The end of the year has many of us in a reflective mood, and I want to synthesize what I saw happen in my corner of the Masonic world in 2020. The Craft is way too big to see everything, so this is just one Mason’s perspective from my jurisdiction & travels.
Beginning of the Year
It began as Masonic years begin: with new Worshipful Masters, still adjusting to their new chairs, full of ambitious plans about all of the things they were going to do in their lodges. New committee structures. In the case of my lodge, there was a decent prospect list and a lot of optimism.
Global concern about the Coronavirus started rising in February, but it was only in early March that shutdowns began. Around March 13th, after seeing a few closures here and there, and knowing more would be coming, I started cataloging the process of the grand lodges closing. I believe UGLE was the first to close.
The Process of Closing
Lodges & Grand Lodges didn’t just close; this was not a black and white situation. What we observed in the Masonic world was more of a sliding scale of grays, with for example “levels” like this:
- Take notice of public health alerts, and follow safety precautions
- Certain Grand Lodge events are cancelled
- Worshipful Masters are given the discretion to cancel meetings if they wish
- No meetings of more than a certain size are permitted, with various required health protocols
- No meetings are permitted period
Different jurisdictions went through these levels at different times from March – May 2020. European jurisdictions often started at level 5, while many in the US began with level 1 or 2 and gradually moved up the scale as wider societal events, including state laws, made anything other than level 5 untenable.
Masons are Of Society, Good & Bad
Masonry represents such a broad cross-section of men, masons tend to reflect all of the elements of wider society, from socio-economic status, to education level, to political persuasion, and certainly religion as well. This is an important point to make to understand 2020, which featured epic levels of social polarization. Given that Coronavirus was the issue of the day, this manifested in several very bad forms.
On both opposite extremes of the same spectrum, I saw some open flouting of GM restrictions related to Coronavirus by members, and other members “calling out” lodges who did this. Masonry in many US jurisdictions has a population of members who either do not accept the reality of the virus situation, or who feel that in any case individual free choice should prevail. In either case, there was huge tension between “the rules” and “the reality”, which expressed itself differently, lodge by lodge. I believe this was due to the wider environment of social polarization. Most masons still aimed for keeping harmony in lodge, but oh boy was that a hell of a lot to ask this year.
June 2020 and the Black Lives Matter movement brought mass protests in many places in the US, which prompted a lot of appropriate discussion throughout society. Within the craft, we saw a number of Masonic Statements of Unity coming from jurisdictions where GMs displayed great leadership by drawing out root principles of Freemasonry and applying them to the matters of the day.
Summer & Fall 2020 Re-Opening: Fits & Starts
As of this writing, there are Masonic jurisdictions like California that are still closed. Most US jurisdictions I’m familiar with though are open in some form or another. And just as the closing process involved “levels”, so too did the re-opening process, following a sort of sliding scale of “re-open” like this, from “most stringent” to “least stringent”.
- Only stated meetings are allowed, with no more than a certain number of members
- Temperature checks, masks, gloves, and sometimes other precautions are needed
- One-Day Conferrals or other alternative methods are permitted for small groups, allowing “mass-conferral” for candidates who had been waiting a long time for the degrees
- Regular meetings allowed with relaxed requirements up to the Worshipful Master
- All meetings and degree work allowed
Once again – different jurisdictions are in different places right now. This was furthered by Fall 2020 bringing some limited re-closings of jurisdictions, as infection rates grew. While all the jurisdictions move around the sliding scale of open vs. closed, there’s very little that can be said about where lodges stand which is true for most jurisdictions. This, again – is emblematical of the wider division we see in society.
A major problem throughout 2020 was the candidate pipeline. Even if some lodges struggle to grow, still there is a constant influx of new men who want to join the fraternity, but in 2020 most lodges in most jurisdictions had an extended period of time where they couldn’t confer degrees. This led to legitimate concern that candidates would leave (finding themselves unable to join) and that lodges would suffer. Once again there were a variety of different responses, from one-day conferrals, to alternative methods, and other solutions as well.
At Christmas 2020, the UGLE put out a Christmas message that included details about the financial impact of the challenges faced. For the UGLE, this meant slashing millions from the operating budget, suspending capital projects, and laying off staff to mention a few measures.
So far we’ve talked exclusively about Coronavirus. Hey what did you expect, this was 2020 and the virus was going to dominate the post. But there was an interesting side-effect of the shutdowns, and the massive trend towards “work from home” that many brothers found themselves in: virtual education.
2020 saw a boom in online virtual masonic education. US Masonry is very heavily on Facebook due to its age cohort, and so most of the action was on Facebook. Some of my favorite stand-outs include Refracted Light, the North Carolina Masonic Research Society, Esoteric Sun Daze, and from the UK, W. Bro Tony Harvey’s lectures are something I got a lot of value out of in 2020.
Aside from these single sessions, the Mid-Atlantic Masonic Esotericon was virtual this year, as was the Masonic Con Chicago. Brothers displayed unbelievable adaptivity to pull these events off and provide education to others all over the world.
Some of the worst fears in my jurisdiction – that candidates would lose interest and wander off if they weren’t able to take the degrees for an extended period of time – did not come to pass. There’s a hunger out there for what Freemasonry offers. Lodges got creative with how to keep them engaged in the meantime, and they stayed engaged. It is just another demonstration that Freemasonry has something very special to offer they can’t get elsewhere.
Where do we Go From Here?
That’s what happened, from my perspective. Ending the year, we have a balance sheet with some bads and some goods.
- Social polarization is still quite bad, and it’s not clear it will improve in the near term. This will continue to impact Masonry as an institution in mostly negative ways, because Masons are of society.
- There’s some medium-term hope on the horizon that COVID-19 could impact us less in 2021
- Masonic travel and education is better than it ever was, due to online participation
- The negative experiences of pandemic and shutdown convince men of the need for deeper friendships
Personally, I think that in times of societal crisis, big dislocations (like COVID-19) rarely fundamentally change the course of society. What they tend more to do is accelerate existing trends. For example, digital work from home was already popular pre-pandemic, but it got a massive shot in the arm in 2020. Social division pre-existed the pandemic, but the virus made it drastically worse. In the Masonic world, we have downward demographic trends which are also being accelerated by the pandemic. The virus makes it harder to bring in new members, and disproportionately kills the elderly, at a time when our membership skews older.
This changes nothing fundamentally, but simply ups the stakes on a discussion throughout the Craft of what we want our future to be. Being decentralized, there’s no one place to go to have this discussion. Each lodge will do as they wish; each Grand Lodge the same. But via electronic travel, education, and relationship building over time, and the fundamental goods of what the institution offers, we have a lot to use to our advantage.