Time is a river in which all things must sink or swim, and change is a necessary component of what allows any living thing to survive. Freemasonry is no exception. However, today, Masonry seems to be facing some challenges. Statistically, Freemasonry is seeing a major decline, at least in mainstream (masculine, male-only) Masonry. Some Brothers are even saying that Freemasonry is dying. Is it?
Freemasonry is a tradition which traces its origins as far back as medieval Europe, ancient Egypt, or, some Masonic thinkers even believe, lost pre-historic civilizations. While there are competing theories and narratives about the history of freemasonry, we know that Masonic ritual and culture has not always been the same; what we have today is certainly not a carbon copy of what took place in the ancient world, or even in the Middle Ages. That is certainly a good thing; as much as we love to relish our deep history and connection to the past, ultimately, all traditions must change and adapt to remain relevant, especially today. Is Freemasonry failing to meet that challenge?
As always, this writing does not reflect the official views of Universal Co-Masonry, but is solely the reflections of one Co-Mason.
Evolution is Not Optional
As the saying goes, the numbers don’t lie, and all of the relevant statistics are given in the blog post by Brother Lance Kennedy linked at the beginning of this work; I won’t spend time re-hashing them here. If you consider Freemasonry in its mainstream form, there certainly is an undeniable downward trend. Many are making efforts to turn the tide, perhaps with some degree of success, but how best can Freemasons know exactly what needs to be changed, to breathe new life into a seemingly fading institution? While change is obviously necessary, exactly what changes are needed is also a matter of critical importance. One useful point of comparison to learn what will help Freemasonry thrive and proceed into the future is the much higher growth rates being seen by alternative Masonic Orders, such as our own. Universal Co-Masonry is rapidly growing in numbers, and other Co-Masonic bodies around the globe, although still small in comparison to the nearly ubiquitous masculine Lodges, also appear to be healthily thriving, even as traditional masculine Masonry’s numbers decline. So, what is Co-Masonry doing right that traditional Masonry is falling short of, that leads greater numbers of young initiates and even former mainstream Masons into our ranks?
The Elephant In the Lodge
A reasonable way to approach the topic is to look at the key differences between the Orders. It appears that some of the things which once contributed to Masonry’s growth and popularity are now contributing to their decline. This includes the exclusion of women (as equals) from the Lodge, as well as the segregation of Lodges by race, in some jurisdictions. This is the most obvious difference, and was the primary motivation for our Co-Masonic Orders to emerge, or rather, diverge. This is primarily why Co-Masons, considered by masculine Masonry to be “clandestine,” came to exist, because Mainstream Masons refuse to acknowledge the enormous discrepancy between the modern recognition of the moral necessity for Equality in any organization, and their continuation of institutionalized inequality.
I believe that for most Masons under the age of 40, what is most mysterious is why this trend of young seekers favoring Orders based on Equality would be mysterious to anyone, in 2018. In an age of global culture and rising concern for equal rights for all people, the idea of a “Men-Only Club” seems inherently antiquated. To many young minds, it probably calls forth an image of stodgy old Victorian gentlemen, puffing pipes and pontificating through monocles in leather armchairs over how best to maintain their power and wealth, with wives obediently cooking after-Lodge dinner, nearby. I mean no offense to our masculine Masonic Brothers (and we do consider them Brothers, whether they recognize us or not), but this is a very real perception and state of affairs which is, perhaps in more symbolic ways than one, an elephant in the Lodge.
Pancakes Are Only Slightly Magical
However, in this author’s opinion, while inequality is one of, if not the primary factor, there are other major differences which are contributing to Co-Masonic success and mainstream Masonry’s decline, as well. After speaking to Masons who have been members of both, or have transitioned over, I believe I can accurately point out another huge problem facing Masonry, today. One of the major complaints about mainstream Masonry is that it doesn’t deliver what the seekers drawn to it are looking for. Around the turn of the 20th century, Masonic organizations shifted their focus to charity instead of esoteric matters, mostly in response to growing anti-masonic sentiments, often associated with religious fundamentalism, and suspicions of the occult. Now, huge portions of time in the meetings are consumed with business matters and planning charitable events such as pancake breakfasts, and relatively little is devoted to esoteric study. While charity is ultimately a worthy and necessary aspect of Masonry, it’s not really what most of us come to the Fraternity looking for.
No, there are any number of charitable organizations out there which any young person can join, if they simply want to help/feed/educate people, which don’t involve commitments to secrecy, hours of memorization, and participation in rituals. What young people approaching Masonry today are seeking is more along the lines of guidance in their personal development, spiritual brotherhood, and revelations of arcane knowledge preserved against the eroding forces of time and religious suppression. The unfortunate fact is that masculine Masonry is generally not delivering on that promise, while Universal Co-Masonry emphasizes these things above all else.
