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Freemasonry and the Future

by Bill Stemper (New York)
Royal Arch Mason - Spring 1980

The future of Freemasonry is essentially its relationship to the younger adult male; its appeal as an institution and as a tradition to the population which will bear the responsibility of bearing it into the next century, and beyond. To consider the future of the Craft apart from the question of its appeal, or lack of appeal to the younger adult, American male, is to reduce the issue to an academical and abstract consideration - and in a functional sense, to make the Craft a reliquary of the past.  

First, it should be clear what is meant by the term, "Freemasonry". Clarity in understanding the unique nature of the Fraternity and its history at the outset will make a substantive discussion of the "problem" of Masonic decline, and the "promise" for the future more possible, and effective.  

Freemasonry, in brief, was never intended to be anything other than a profound quest by man for participation in the nature and purpose of God and the Universe. As a unique layering of human aspiration for ultimate meaning and moral behavior in the process of that aspiration, it combines four strata of symbolism, ceremonial, and spiritual insight, all of which point to one essential, ancient insight - that is that humankind is at one, spiritually, and materially with the ultimate nature of reality and of all creation. In each of its four layers of tradition - biblical, medieval, 17th Century (Alchemical, Rosicrucian, etc.) and Enlightenment - the ritual points to the essential interconnectedness of man with his universe, and in turn the relationship of both to some form of Divine Intelligence, what Freemasons call "The Supreme Architect of the Universe". It is one of the elements of Masonic genius that this quest, common to many world religions and philosophies, was uniquely framed within a practical, institutional brotherhood which has served its members and the human family for hundreds of years (Grand Lodge of England, fd. 1717).  

If, then, we are - in wisdom - to understand the Masonic Fraternity, we should be absolutely clear: we are considering not just another club, lodge, or society, but rather a startingly creative institution which has carried certain basic and fundamental insights down to the present day. If we fail to comprehend this uniqueness, we shall not grasp the means to Masonic renewal for the future.  

In practical terms, the unique nature of Freemasonry means that its members are citizens of two worlds - one "visible", the other "invisible". The rituals, ceremonials, and structures of the Craft reflect, in fact, a major effort on the part of both the human consciousness and unconscious to place these two worlds in a relationship of intimacy and reciprocity with each other. To become and be a Freemason is to be both a member of an institutional Fraternity, and an heir to vast legacy of man's perception and inspiration about both Man and God. The rituals are, in other words, imprints of the movement of the moral imagination from the "visible" plane to the "invisible", and back, in such a way as to disclose the most significant insights about human spiritual existence.  

A consideration, therefore, of the future of the Craft must be carried on at both of these levels; (1) the level of the practical and institutional; and (2) the level of spiritual inquiry. The Craft is not a religion; but it does contain a vast reservoir of ideas, symbolism, etc., without which its organizational and institutional aspect makes little sense. Similarly, without the institution, there would be no Craft - save as an artifact of historical curiosity.  

With this in mind at the center of our thoughts and feelings, let us ask three questions about the future of the Fraternity; questions which correspond with the three supports of Freemasonry: wisdom, strength, and beauty. These are,  

1. Wisdom: how can we understand the nature and reasons for our decline?

2. Strength: who should we look for as future members for the support of our tradition and its structures?

3. Beauty: what is our desirable future and how do we make it possible?  

The Nature of Masonic Decline  

Freemasonry is in a state of multifold decline. For years, Masonic leaders tended to reject, neglect, or deny this reality. Today, the evidence is so overwhelming; and the conditions under which it is occurring so inconsistent with past periods of decline, e.g., The Morgan period, and the Great Depression, 1929-1939, that it is simply no longer possible for Masonic leaders to ignore it and still be considered in touch with ordinary reality.  

Without undue elaboration. the specific elements of this decline should be stated, clearly and concisely:  

1. Net Loss: Today, the annual net losses in membership are nearing 60,000 members, both by death and attrition. Two erosions are occurring, both of which are predictable, but nonetheless worth stating - the members who joined the Fraternity in the two vast waves of increases in membership (1919-1929 and 1945-1960 - post WWI and WWII) are, respectively dying, or withdrawing from lodge affiliation due to lack of interest.  

