Rebuilding the Temple: How Freemasonry Has Already Changed and What We Can Do About It
Since I will be discussing sensitive/controversial matters regarding Freemasonry in this post, I found it appropriate to add an additional disclaimer lest I be accused of reckless or un-Masonic behavior. The thoughts reflected on this blog are my own opinions and do not reflect the opinions of any Masonic bodies including but not limited to my own Grand Lodge as well as local home Lodge. If my rhetoric on this post is considered inflammatory by any reader, know that it comes from a place of genuine and severe concern for our order and intentionally embodies an austere attitude for the purposes of encouraging reflection. I only ask that the thoughts contained herein are considered in good faith.
The Current State of Affairs & Relevant Statistics
Many Masons have lamented and continue to complain of decreasing membership among our order. The statistics are crystal clear as to the truth and seriousness of these claims. During the “golden age of fraternalism”, Freemasonry in America peaked with a reported membership of 4,103,161 members in 1959. The Masonic Service Association of North America also reports that membership has decreased every year since this peak in 1959, with 1,076,626 members being reported in 2017 (I was unable to find more recent statistics, often times yearly reports containing demographic data experience a delay by a couple of years within the social sciences due to the difficulty of gathering this information). Suffice it to say that the trend that has been anecdotally observed within our craft is supported by reliable data. Indeed, our numbers are very rapidly decreasing. Within my own jurisdiction, many of our appendant bodies have corroborated these findings by noting that they are also experiencing a sharp decrease in members and interest.
Many lodges are finding themselves experiencing the effects of this membership decrease; often having to close the doors permanently or being forced to merge with other lodges in the area to survive. Furthermore, some appendant bodies in my jurisdiction report being on the verge of complete disbandment in the state; meaning they will have no presence here. Suffice it to say that the decrease in membership of Freemasonry in America is not an abstract issue. It has very real ramifications for our individual lodges.
These changes are not isolated within Masonry. Individualism prevails in America and when combined with access to instant gratification through technology has led to a decrease in socializing across most domains (i.e. church membership and religious affiliation is lower than ever).
A Harsh Reality
Wishful thinking and sugar-coating will not do if our craft is to respond to this issue in a meaningful way. With this being the case, I have a duty to be as honest and objective as possible when discussing these matters.
Let me be absolutely clear: the golden age of fraternalism will not return. It is dead and has been dead for a long time. The cultural shift is complete, and I have found no data that supports the notion that our membership numbers and participation are “cyclical” and will return like a stock market in correction. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” Even so, I have linked concrete evidence that is counter to the extraordinary claims that there will be a membership “renaissance.” We must ground our responses in data and fact, not emotion.
This is not a matter of preventing future loss. Instead we must consider how we will deal with the aftermath of something that has already occurred. Like a tsunami, there was an earthquake out at sea that preceded it and the results cannot be stopped. We must instead determine a proper response as individuals and as an organization at large and commit to it if we are to survive the continued waves.
Heretofore I have discussed the decrease in American Masonic membership in language rooted in “loss” and “crisis” as this has been the nature of the conversation (for the most part) up to this point. In proceeding, I will argue that framing this issue as a primarily negative and harmful occurrence is a non-starter and will only lead to more learned helplessness and passivity.
While the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief as culturally understood is not empirically supported, it is nonetheless a helpful organizing principle for our purposes. As far as I can tell, it could be said that Freemasonry is operating collectively within the stage of denial; we believe that the aforementioned prognosis is somehow mistaken or false. If we are to take reasonable action we must move through the stages of grief over our idealizations toward acceptance of the current state of affairs. In doing so, we will be enabled to reframe our current situation in constructive terms.
