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A European View of Masonic Growth
by WBro. Michel L. Brodsky
A global view of masonic membership in Western Europe is difficult to embrace, so this paper will endeavour to describe the main trends within part of Europe only. One of the main obstacles lies in the impossibility to obtain accurate figures concerning membership and thereby calculate growth ratios. In nearly all European countries different groups of freemasons share masonic authority. Each claims exclusive authority and regularity within its country. There is, however, only one Grand Lodge in Norway, in Iceland and in Sweden. Elsewhere fragmentation of the masonic phenomenon originates either from historical reasons as in Germany or from the different approaches to the basic principles of Freemasonry as in France, Belgium, Italy, etc.
In 1877, the Grand Orient de France abolished all references to the Deity in its Constitution. They were replaced by a formula called ‘the total liberty of conscience’. The Grand Orient de Belgique preceded this move in 1872. Other masonic bodies in Italy, Switzerland and elsewhere followed this example with variable success. A similar situation now occurs in the east European countries where Freemasonry was only recently permitted by law. There are a number of Grand Lodges founded after 1900 in which men and women are members on an equal footing. Similarly, since the end of World War II, Grand Lodges that are open to women alone were instituted in a few countries. All of these bodies differ for many reasons, although within particular countries they are very similar in terms of masonic customs and practices. The main difference lies between the Grand Lodges recognised by the United Grand Lodge of England and the others. The former are usually called ‘regular’, the others are called ‘irregular’. Whether this is semantically correct is questionable. In present day practice the words ‘regular’ and ‘irregular’ describe their official connections with the United Grand Lodge of England, and do not reflect on their regularity of origin. In daily life, it means that members of the ‘regular’ Grand Lodges do not visit ‘irregular’ Lodges and the ‘regular’ Lodges do not admit as visitors the members of the ‘irregular’ Grand Lodges.
In each country all Lodges share a common national culture and the same languages. Usually their origin may be traced to one original Grand Lodge. Often, the rituals they use have a common origin. Their Regulations show similarities and they share many social habits. Freemasons within one family may be members of different Grand Lodges. To dispel confusion, it may be useful to state that the words ‘Grand Orient’ and ‘Grande Loge’ have the same meaning. The Grand Orient de France is irregular, but the Groot Oost (Great East) of the Netherlands is regular. The Grand Orient de France took its name after the foundation of the National Grand Lodge of France in 1773, and originally the words designated its seat of power, Paris. Since the old Grande Loge de France still existed then, the new name was adopted generally.
Another important factor is the almost total disappearance of Freemasonry in Europe before, during and after World War II. Freemasonry was forbidden under the Communist and Fascist dictatorships before the War and this was, of course, extended to the occupied countries. In most countries freemasons were patriots and opposed ‘the enemy’. Even when the German secret police did not systematically prosecute them, the lives of any freemasons arrested for any offence, or if their eventual Jewish origin was known, they were at great risk. In France, the lists of freemasons published in the Official Gazette were used to expel civil servants from the State Service and to exclude Brethren from many professions. The myth of the Judeo-Masonic-Communist plot causing the defeat of France in 1940 became an official doctrine of the Pétain regime.
The interruption of masonic activities from five to nearly fifty years, as in the former Communist-dominated countries, created a vacuum, which even today is not yet fully filled.
Most of the facts mentioned in this paper relate to masonic practices in France and Belgium and, as far as the present writer is aware, they apply more or less to most Grand Lodges in the other European countries.
In France the Grande Loge Nationale Française is the only regular body in amity with the United Grand Lodge of England. It accepts only men and a belief in a Supreme Being is the essential condition for membership. Its Lodges work according to different rites: the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, the Scottish Rectified Rite, the Modern French Rite, the York Rite and the Emulation ‘working’ of the English Rite. The Grande Loge Nationale Française has over 1000 Lodges and 28,000 members.
The Grand Orient de France is the oldest permanent masonic body in France and has never been recognised by the United Grand Lodge of England. In 1877 it dropped the references to the Deity in its Constitution and lost nearly all its foreign masonic relations. It has circa 45,000 members and over 1,000 Lodges in France and overseas.
The third body is the Grand Loge de France, which rose from the Craft Lodges working under the Supreme Council of France at the end of the 19th century. It is irregular and not recognised by the United Grand Lodge of England. It still has very strong ties with the Supreme Council of France and authorises dual membership with the Grand Orient de France.
The Droit Humain, known in England under the denomination of Co-Masonry, accepts both men and women as members. Its peculiarity lies in the fact it is the unique universal masonic body. Legally each of its national bodies is one member of the Central Federation whose seat is in Paris. Their membership and number of Lodges are not known. The most recently established body is the Grande Loge Feminine de France, whose origins are the ancient ‘Adoption Lodges’ working under the protection of the Supreme Council of France. They became an independent body after World War II. Obviously they have only women as members.