2. Loss of Center: Today, Masonic lodges no longer reflect the social, economic, or cultural realities of the nation, and thus are not drawing - as in the Past - from the main current of American youth. As recently as World War II, the Masonic lodge was an inseparable part of each small town, and most larger ones. As the population became more urban and suburban after the War, lodges did not adapt to changes in lifestyle. Similarly, while business and professional men once were able to meet one another in lodge life, and Masonic ethics was ipso facto a practical form of business ethics for countless men, fewer business and professional younger men join the Fraternity. Further, whereas lodges - notably in the 18th Century - were once centers of the exchange of thoughts and ideas, the intellectual level of discussion among Masons today is relatively lower than it was two centuries ago. The center of Masonic life no longer reflects the center of national life.  

3. Fewer New Lodges: The real index of Masonic vitality, according to Dwight L. Smith, P.G.M., and P.G.S., of Indiana it not loss of members or gains; but rather the numbers of newer lodges being formed. The essential idea is that as more Freemasons are actively involved in the Craft, the trend will be toward new lodges. Today, fewer lodges are being created, and vast numbers - especially in urban areas - are merging or consolidating.  

4. Fewer Active Members: American Masonic lodges, unlike British and continental counterparts, still retain far larger memberships than can be absorbed into the life of the lodge. As a result attendances are quite low. while memberships are high, and in some instances lodges with hundreds of members yield an attendance of only one or two score.  

5. Inadequate Lodge Management: Masonic leadership, unlike other fraternal social, and cultural organizations is determined largely by ritualistic proficiency. Should a Freemason wish to become Master of his lodge, to do so he must exhibit proficiency in ceremonial and memorization above leadership and management skill. Vast feats of rote memorization are required for Masonic office, and little interest is shown in the younger man who - unable to spend the time required to learn lectures, degrees, etc., - is refused a role in lodge life. When such a young man is already committed to career, family, self-improvement, etc., he is far more likely to expend time in projects and organizations which offer him more rewards in terms of personal growth and improved skills he wants or needs to be a productive and successful citizen.  

6. Lack of "Spiritual" Depth and Education: While Freemasonry is not a religion in any recognizable sense, it must be admitted that Masonic experience has always contained a profound depth of meaning beyond the surface appearance of reality. It is a tradition of enormous historical, philosophical, and cultural significance. Today, few -- rare - Freemasons are encouraged in their lodges to inquire or delve into the symbolism, history, or philosophy of the Craft. Research lodges and study groups, similarly, tend to be preoccupied with items of local history or antiquarianism. with no emphasis on the richness of Freemasonry's fabric, few members develop a vision of what the Craft could be and become.  

7. Loss of Promise: As a result of Masonic decline - a reality that was inwardly felt and thought before it was outwardly admitted and expressed -- there has been pervasive negativity and, frequently. organizationally- wide depression about the future of the Fraternity. Refusal to change often masks a deep cynicism that anything `can make a difference'. As grand lodge memberships decline, and per capita taxes, assessments for homes and charities increase, the imagination of the Fraternity appears to have turned away from possible opportunities and alternatives, and toward a `psychology of decline' which - ironically - is self- fulfilling.  

8. Lowered Sense of Reflection: In a similar sense, Freemasons have largely stopped `cherishing' their legacy; not because they do not love it, but rather because they do not understand it. They do not let it speak sufficiently to them; but they incessantly do speak to and for it. The capacity to allow the mind and spirit to roam in and through the Masonic ethos is almost extinct - and lodges that once reflected the most vital and dynamic elements of life, are now symbols of the moribund and static - attracting the loyalty and spirit of few energetic young men.  

The Source of Masonic Strength  

The source of future Masonic strength is the young man who traditionally has been attracted to Freemasonry, but today has not seen the source of that attraction in the Masonic Fraternity. In the briefest terms, this is the young man who is "in touch" with both the spiritual and the material aspects of life, and whose quest is "incarnational" - to integrate and incorporate both qualities into a single, fulfilling life style. While such young men have always existed, their prevalence today is more marked than in recent history. As a result of social and cultural changes in the 1960's and 1970's more and more American youth aim for career success and personal development, and fewer are willing to postpone gratification until after retirement from active life.  