The shift in perspective that I would humbly submit involves viewing our current membership situation as an opportunity and inevitable phenomenon rather than framing it in terms of a “crisis” or “travesty”. Why should member counts be considered the penultimate metric of the health of the craft anyways? At the end of the day, Freemasonry is a private organization with ambiguous and mysterious origins. It is reported that many of our original meetings took place under very secretive conditions such as by moonlight or within a closed pub/tavern. Are we really surprised that in homeostatic fashion, our organization has shifted back toward our origins rather than us remaining as public staples of the community? The writers of our American ritual (Preston-Webb) and founding fathers of our noble order make it abundantly clear our order was not designed to sustain the membership-boom that occurred in our post-WW2 society. The golden age of fraternalism was an aberration and I would argue was antithetical to the original intent of our society’s founders. Furthermore, it is worth considering whether or not the golden age membership numbers were conducive to Freemasonry’s mission of cultivating a posture of contemplation and reflection.
The opportunity that lays before us involves seeing this period as a transformation of the craft rather than a defect or deficiency. Is it not possible that this period of transition can be seen as a corrective transformation of our society? Is it not possible to seize this moment to correct the excesses and superfluities that we have so desperately held on to (many of which likely contributed to our present condition)? We must view this season of change as an opportunity to reform; not reformation in the sense of producing innovations in Masonry but rather returning to our roots as an organization whose central task is providing meaningful and transformation experiences for men through initiation. To continue operating under illusions, wishful thinking and learned helplessness is suicide. It is possible for us to return to the spirit of a time before the golden age of fraternalism wherein we observe the craft as originally intended.
We should not seek to increase our numbers again. Instead, we must focus on quality over quantity, thereby ensuring that we remain committed to being an initiatory society that only receives worthy and well qualified men. In other words, it is time to pursue excellence rather than perceived “prominence”.
What Not To Do
It is my opinion that seeking an increase in membership is not only futile, but will contribute further to the degradation of our society. Freemasonry deals in domains of wisdom, truth, and beauty, not success as defined by the world and measured through the framework of business. As such, resorting to modern marketing and advertising strategies will be of little use and further portrays our noble order as “just another group” with no intrinsic value.
Freemasonry has historically only allowed individuals to petition our ranks through seeking us out themselves. As with any initiatory society, mystery school or esteemed spiritual body, individuals must come to Freemasonry by their own free will and accord. This observance is rooted in timeless spiritual tradition, whereby truth may only be received once the candidate is properly prepared. We will not be served by amending our constitutions to allow for recruitment or evangelization (as if you could persuade somebody to pursue improvement and enlightenment).
Furthermore, our craft must not lower it’s collective standard for the worthy and well qualified men that we receive. Freemasonry as a whole is represented by each of her individual parts. Opening the West Gate to individuals who will bring dishonor and poor repute to our already demonized organization will only hasten our death. I will not belabor this point, because I think as obligated men we all know it in our heart of hearts. Not every man should be a Freemason any more than you should let any person into your own home without being assured of your own safety and security.
Knowledge is attained in degrees and requires rigorous study and preparation to receive it. “One day classes” wherein candidates receive all three degrees of the blue lodge in one sitting are antithetical to proper initiation for various reasons, not the least of which the candidate will not be able to practice a reverent posture or retain any of the information within the rituals. Such practices only serve to further the cultivation of Freemasonry as a “product” to be bought, consumed, and subsequently discarded. Again, we must pursue quality over mass production which is not truly possible in matters of spirituality and initiation anyways.
Potential Paths Forward
Let us first address an uncomfortable reality; if lodges find themselves in precarious positions due to lack of enough contribution from their active membership, it is no shame to integrate with another lodge. Doing so can only serve to concentrate talent and resources during this trying time of refinement. Whether we like it or not, mergers are coming and we would do well to plan to use this occurrence to our benefit.
We must also ensure that only worthy and well-qualified men are shown our West Gate. Being related to a Mason is not enough. Shallow interest and dabbling is not enough. If prospects do not show good faith and effort in engaging with us prior to joining, why would we expect them to put forth the effort required to further our institution upon going through the degrees? We like to say that we make good men better. This cannot be done if the man is not good in the first place.
