom you probably won’t like on a personal level) but will alienate you from many more. None of these qualities scream “The masses will love this!”
Yet rather than promoting ourselves as a service organization that initiates people in order to provide them with opportunities to become servants and leaders to themselves, their families, and within the broader community, we bill ourselves principally as a mystery school where one learns occult magic that will give people super powers. There’s an overwhelming conflation in people’s minds between our program and that of A∴A∴ (not that occult super powers is the ultimate aim of A∴A∴). Very little of our high level communications— internal or external—do anything to rectify this misperception.
Further, in addition to attracting the wrong people to our initiation program, there’s an opportunity cost of turning off the right people. There are plenty of people in the world who are motivated to learn how to better serve humanity, to become better leaders, to affect change in the world around them through the disciplined action of a religious organization. But the overlap is very narrow between those people and the ones who are hankering for occult superpowers, and in fact those two groups tend to repel one another. In short, we reject our core competency of teaching discipline, self-mastery, and service. This allows people to come to us for the wrong reasons and turns off those who might otherwise come to us for work we can actually help them with.
The flip side of this is: We need to develop our Gnostic Catholic Church as the principal vehicle for public engagement.
Initiates as Leaders in the Church
Making initiates is a means to an end, not the end itself. O.T.O.’s mission is to promulgate Thelema, that is, make the the world more Thelemic. Striving to accomplish that through the primary activity of making initiates is doomed to failure. Doomed, I say! Stop trying that route. There will never in our lifetimes be any but the most marginal fraction of the public who are initiated into M∴M∴M∴, much less into O.T.O. proper. Crowley himself in his twilight years conceded that these initiations, while useful, were inefficient in their ability to inculcate their lessons and not suited for the general population.
At the same time, the engine of O.T.O.’s work is preserved and communicated through its initiates. It’s not that M∴M∴M∴ is outdated or useless, but rather that its use is more specific than the general case. Having an “indefeasible right” to something does not mean it’s a good fit.
The more specific case, as outlined above, is to regard M∴M∴M∴ as a training ground for service and leadership. Without divulging specifics, those who have undergone these ceremonies should have no trouble finding the many points drawn to convey the importance of discipline, service, and leadership to the initiate’s journey.
Well, if not for the initiations, won’t people be interested in M∴M∴M∴ for the fraternal relations? Most people aren’t looking for fraternity. They’re looking for community. Who actually reads the grandiose promises made in some of our founding documents about fanciful colleges, a right to order-provided medical care, shared use of large estates, etc. and thinks that’s realistic? Most people are concerned about how to pay rent, or give their kids better attention, how to care for their aging parents, or how to make their neighborhood cleaner and safer, and how to feel like their lives have purpose… not how many weeks they get annually in a profess house that they couldn’t afford the time off work to visit in the first place.
The fact is, Crowley failed miserably time and again at building community (or fraternity, for that matter), inasmuch as he even tried. His aristo-feudal vision of O.T.O. membership is a relic and a fancy. We have an incredible, innovative, lasting body of theological work from him. He was a world teacher, not a community leader. We should use his social models as a window to understand his motivations and vision, not as dogma somehow irrevocably tied to the ultimate aims of O.T.O..
The Community of the Church
But yet our mission calls! If not by initiation and fraternity, then how? Fortunately we have other tools in our toolbox for actualizing our mission. When one thinks of community building and religion, the go-to vehicle for that is a church, and we happen to have one of those within our system.
At this point in O.T.O.’s development our church manifests almost exclusively as liturgical in expression. The church celebrates Gnostic Mass and has a handful of subsidiary sacramental rites like baptism, confirmation, and marriage.
These are a great and necessary foundation, but a church is much more than its liturgies. The heart of a church is its congregation.
The church clergy help the congregation tend to its social welfare, offer counsel and guidance, and develop structured educational and worship programs. Church staff serve their congregation by nourishing the rudiments of community and providing the structures by which supple and enduring ties can form, bringing people together into smaller subgroups that coalesce around shared interests, season of life, areas of study, or community service. Church leaders help guide congregants through the educational programs, connect newcomers with other congregants with whom they may have a shared interest, maintain ongoing contact with people slipping away, and otherwise facilitate the congregation in understanding how to internalize theology and apply it practically to their lives.
People seeking M∴M∴M∴ initiation should be involving themselves in such because they want to participate in the service of the congregation of our church, to be leaders of that body. That congregation then in turn serves the wider community by manifesting the church’s mission there.
This is no call for ultimate sacrifice and self-abasement. There is personal growth, comfort, and benefit to be found at every level of the work. Having a service orientation should not be confused with denying the personal. Being service oriented guards us from having to tend overmuch to noisome “drifting occultists” who endanger our Order with irrelevance. Service orientation means that our initiates are better equipped to accomplish the aim of the Order of the Templars of the East, to provide safe passage and hospitality to pilgrims on the long road to the Holy Land.