Why did an organisation founded in the Goose and Gridiron Tavern in St. Paul’s Churchyard in 1717, go on to spread over the entire face of the habitable earth, and become the largest fraternal society in the history of mankind?
And why is Freemasonry dying, in England, the place of its birth?
Freemasonry is one of history’s success stories. Under the Grand Lodges of England, Scotland and Ireland we have an estimated membership of over 500,000. But the universal appeal of Freemasonry is not limited to the British Isles; worldwide we have an estimated membership of over 5 million! Even within Freemasonry it is not widely appreciated how rare and unusual a phenomenon this is. No other fraternal organisation has ever spread so quickly, spread so widely or grown so large. To have done this Freemasonry must contain some idea that exerts a firm grip on the imaginations of a considerable body of humanity, regardless of race, language or upbringing. Something about Freemasonry appeals to the very basic nature of humanity. What is it?
Today all organisations are having problems retaining membership, many Masonic lodges are having to close. Perhaps it is time to look at what got us into our successful historical position and what attracted our present level of membership. To recreate these achievements in the future, we need to understand what Freemasonry has that other organisations, founded at the same time did not. We must ask what distinguishes our Craft from superficially similar organisations.
Our society provides many and varied chances for social and fraternal intercourse amongst individuals who choose to split off into distinctive fraternities. It offers many chances for charity and friendship. But this is not exclusive to freemasonry. There are a huge number of societies that offer similar opportunities, but none boast even half our membership, and none attract such men of distinction as we. By a process of elimination, we arrive at the only remaining raison d’etre for the spread and attractiveness of the Masonic system, namely, the significance and implications involved within our ceremonial rites. There is something very special about our rituals.
A wonderful thing about Masonic ritual is that it acts like an ink blot test on the human mind. Each Freemason sees something slightly different in the working of the Craft depending on his situation in life, his personal background and his level of development. Sometimes I wonder if lack of firm knowledge of our origins is one of the greatest gifts Freemasonry has. This ambiguity allows the ritual to speak directly to us all without preconceptions. Masonic ritual is a system of moral and spiritual transformation. It inspires men to look at themselves and change the way they interact with the world, and it always has. Freemasonry is a system of mental control and self-development comparable to Buddhism, yoga and many other paths of self-improvement to be found around the world. But it is a unique western tradition. The special thing about Freemasonry is that it is free of dogma or religious bigotry. It is truly open to all religious persuasions. Each ritual is progressive, building on the work that was set before the candidate in the previous ceremony. It was the effectiveness of our teachings that inspired men the world over to don the Masonic apron. The rituals of Freemasonry tap into the basic human urge to want to improve one’s self and to make the world a better place for all. Our Masonic philosophy should direct and aid us in this quest.
Freemasonry teaches us that our personal characteristics are neither random nor immutable. We are not stuck with the nature we are born with. We can change ourselves just as a builder changes his surroundings. We are living stones to be reshaped by the Masonic tools of the ritual. This is a powerful lesson. I believe it is the idea that originally drove the success of Freemasonry and made it appeal to so many people. We all want to be better. If Masonic membership is dwindling, could it be that we are no longer putting this message across.
The lessons of Freemasonry could be summarised as follows, the first degree teaches the principles of morality, the second degree the importance of learning, and the third the discipline of self-knowledge. As a young Freemason looking at Freemasonry in the modern world, I believe that it is at this final step that we falter. Lack of self-recognition and self-knowledge is not just lacking in the membership but also in the organisation itself. Freemasonry as a collective has still to master its third degree. We know the principles of morality, we understand the outside world. But we still have not realised our Order’s own true nature. The value of self-knowledge is immeasurable. A man or a society must know its vices and its failures before it can eliminate them. It must know its virtues and successes to build on them.
Everywhere I go I hear Brethren earnestly saying that “Freemasonry has no secrets”. If this is true then it is no surprise that young men join and then leave. We are misleading them because Freemasonry does hold secrets. Its traditional secrets tell how to turn vice into virtue. We are a school of self-improvement and self-development. This is the point of Freemasonry. If we Freemasons lose this focus then only failure can result. If we have no secrets, what’s the point in joining? If a school has no lessons it will attract no pupils. We will only get more men into Freemasonry if we get more Freemasonry into men. Our success in the past was due to men being inspired to join to learn how to improve themselves. Freemasonry is about inspiration. If we do not practice our teachings we will fail to be attractive. A rose only becomes beautiful as it grows from a bud into a full flower. We are only going to progress if we truly engage with our own teachings. I don’t mean doing “sincere” ritual, I mean applying the “peculiar system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols” to ourselves. No matter how many rituals or meetings you turn up to you can’t absorb the virtue of morality by osmosis (Though you may absorb extra weight as you eat your way through numerous festive boards.). To make a daily progress in the Masonic knowledge you have got to work hard in your spare time. You need to contemplate the working tools and apply their principles to your daily life until they become second nature. You need to study the ritual, slowly cultivate the control and progress it demands. When others see Masons on this path they will flock to join us, as they did in the past.
The task that Freemasonry puts before each one of us, is monumental, hard and painstaking. It is easy for modern Freemasons to push their efforts and time into other matters, which though laudable can lead to them becoming distracted from the purpose of the Craft.
Many Freemasons become an expert on the history of Freemasonry in general and their own Lodge in particular. Knowledge of Masonic history is interesting and fun, but it should always be second to the transformational work of Freemasonry. Many Freemasons work hard to be charitable. Charity is commendable and is one of the virtues all Freemason should try to cultivate. But Charity should be a side effect of our personal development, not its focus. It is not, and should not, become the point in our organisation. If we are a charity then our ritual is of no purpose. If we are a moral School the important thing is that our students are learning. I believe it is time for Freemasonry to take a close, critical look at itself. The United Grand Lodge of England is leading the way with the message of its pamphlet “Freem
asonry An Approach to Life”. This makes clear to the public that Freemasonry is a system of self-improvement. But the brethren need to get serious and back up this message by demonstrating its application by their actions.
If we are to regenerate Freemasonry from within, we need to look to the future, not the past. We need to enjoy the solution, not suffer the problem. I opened this article by saying Freemasonry in England is Dying. Our third degree teaches us that a wonderful thing about death is it can lead to a rebirth. Let us concentrate on putting this Masonic lesson at the centre of our Freemasonry.