Once we have our candidate at the West Gate, we must ensure the excellence of our ritual. Contrary to the opinion of a well-meaning Brother who reassured me to “stop worrying about the ritual, we’ll just get you through and then you can hang out with us,” our ritual is not secondary. Our ritual is the means by which we provide transformational initiation and thus should be memorized and conducted under the appropriate psychological circumstances through special attention to the environment that is cultivated in the lodge.
Freemasonry used to be a parallel to the university system, wherein individuals who did not possess the means to study formally were able to pursue knowledge and illumination on the level. Our group rose out of the ideas foundational to the renaissance and enlightenment which sought to understand the mysteries of the universe through the interlocking systems of empirical science and spirituality. Engaging in Masonic education lives up to this rich heritage. Young men are not knocking on our doors to waste their time arguing about the minutes. Instead, they are seeking the hidden mysteries of Masonry and knowledge in general. We must reward them through shared study and education, cultivating a spirit of academia.
In too many places, Freemasonry is offered as another cheap entertainment experience. If we are to pursue excellence, fulfill our mission as an initiatory brotherhood, and allow for our survival we must charge members appropriately. Many Brethren seem to operate under the assumption that membership is encouraged by offering cheaper dues. This is contrary to the conventional wisdom accepted among economists who note that things of higher value (such as Masonry) will be perceived to be as such if appropriately priced. We know through basic principles of inflation that if too much currency is in rotation, it loses it’s value within an economy. In like manner, if anybody can become a Mason because they shopped around for the cheapest lodge, we lose our value and won’t have the capital necessary to conduct our important work. Furthermore, having appropriate levels of capital available allows for the lodge to contribute financially to rendering excellence in material ways, such as in the case of organizing festive boards.
It is my opinion that Grand Lodges should seek to make it easier to charter a new lodge. In states where this approach has been implemented (i.e. California), Masonic membership is actively engaged in reconsolidation and it is easier for interested Brethren create smaller and more closely knit fellowships that are wholly focused on our Great Work. As such, microlodges that operate efficiently and effectively with a small active leadership and less building requirements have demonstrated a possible promising solution. It is much easier to stay afloat if the group is not so large as to depend on a building; after all, the lodge is not the building in the first place. Again, quality over quantity must always be reiterated if we are to keep with Masonic tradition and serve our purpose.
“Rebuilding The Temple” through seizing this moment of transition does not mean adopting a posture of elitism. It is not elitist to adhere to standards for the purpose of fulfilling the roles that we swore to fulfill in joining our noble order. We must move from a stance of remediation and “returning to the good old days” to a stance of refinement and purification. There will be shrinking pains as we transition to the next era of Freemasonry, as should be expected when perfecting any ashlar. There is also so much more that can be gained by returning to our telos and ethos as an organization.
I expect that this process will look different for every lodge which is something that should be celebrated, however we will be rewarded if we are able to unify as a mystic tie for the purposes of improving our organization. Lodges should not be asked to abandon their identity in pursuing excellence. My admonition is not to adopt set programs as panaceas, however we should each start at the individual level to reflect on what the future holds and how we can appropriately maintain our place within it. To paraphrase clinical psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson, it is not enough for us to avoid hell. We must also determine a heaven worth pursuing, and it starts with me and you.
“The pursuit of excellence in every aspect of your life is what it means to observe the Craft. That means seeking more out of yourself, and consequently seeking more out of the Craft than you might have originally done. It means a continual effort at self-development and lifelong learning, at least one part of which is manifested in physical representations of things which are themselves considered to be exceptional.” — Bro. Andrew Hammer, (Observing The Craft, p.98).
“By fire, nature renews itself”
Bro. Christopher Hodapp — Laudable Pursuit (Free Digital Copy)
Bro. Christopher Hodapp — Laudable Pursuit (Physical Copy)