CHAPTER TV

 

Freemasons – an Endangered Species?

(co-authored by John Belton)

Presented to Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076, London, on 14 September 2000, and first published in AQC Vol. 113.

 

Introduction

 

The dilemma of falling numbers in Freemasonry is not a new one, but the full awareness of it is a relatively recent occurrence.  Largely and initially, it was seen as a problem that was happening somewhere else, in another country or in another Lodge. While some Lodges have been prepared to concede that ‘our Lodge is having a difficult time’, a full realisation of the increasing gravity of the situation has been exacerbated in many areas because the method of manual record-keeping did not lend itself to easy access and analysis.  Symptoms were visible from the mid-1960s, but at that early stage it was not possible to know that the trend would continue until the present. Thus where the ‘problem’, where it was identified, was seen primarily and initially to be primarily a masonic one in terms of its causation. That view has persisted to this day to some extent.  In the USA in the 1980s it was explained as being the result of structural changes in population and places of work and residence.

 

By the mid-1990s, however, what Freemasonry now clearly describes as ‘its problem’ was a phenomenon that afflicted much of society. It is only in the 1990s that the issue of decreasing participation began to attract the attention of academic researchers. Before looking in detail at the masonic ‘problem’, it is worth reviewing published evidence concerning changes in society generally.  This will establish a framework and background against which we, as freemasons, must judge our situation.  It is also against this background that we must decide what response should be made and how the issue membership issues should be addressed.

 

The Decline in Civic Participation

 

Putnam examined the huge decline of social participation in the USA, particularly in terms of people’s involvement in social organisations, whether charitable, sporting, political, social or fraternal [i] .  He presented compelling evidence that ‘the greatest culprit is television’.  He cited numerous studies that definitively suggest that the time spent by Americans in watching television has expanded proportionately to the decline of participation in civic and social pursuits outside their homes.  He contended that this disengagement from society seems unstoppable and is contributing greatly to the degeneration of American community life.

 

While Putnam is quantitative, Sacks [ii]   followed a philosophical approach to the subject.  He was unequivocal in saying that the new century heralds an era of immense and potentially destabilising change. We do not know what tomorrow will be like, but we do know that it will not be like today [iii]

And  within a single generation, possibly the most profound climate change took place in the West since the days of Constantine [iv] .

 

Sacks’ thesis is that we have moved from being a liberal society to being a libertarian one.  What this means is that the old liberal concept of accepting that freedom carries with it responsibilities has been replaced by the libertarian concept that one accepts ones rights and owes nothing back to society in return.

 

In Sacks’ view

 

The libertarianism (of the 1960’s) was radically different. Its project was little short of the elimination of morality in its traditional forms. Punishment was no longer retributive. Benefits were no longer administered on the basis of merit. Neither the family nor the school were to be the places where virtues were taught or customs passed on across the generations. The cultural concepts of morality – individual responsibility, the internalisation of restraint – had come to seem scientifically misguided and psychologically damaging [v] .

 

Sacks contended that the seeds of this were laid 200 years earlier, during the Enlightenment, with the ideas of ‘ethics and political philosophy’ and it was not till a third, the growth of the State after the Second World War, that libertarian lifestyles became possible for more than an elite. He commented on this new lifestyle that

 

As an abstract individual I am substitutable, expendable, merely temporarily useful to others as they are to me [vi] .

 

 

 

These thoughts have serious implications for the future of Freemasonry.  We may not like what we see, but most informed observers believe that there is no going back to what, in terms of numbers of members, was the heyday after World War II. It is imperative that we, as freemasons understand, as never before, the society of which they are part, from where the members come, and in which they live and work on a daily basis.

 

A Renaissance?

 

This immediately begs the question ‘Is a renaissance necessary?’  After all, the common argument is often that organised Freemasonry has been in existence for well over 300 years, it is the largest non-political and non-religious body in the world and we have always come through before.

 

This ‘commonly-held belief’ seems to be less closely adhered to by many informed observers in more recent years, particularly at Grand Lodge level.  The seemingly unremitting decline in membership has seen reactions in many Grand Lodges involving

·         a ‘new openness’,

·         marketing and

·         a range of activities designed to retain membership and attract new adherents.

Yet throughout the English-speaking Craft, at least, the decline continues unabated.

 

Clearly a growing number of freemasons believe that a renaissance is necessary.  Yet just what form it should take and how to achieve it seems obscure to many.  Some, perhaps, see renaissance in terms of holding and increasing their membership, because the resultant declining income from a shrinking membership base is and will be felt keenly within many masonic bureaucracies.  For the grass roots members, the quality of their masonic experience and a clearer definition of Masonic values, perhaps, may be more important.