The estimated global membership of all these bodies is circa 100,000. There are also many splinter groups issued by secession from one of the main bodies and the members of these bodies are barred from regular Lodges. Regular freemasons may not visit their Lodges.
The situation is more or less similar in Belgium, where the oldest and largest body is the Grand Orient de Belgique. The Grande Loge de Belgique seceded from it in 1959 to re-establish regular Freemasonry in the country. Recognition from the United Grand Lodge of England was obtained in 1975 but, unfortunately, had to be withdrawn in June 1979 because of some irregularity in masonic practices. Therefore, the Regular Grand Lodge of Belgium was immediately constituted and recognised by England in December 1979. It is the only regular masonic body in Belgium, but there are two Lodges, in Brussels and Antwerp, working under Warrants from the Grand Lodge of Scotland.
There are also a Fédération Belge du Droit Humain and a Grande Loge Feminine de Belgique similar to their French counterparts. Some of the distinguishing characteristics of these bodies and of those found in Italy, Switzerland, Spain and today in some eastern European countries are similar.
In the Netherlands only the Groot Oost der Nederlanden, which is in amity with England, has any importance. In Germany the Vereinigde Grosse Loge von Deutschland, also in amity with England, has five subsidiary Grand Lodges: Die Drei Weltkugel (The Three Globes) using a old German ritual, the Freimaurer Orderen fur Deutschland which works the Swedish rite. Both were originally part of the old Prussian Grand Lodges until 1933. The AFAM is the largest Grand Lodge and there are also an American-Canadian Grand Lodge and a British Grand Lodge whose members are mostly affiliated to the former Occupation armies and the civilian services attached to them.
In Europe the Lodges meet at least once a month except in the holiday months of July and August. Some have twice monthly or even weekly meetings. They meet in dedicated buildings approved by the Grand Lodges. These are owned either by the Grand Lodges or by the local Lodges. A few Lodges meet in hotels or restaurants where they have access to discreet and secure rooms. Some premises are large and magnificent buildings. Others are converted garages transformed by the members of the Lodges. Catering facilities are essential because the meals and banquets are an integral part of the development of fellowship.
The ‘no solicitation’ rule in force in English-speaking Freemasonry is unknown in Europe. On the contrary, applications that are not supported by masonic sponsors are rare and sometimes are seen as suspect and may even be refused. This is due to the long feud between freemasonry and the Catholic Church, in many European countries. No fixed rules exist concerning the contacts and probably most candidates discuss the matter with Brethren who disclose their masonic affiliations and introduce them to the Craft. Once a candidate decides to apply for Initiation he must normally have two sponsors. Both should be regular members of the Lodge and they are supposed to assist him in his masonic progress.
The Committee of the Lodge examines the application and transmits it officially to the Grand Lodge. Then begins a long investigating procedure. A candidate has to provide references of persons who know him and who are likely to be members of the Craft. In France a certificate issued by the municipality and stating that he has not committed any criminal offence is required.
A number of investigators are appointed by the Lodge. They visit the candidate, if possible in his home where they usually have a conversation with his wife. This may sound curious but maintaining happiness in a marriage is important and some wives may not like the absences of their spouses, or in some cases they may have objection to Freemasonry because of their Catholic upbringing. Each investigator prepares a report that is read in the Lodge but without revealing the name of the respective author. A debate regarding the merits of the particular candidate is followed by a first ballot. A candidate is then often invited to meet the Committee of the Lodge. He has there and then an opportunity to explain his motives for applying to join the Craft.
In many Lodges the next step is an invitation for the candidate to attend a very special meeting. He presents himself at the door of the building. He is then led blindfolded into a small darkened room with a small table and a chair. This room is called ‘le cabinet de réflexion’ or the meditation room. It is decorated with emblems of death, a skull, salt and other implements. He is invited to write his ‘philosophical last Will and Testament’. Standard questions are put to him on a sheet of paper on the table. He is asked to write what he conceives to be his duties to God, to mankind, his family and his country. He answers the questions put to him and after some time he is led, always hoodwinked, into the Lodge meeting in the Temple. He is seated and questions are put to him. When the Master of the Lodge decides that the Lodge is sufficiently informed about him, he is released and taken outside the Lodge building. In the Lodge a debate about his merits follows and the final ballot taken. If this is in his favour, the candidate receives an invitation to attend for his Initiation.