Ironically, this generation has not seen the very treasure they search for at home, and frequently on the main street of their own towns and villages in Masonic halls and temples. Indeed, few Masons themselves know the appeal of the treasure they have to countless young man (and women!) who have turned to Eastern philosophy or meditation, neglecting indigenous western roots to the mystical - such as Freemasonry.  

This type of young person is both less likely to conform to that stereo type most Masonic leaders have of eligible younger members, and more likely to challenge the preconceptions and stereotypes of the various Masonic establishments. While most likely to be "gentle" in their critiques, they are still prone to candor and frankness about differences between Masonic ideal and practice. As a result, they are not likely to be entirely "comfortable" with inefficient and poor lodge leadership and management.  

Nevertheless, this same young person is a prime candidate for Freemasonry and one which the Craft would do well to understand and attract to the Fraternity.  

The single most important characteristic of this person's approach to the Fraternity should be clearly and amply stated: it would be existential. The younger philosophically and materially minded man of today would tend to see Freemasonry as an option for authentic human existence - as a form and approach to leading of life that sought a center within itself, and did not depend upon external authority or convention. Such a man today is common precisely because so many conventions are challenged, and security, in the traditional sense - economics included - is increasingly rare. Such men are more likely to fall back upon their own devices in times of tumult; similarly they are likely to attempt a serious journey inward at some point in their lives just as the educated man of past generations undertook travel to foreign countries.  

Yet, a more significant aspect of his existential approach to Freemasonry would be a serious and intent interest in fraternity as a quality of life. Not only would the son of the `60's and `70's be less interested in the multiplicity of Masonic awards, honors, and offices - they would be for him a symbol of the Order's irrelevancy to his own personal quest. He would, on the other hand be immensely impressed with the proven capacity of Freemasonry to take diverse human personalities into one harmonious whole, and to differentiate conflict and competition through Masonic ethics, and the organizational capacity of lodges to channel and direct ordinary human drives into creative activities.  

The potential Freemason of the present and future generation would be more deeply interested in cherishing and supporting his brother in a true bond of fraternity, and in turn he would want to be cherished and supported - through it would be the rare brother who would freely admit such a strong emotion except to his closest friends and associates. Any Freemason who has felt the bond of Masonic brotherhood could identify with such a quest, just as he first became a Freemason "in his heart" before he was bonded by a trowel to a host of other men with similar impulses.  

Such an impulse is human, and Freemasonry through generations of trial and error has in fact devised an international system with the proven capacity to foster men `dwelling together in unity'. The task is to interpret the potential of the Craft to countless thousands who seek the reality it contains.  

What Is Our Desirable Future?  

There is no question that the Masonic vision for the unity and peace of all men under the fatherhood God is one of the most beautiful ever devised by man. The same aspiration has found its way into the very heart of man's art, music, and literature. Similarly, it is at the core of Western democracy and the history of constitutional development. The question becomes how might the beauty of such a future become the reality of the present day? The answer is surprisingly simple. It will happen if we intentionally will it to happen and we create spaces and opportunities for it to happen.  

The essence of this point should be stressed. Freemasonry has within it all that is necessary for its own survival, growth, and renewal. The heritage itself is deeply conducive to attracting young men to the Fraternity if it is allowed to flow openly through us out into the world. In the past, this fact has been partly understood in that Freemasons were always admonished to walk uprightly in the world before God and men. But, the point is a deeper one than personal moral or ethical behavior. It is that the Masonic ethos, culture, and environment must be fostered in such a way in the world that the profane begin to grasp what we mean by brotherhood, and what we are about as brothers.  

I would suggest three ways in which this "fostering" of Freemasonry might be attempted, each of which reflects the inherent conservative value in adhering to ancient Masonic landmarks, customs, and usages:  

1. The Goose and Gridiron Club of New York. Actually, more of a concept than an organization, the "G and G" community in New York City is an effort to practice Masonic customs and principles outside of Freemasonry. Although a core of younger men who are Freemasons founded, and largely direct, the society, the Goose and Gridiron - named after the London ale-house where the mother grand lodge of England was founded in June, 1717 - is an independent society of younger professional men in the New York area. There are no fees or dues, and monthly social and cultural events largely support themselves through contributions and annual gifts from those involved.  