 

If one accepts that a masonic renaissance is necessary, then the modern emphasis appears to revolve around harnessing new technology for the exchange of ideas, concepts and (successful or failed) strategies between activists.  The use of the Internet and e-mail groups is one recent phenomenon is this process.

 

The Civic Problem and Freemasonry

 

The view that falling numbers is a temporary manifestation seems to be often accompanied by a rationale of

·         the perilous state of the economy;

·         poor quality candidates;

·         the libertarian attitudes of youth;

·         the modern pressures of work and home and

·         the wide range of social diversions available today.  (Indeed, it is true that most of these diversions did not exist even 50 years ago when church and Lodge were more prominent among the fewer social avenues available in life, at least to the so-called middle classes.)

 

Conversely, the evidence to be presented below suggests that to assume a membership revival will occur of its own volition is highly unlikely.  Further, that while the external mitigating factors demonstrated by Putnam and Sacks are valid, the arresting of the membership problem within Freemasonry will depend on

·         a clear analysis;

·         sound forward strategy and

·         motivated leadership.

 

Discovering the Scale of the Problem

 

An indicative snapshot of masonic membership decline is evidenced in recent research in the Mellor Lodge no. 3844 (Derbyshire, England) [vii] .  In the process of developing a strategy for its future health, this Lodge decided to analyse its membership data for the last 50 years (see Table 1).  A traditional analysis of Lodge membership analysis tends to look at the change over a year and normally indicates those who joined, died or left during that year.  Those who join do reflect today’s habits but those who resign or die may not.  Should one wish to see if membership trends have changed with time then mixing up those who were members for 5 years with those of 25 years standing provides no insight.  On the contrary, analysis of the Masonic careers of new members, by cohort, in 5-year blocks, excluding deaths and those who joined from other Lodges, does allow any trends to become apparent to the researcher.

 

 

 

The Mellor Lodge results demonstrated, at least in this case, that some of the popular Masonic conceptions of Lodges gaining fewer candidates, and fewer young candidates, may be incorrect. What is clear from the data is the decreasing length of time from Initiation to Resignation or Exclusion, down from over 20+ years in the 1950s to approximately 5 years in the 1980s.

 

 

 

Table 1
Analysis of the membership Data of the Mellor Lodge 3844 (EC)

 

 

Period

 

No. of

Candidates

 

No. of

Joiners

 

Av. Age of

Candidates

 

Av. Years

To WM

Av. Years to Resignation/ Exclusion

% Resignation/ Excluded

1945-49

4

0

39.5

10.5

23.0

100%

1950-54

13

0

41.1

11.8

25.6

54%

1955-59

10

0

42.8

11.0

16.6

70%

1960-64

10

3

41.5

9.6

17.2

80%

1965-69

6

2

37.2

10.0

16.0

50%

1970-74

10

3

42.7

8.3

13.4

60%

1975-79

8

2

33.4

8.5

9.8

75%

1980-84

10

3

47.4

7.0

8.3

40%

1985-89

8

4

39.5

5.5

5.3

50%

1990-94

7

2

39.1

N/A

3.7

38%

 

Source: John Belton ‘The Missing Master Mason’ [viii] and the Membership Register of Mellor Lodge 3844 EC as at Jan 1999

 

Given this result, it was decided to perform similar analyses for other Lodges to obtain a wider sampling. Data was obtained from the following Lodges abroad and the results are given in Tables 2 & 3 below.

·         Granite Lodge no.446 (Fort Frances, Ontario) [ix] ;

·         Concord Lodge no.124 (Calgary, Alberta) [x] ;

·         Ashlar Lodge no.29 (Billings, Montana) [xi] ;

·         Lord Salton Lodge no.98 (Brisbane, Queensland) [xii] and

·         Cooroora Lodge no.232 (Pomona, Queensland) [xiii] .

 

 

Table 2

Average years to Resignation / Exclusion by period of Initiation

 

Period

Mellor

#3844

England

Mellor [xiv]

#1774

England

Welbeck

#2890

England

Concord

#124

Alberta

Granite

#446

Ontario

Cooroora

#232

Q’sland

Lord Salton

#98

Q’sland

Ashlar

#19

Montana

1945-49

23.0

15.4

18.0

15.7

12.5

20.4

N/A

17.8