More than one candidate can be initiated together at the same meeting. Once becoming Entered Apprentice he becomes a full member of the Lodge, but he may only vote when he becomes a Master Mason. Until that moment many months may pass.
Generally, it takes one or two years for an Initiate to be Passed and about the same period of time to be Raised. Meanwhile, as Entered Apprentice, he is under the supervision of the Junior Warden and, as a Fellowcraft he is under the tutelage of the Senior Warden. These officers’ main duty is precisely the masonic instruction of their younger brethren and they are usually free to deal with it as best as they can. Some Lodges provide patterns or syllabuses of instruction but no standard rules apply.
Before Passing and Raising, all candidates for those Degrees should present a paper in Lodge enabling the elder Brethren to judge their progress in masonic knowledge. It is not meant as an examination but as a test to examine the integration and the intellectual work done by these new members.
Of course, the level of the work presented varies enormously between the Lodges according to the composition of the membership. The level of education is never a pre-condition for membership, but obviously large city Lodges tend to have a high percentage of members with higher education such as lawyers, bankers, engineers, doctors or university professors; but some members are artisans and tradesmen.
This long process often takes five years or more between the original application and the Raising and it creates among the younger Brethren a strong attachment to their Lodges. They discover new perspectives in symbolism and are taught to apply the principles of Freemasonry to their daily lives. The other members of the Lodge spend time educating their younger Brethren because they represent the investment in the future of the Lodge and of Freemasonry. Symbolism plays an important role in his process and all the elements present during the ceremonies of the three Degrees are explained to the recipients for their future benefit.
This is a general view of the education of a ‘young’ freemason who may, in some cases, be a mature or even an old man. Once he is a Master Mason he is often invested with the duty of junior officer of the Lodge. Great variations do exist in this respect. Some Lodges have the same officers for three years; others change every two years and some annually. Some Lodges have 20 members and others have 200 so their policies regarding the recruitment and training of the young Brethren varies accordingly.
But Lodges’ activities are also more extensive and for more than 150 years there existed and still exist forums of discussion. In France and in Belgium, where political activity was intense in the 19th century, the ritualistic part of the activities was often reduced to a subsidiary rank. Presently, whatever the Lodges’ affiliations, if social and humanitarian subjects including environmental problems are often presented in the lectures, pure politics is rare. But it is known that there are Lodges where politics play a big part.
This educative role may assume another face. In some Belgian Lodges seminars are given occasionally to those interested in subjects which are not exactly masonic. These seminar groupings of anything between five and ten members of the same Lodge meet once a month in the home of a member and an expert leads the discussion on philosophy, music, arts, etc.
A large number of Master Masons carry on their symbolic quest in joining the so-called ‘Higher’ Degrees. In Belgium until 1960 only the Ancient (Scottish) and Accepted Rite was known. Many Brethren joined this Order one year after their Raising. At least 10 years are needed to reach the 30th Degree, provided a candidate attends punctually the various ceremonies of the intermediate Degrees and delivers the required essays at stated intervals. Then he may be selected to receive the 32nd and later the 33rd Degrees. From the day of his initiation to the 33rd Degree if ever reached, it requires a constant masonic devotion during at least 20-25 years. Since 1960 other Degrees have been introduced in Belgium from England and France but the path of a young freemason is slow and requires the fulfilment of many duties, not only in the Lodge, but also on lectures, visits and teaching, etc.
Despite the fragmentation of Freemasonry in Western Europe, the general level of membership is satisfactory. Where figures are available and published one finds that the actual increase in membership is around 3 to 4% net in the Lodges. We have good reason to believe that these figures are valid whatever the masonic affiliation.
Why this is so, is difficult to analyse, but obviously the attraction to Freemasonry is important among men aged between 30 and 45. They are often university trained and wish to meet other men having similar intellectual needs. Television or sports are compatible but when one considers the distances travelled by members to attend Lodge one must conclude that they really find there something they cannot find elsewhere.
The reasons of this situation belong to the history of the European Lodges since the beginning of the 19th century. This is neither the time nor the place to present this story which will be part of a paper to be presented at the Canonbury Masonic Centre on 24 November 1999. Briefly, among the elements which modified the relations between the members of the Lodges and what was included in England as ‘Pure and Ancient Masonry’ played an important role. Among them was the importance of the ‘Higher’ Degrees and especially the (Scottish) Antient and Accepted Rite which was introduced into France from America in 1804. It includes the four Orders of the French Rite to arrive to a total of 33 Degrees, many already known and practised before the Revolution of 1789.