The object of the society is to expose young men to the creativity within the Masonic idea when those men - for whatever reason - are not Freemasons. The practice of a festive board is common, and the development of close, supportive ties and bonds among and between people of widely differing points of view, lifestyle, and background. Every effort is made to have the mailing list of the group reflect the professions and vocations of every range of New York City society. The G and G is entering its fifth year, and as a result of its activities a number of young men have petitioned lodges in New York.  

2. Existing lodges and concordant bodies. Masonic lodges promote members because of their ritualistic proficiency and support of grand lodge programs, e.g., Masonic homes. Few if any lodges make Masonic education, in every aspect, a requirement for advancement or leadership; and fewer practice the ancient usage of the Masonic festive board. Yet, both elements of the Fraternity's history are the keys to the future of the Craft. If lodges were to regularly celebrate together around a common meal, in the presence of informed Masonic discourse of the history, purpose, philosophy, etc., of the Order, the path to vitality would be open and clear. If - in addition - there were occasions when lodges met informally for refreshments, wine, cocktails, etc., in a non-Masonic setting if necessary, for the simple purpose of sharing friendships with nonMasons this purpose would likewise be served. Such meetings would (1) be purely social and conversational in tone, perhaps including a meal; and would achieve maximum effectiveness if (2) key younger professional and intellectual leaders in the community could be attracted. Every effort should be made to have successful men in the community who are Freemasons, but not necessarily active in the lodge's ritual attend because they might be role models which would attract a younger man.  

While wives, dates, etc., should be invited from time to time, every care should be taken to emphasize that Freemasonry - for its own historical and traditional reasons - is a men's fraternity, and no effort should be made to "sell" the Craft for a "family" gathering place. Such would do a disservice both to the candidate, should he wish to join, because it would raise expectations that the tradition could not adequately fulfill, and to the purpose of Freemasonry itself. The creation of such a shelter or space in which fraternity might in time grow apart from any form of solicitation or coercion might lead naturally to new vitality and purpose.  

3. National coordination and deliberation. Freemasonry suffers from a lack of coordination and mutual deliberation at local, regional, and national levels. No where is this fact more evident than in the lack of communication among Masonic leaders nationally. The Fraternity is badly segmented among a host of rites, bodies, and organizations, which provide an incredible richness of Masonic teaching, but force competition at a level the Fraternity can ill- afford. It is unlikely that the creation of shelters, spaces, and environments for Freemasonry's concepts to be practiced will emerge without national leadership and encouragement for this to happen.  

Without delay, leaders of the Craft should talk informally and formally with one another about the nature of the decline and the grounds for creative and healthful survival. The scope and character of appendant bodies, such as the York Rite, Scottish Rite, and Shrine, would be a decided resource over the multiplicity of independent grand lodges, which - while the foundation and base for all regular Freemasonry in this country - change leadership every year or so, and tend to be preoccupied with internal matters of regulation and administration.  

In such a coordinated continuing conversation it would be important to stress that the Craft might have every reason to consult resources and scholars outside of its own ranks, and it even might be timely to create, or to supplement existing networks, to deal more responsively - and less reactively - with the problems, and possibilities facing the fraternity.  

In summary, it should be said again, that Freemasonry was never intended to be anything other than a profound quest by man for participation in the nature and purpose of God and the universe. That "quest" became institutionalized and pervasive through out the world, and stands today as one of the race's great monuments to the integration of the search for God with practical brotherhood - across every line and diversity of human manufacture. It should be said, too, that the power and idiom of the "quest" has its own inner dynamic, and if we will let it live - it will, beyond our farthest imaginings. And, with a very venerable and apt Masonic toast, I invite you - as if we were where we should often be - at festive board:  

"To him who brought the stone and wood, To him who all things understood, To him, who - hapless - lost his blood, In doing of his duty... To that blest day, and that blest morn, wherein These Three Great Men were born, Our Noble Science to Adorn, With Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty." So Mote It Be.  

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