The major problem discussed by Freemasons is the difficulty of attracting and keeping younger members. At 39, I am one of the youngest members of my lodge. In my work and social lives I generally deal with younger people, and I look and feel younger than my age. Despite this, I still feel that my lodge is quite young at heart. So why do we have this problem?
Much has been written about the relevance of our order in the modern world, and our public image. As a relative newcomer, I have had the feeling at times that we suffer most from a certain vagueness of purpose. This is not a problem unique to Freemasonry, but is seen in most non commercial organisations today.
Our world is changing faster now than at any previous time, and the pace of change looks set to increase further. Many cling to the wreckage left in the wake of incomprehensible change, as if anything familiar will provide a lifeline in the maelstrom. Others bail their boats in panic, not realising that they are throwing the lifejackets overboard along with the ballast. Survival requires adaptation. Adaptation means change. Success involves knowing what to change and what to keep. To secure the future of Freemasonry, we must all understand its past.
Too few of us understand that our order started as an agent of change. The first recorded initiations where in the 1640s (Sir Robert Moray 1641, Elias Ashmole 1646), a time when people were still tortured and killed for thought-crime. Witch hanging in England did not end until the 1680s. Galileo was still under house arrest since being forced, in 1633, to retract his support for the findings of Copernicus. The Copernican Heresy, that the Earth orbited the Sun, was an utterance which could invite serious danger. Yet we see this very utterance stated boldly in our first degree.
The significance of the Copernican Heresy should not be underestimated as a symbol of our purpose. The religious dogma of the time insisted that the Earth was at the centre, and that the Sun and planets orbited it. The truth however, was available to anyone capable of accurate observation and some skill in geometry. Our Masonic ancestors had good reason to start out in secrecy as they stood against powerful institutions in the pursuit of truth.
In 1660 the largely masonic "Invisible College" gained the verbal support of the King, and Sir Robert Moray became its president. Two years later the King sealed its charter and it became the Royal Society, the first modern scientific think tank. The motto of the society was "Nullius in verba" which is translated as "Nothing by mere authority". Thus began the Age of Enlightenment, which opened the way to our scientific and technical advances.
The philosopher and member of the Royal Society, John Locke, in his 1690s Letters Concerning Toleration, laid the foundations of law which now protect freedom of thought. Locke argued for the separation of religious authority from civil authority, so that a person's religious persuasion could not be held against them in court. This is now considered a fundamental human right. Much of Locke's philosophy influenced and was influenced by Freemasonry and the Royal Society.
The French Freemason and philosopher, Voltaire, espoused Locke's work and Masonic ideas in Europe in the early 1700s. It was a time when French courts still used torture to extract confessions.
Within the ritual of Freemasonry we have encoded the utopian ideal of civilisation based on harmony, respect, tolerance, and common decency. Here in Australia, we are about as close as anyone has come to the masonic ideal of harmony in diversity. Yet the young in all of our communities seem to be turning away from their traditional values.
Every culture represented in our society has its own traditional body of sacred lore, and its own code of honourable conduct. Virtually all of these are compatible with Freemasonry. We seem uniquely placed to make the most of this situation. However, before we can expect the young to appreciate Freemasonry, they must first appreciate the value of their own cultural heritage.
No amount of trendy marketing, or modernising will make Freemasonry more attractive. The past popularity of our order was derived largely from its strength, purpose, and optimism. The original ritual, ideals, and purpose, of Freemasonry are just as relevant today as they ever were.
The issue of morality has been raised. Has society really changed its moral values, or have we merely been dropping the small minded prudery of Victorian times? The essence of morality is still to treat others fairly.
Some practical steps can be taken. Much could be done to encourage family participation in special social events. Work could be done on our image. New members need to be made more aware of the history and meaning of the order. The candidate for 3rd degree should at least know the basics of geometry, science, the major religions, and some of the arts. These steps would all give membership a more substantial and meaningful impact on the life of the new brother. Young people are eager to embrace the idea of heritage with a mystical dimension. Just observe the current popularity of Celtic and tribal art and spirituality.
Older Masons must also understand that young people today tend not to follow any organised religion. The majority do, however, hold religious views and precepts compatible with Freemasonry. We must remember that we can no longer assume any majority religion in this country, and be more careful not to inadvertently promote one religion above others, making the younger members uncomfortable, as I have occasionally witnessed. Again, established Masonic tradition provides the correct solution, strict religious neutrality.
More than anything we need to regain our focus on an optimistic future. English Masons explored the frontiers of science, American Masons explored their wild West, and many of the first astronauts were also of the order. Many more frontiers are now opening up before us, in cyberspace and outer space. We have been represented at the forefront of every advance. We have what it takes to stay in front.
Freemasonry has been a benevolent hand, helping to guide civilisation toward the freedoms and comforts which we now enjoy. We need to realise that our role and responsibility continues. Science fiction often depicts the future as a dark and alienating place, where people become slaves to their technology. With knowledge comes power, but without wisdom and responsibility, power becomes tyranny.
We stand on the brink of a time of great changes, just as or Masonic ancestors did when they ushered in the scientific revolution three centuries ago. We still have all of the tools we need to be a dynamic and benevolent force. With some initiative and focus, we are well placed to thrive as a relevant organisation in the next millennium. We only have ourselves to blame if we allow a great institution to fade into obscurity.
Lodge Stanmore 366