My lodge recently received a letter with updated guidance from our Grand Master. The situation our Grand Master finds himself in as a leader is one that frankly makes me grateful I’m not in Masonic leadership. There seem so few good decisions to be made, and so many constraints.
My GM’s communication felt like a play to keep impatient people hanging on, to prevent the loss of gravity and all these various pieces drifting out of their orbits. Things do look pretty grim, so today I am aiming for hopeful counterpoint. But we have to begin with a dose of reality.
Masonry had substantial demographic problems prior to coronavirus pandemic. Many of us get regular communiques from secretaries and others about a daily drumbeat of older brothers passing; either that, or our lodges take up what to do about the members “gone NPD”. Grand Lodge communications from time to time reference consolidations, as if to say it’s known these need to happen, but can’t right now in most cases due to circumstances. All of that is pretty understandable.
Crises Accelerate Change
Huge societal dislocations like Coronavirus tend to take whatever trends were already present in society, and accelerate them. They function as a huge wave moving through society that tosses everyone up and down, and drives things forward. Even an institution as old and large as Freemasonry moves, like it or not. Consider these trends:
- Social division. Bad before, worse now. Whether in lodge or on social media, Freemasons often bicker just like the wider society they are a part of.
- Remote work & Social Disconnection. Growing before, now going like gangbusters. 2021 is a year where some will find they have barely left the house in a year.
- Masonic demographics. Trending downwards for many years, now falling so quickly that accurate data is conspicuously missing about the craft.
It goes on like this, whether the issue is parents worrying about how much small kids use electronic devices, (plenty of worry before, now off the charts) or economic inequality. The largest social trends we observe haven’t changed or inverted from pre-pandemic; they’ve stayed the same direction and intensified.
We are taught to view ourselves as rough stones. The task is to break off the vices and superfluities. Why should the institution of Freemasonry be any different? My own thinking on this topic has evolved from the time I wrote The Right Size and Future for Masonry. Increasingly, I’m convinced by argument from other brethren that the fraternity is going through a process of refining itself rather than “dying out”. Many fearful demographics-driven arguments have been made about the fraternity dying out, and there is no denying the demographic curves those brothers see.
The idea of the fraternity dying is wrong though, because it treats a human endeavor as a simple numbers game. It ignores that Freemasonry still retains key assets that no other institution has. These things tap deeply into a common human experience that has been there for thousands of years and isn’t going away. Those are things like:
- A strong, common initiatic experience.
- A set of practices informed by the mystery schools of the past.
- A culture and ethos founded in morality, relationships, and personal growth. Even in the worst of cultural times, the appeal of this cannot die, because history has shown time periods many times worse than where we are today.
In a time period of moral relativism, materialism, and atheism, these things will stand increasingly in strong contrast to the main current. While that might reduce their popularity in absolute numbers, it also differentiates the values and throws them into sharper relief.
Impatience, Loss of Gravity
This brings us back to my Grand Master’s communications. The process of refining the institution is going to be painful. Impatience is not just limited to “When is COVID-19 going to be over?”, but also extends to “When will the new shape of Freemasonry begin to emerge?”
The institution is losing gravity. As lodges shrink, they enter a spiral where they become unattractive to petitioners and unable to bring in new members. This causes further membership to drift out of the orbit of the lodge.
But these things aren’t true of all lodges in all places. There are shining stars in this masonic galaxy, which are still attracting new members, and accelerating. In the wider masonic universe, younger Masons, more esoterically inclined masons, and the “seeker” types are drifting out of orbit of traditional lodges, and into the orbits of more refined (in the ashlar sense) and core-focused lodges. These lodges, educational institutions, and other bodies are the places to look, not backwards at the declining demographics of the system that continues to be disrupted by the ongoing crisis.
Tradition may sometimes pump the brakes and resist any change. Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor. Change itself though is inevitable and will overcome all efforts to the contrary. And so it’s important to return back to the core, to best predict what a process of refinement might look like, and where it is going.