This fitted very well in the Empire’s social system instituted by Napoleon I. After 1815 most of the institutions established by the revolution and the imperial regimes were kept intact, with the exception of the Austro-Hungarian Empire where Metternich enforced a persecution of the freemasons especially in the Italian provinces under Austrian rule. For their part the Italian freemasons played a leading role in the long fight for their country’s independence and unification. In the Russian Empire, the Tsar Alexander II abolished all masonic activities in Russia, Poland and Finland in 1821. None revived until 1919 and even then with the exception of Finland it was for a very short period only. In Germany the three Prussian Grand Lodges enjoyed the protection of the state and the King, later Emperor. Strictly reserved for Christians, they survived until 1933. Other Grand Lodges existed, among them those in Hamburg, Dresden, Bayreuth and Frankfurt.
After the Treaty of Vienna in 1814-15, Freemasonry was perceived by the very conservative regimes as a hotbed of revolutionaries or secret societies. It is true that some freemasons belonged to secret societies that were intent at the overthrow of the regimes, but they were simply worms within a healthy apple. A general trend appeared to have used Lodges’ time to examine the status of citizens, propagating what they thought was freemasons’ duty to be involved in the improvement of society. The charitable and convivial English type of Freemasonry was slowly and surely replaced by a pattern where the duty of Freemasonry was to act as a lever or a motor for the good of the citizens. Politics were not very far away!
In the 19th century the main cause of the involvement of European Freemasonry in politics originated from the actions of the Catholic Church. Renewing the condemnation of the previous century, the Church was no longer hindered in its action by the all-powerful monarchs of France and Austria. It engaged an authentic war against the Masonic Order. The main ammunition was prepared by two famous authors: L'Abbé Augustin Barruel (1741-1820) in French and Professor John Robison (1739-1805) of the University of Edinburgh. Their books (Memoires pour servir a l’Histoire du Jacobinisme, 4 vols. and Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe) were both published in 1797 and bundled together Freemasonry and the Order of the Illuminati, accusing them of collusion to plot the French Revolution.
To defend themselves and their liberal social values the freemasons had to counterattack. Therefore they had to convince their own members of their innocence. That was easy! Then they had to convert them to support such projects as universal free education for all children and the general improvement of the people of the country. Finally, they had to resort to political action. Without important modification of the inner working of the Lodge, a new system of instruction was introduced for the benefit of the members. In France and in Belgium the practice of the ritual was never considered important enough to warrant the memorisation of the texts. Reading the rituals is still today normal in the majority of the Lodges. And, as time became available, other meetings were used for lectures or conferences. Initially, they would cover educational or scientific subjects. Then ethical questions took over and the sense of social responsibility evoked. This led to plain politics!
One should realise that in France, until the end of the reign of Napoleon III in 1870, all political discussions, whether in public or private meetings, were banned and only Government newspapers were authorised. In France, after the Franco-German War of 1870, a period of seven years followed before the Third Republic was finally secured, against a minority of Royalists and Imperialists who were supported by the Catholic Church. The Lodges of the Grand Orient de France, whose survival depended on the whims of the Ministry of the Interior, supported an involvement into politics. After the Convent of 1877 mentioned above, the GOdF considered itself, with good reason, to be "the conscience of the Republic". Thus it declared its right to influence national politics.
In Belgium the Catholic Church was anxious to obtain a monopoly of education and opened the hostilities against Freemasonry in 1837. These degenerated into a complicated warfare. In 1854 the Grand Orient de Belgique abolished Article 135 of its Constitution forbidding political or religious discussions in its Lodges. They became hotbeds of politics. If one examines the lectures given in Brussels Lodges during the period prior to 1914 one finds a program that would be valid for a popular university. There were some papers on Freemasonry and discussions on various projects presented in Parliament concerning education, compulsory military service and falsification of testaments by too well intentioned confessors etc.
European Lodges in general favour above all intellectual work. The nature and import of symbolism and philosophy in general are major subjects, while the irregular Lodges have a tendency to study and sometime support social causes from environmental problems to the Third World needs. The management of the Lodges, the examination of the candidates’ files, the examination of the candidates as described occupy long evenings leaving less and less time for degree work. But for the young men joining Freemasonry this opens two challenges.
On the human side, there is the challenge of integrating themselves in a very special society which assemble ‘on the Level’ persons of different ages and social conditions. On the intellectual side there is the challenge to learn how to express ones’ concepts concisely and briefly on subjects that are new to them and especially masonic symbolism.
If the masonic work pleases them and they enjoy it, they talk about it to their friends and incite them to apply to Initiation. Good young freemasons contribute to the growth of Freemasonry as the moral influence of the Craft radiates through their personalities.
The success of the growth of European Freemasonry does not depend on change within the Craft, but in having happy and prosperous Lodges with a large number of young enthusiastic Brethren
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Last modified: March 22, 2014