Evolution or Extinction
Ultimately, the challenge facing Freemasonry today is the same as the challenge which has always faced every organism throughout all time: evolve, or go extinct; adapt, or fade away; iterate, or fail the market; upgrade, or become obsolete; sink, or swim. I really believe it is as simple as that. As we know from biological evolution, the branches of the evolutionary tree which will survive are those which are most suited to their environments. At one point, our rodent-like ancestors were not so different from their dinosaur cousins, but the differences they did have were a matter of life and death, the difference between inheriting the Earth, or fading into oblivion.
Luckily, the fate of Masonry today does not have to be determined by slow mutation, but rather, the willingness of each individual Mason to cast off the dry, scaly husk of the rigid, unequal, and mundane aspects of Masonry, and walk hand-in-hand with Brothers of all genders and creeds into a new dawn of spiritual enlightenment. If we wish to pass on the treasures which the Craft represents and guide humanity to a higher state of existence, it is the only way. So mote it be.
Two Trajectories For American Freemasonry: Consolidation Or Implosion By Brother Lance Kennedy
Once upon a time, there were two cities. One city was called Detroit and the other Pittsburgh. Both cities experienced untold prosperity during the first half of the twentieth century. Detroit became the nation’s automotive manufacturing hub while Pittsburgh was “Steel City,” America’s forge. For decades the two cities prospered, but in the late-1960s the global economy changed, and the cities and their region, the Steel Belt, began a rapid decline. The Steel Belt became the Rust Belt as its population dwindled and economy dried up. Detroit lost over 56 percent of its population between 1970 and 2016 while Pittsburgh lost 42 percent during the same period. The two cities were dying, that is declining at a rapid pace that left unabated would result in total ruin. Their citizenries wondered what could be done to reverse the trend. One city chose one path, while the other chose another, and the results tell the tale of their respective implosion and redemption. I promise to return to this tale, but in the meantime, I ask your leave to venture back into our ongoing discussion regarding the decline of Freemasonry. ...any organization that is struggling with its identity, losing members, and bleeding revenue must immediately focus on excelling at its most basic functionI am writing this article on the heels of my recent piece entitled “Freemasonry is Dying.” In the first week after being released the article received over 20,000 individual views and hundreds of shares across Facebook and other social media platforms. I am humbled by the numerous messages sent to me from like-minded brothers from around the world. I wish to thank every brother who read the article and helped begin a conversation about what must be done to reverse our downward trajectory. More than a few brothers replied to my analysis one way or another, many writing articles of their own, which I applaud. Some agreed with my contention that “Freemasonry is dying,” while others argued that the Craft will hit an equilibrium and level off in terms of absolute membership, so there is really no need to fret. Still others claim that I am incorrect in my assertion that the Craft may be on a terminal decline and in fact, we have already hit our nadir. I find it hard to argue that an institution that has lost 75 percent of its membership in fifty-nine years is not dying, but others may disagree. In 2044 there might be a handful of Masons left, but I would not consider the Fraternity to be really living, but rather walking dead. After all, there are numerous historic examples of mystery traditions that thrived for a period then disappeared without a trace, two examples being the Eleusinian Mysteries and the cult of Mithras. Why think Freemasonry is immune from their fate? Now that the dust is settled, voices have calmed, and passion subsided, I wish to clarify what I wish to achieve by writing my last article as well as address the two trajectories before us as a Fraternity, one of intentional consolidation and another of haphazard implosion. My clarion call that “Freemasonry is dying” was intended to shake the reader to his core with the raw data gleaned from the Masonic Service Association of North America’s (MSANA) database. The MSANA’s data, comprised of roughly three-thousand data points, show a steep decline in our membership since our numerical apogee in 1959. Not only has the absolute number of Mason’s declined, but the percentage of the population claiming Masonic membership has declined as well. While I warn of the dangers of our shrinking membership, I have also been blunt about my aspirations for a smaller, more elite Craft that has shed itself of the excesses of the post-World War I and World War II eras (see “10 Propositions for Texas Freemasonry”). This seeming contradiction is not one in the slightest. I am not concerned that there are fewer Masons today than in 1959 or any time for that matter. My concern lies with the fact that we are attempting to hold together an aging infrastructure with fewer and fewer men, and wasting our time and treasure in the process. As our numbers decline, which will continue to do so for the next decade or more, we must come to terms with the fact that an organization built to function with over four million Masons cannot do so with less than one million men. Not only an organization that requires many men to operate, but one that has largely refused to recalculate its pricing and overhead since the mid-twentieth century. We cannot maintain the infrastructure of 1959 in 2018 let alone in 2030. We certainly cannot do so with dues based on incomes from the 1960s (e.g. $120 per year) and endowments (i.e. lifetime memberships) priced in the $500 to $1000 range. Now that I have smashed my data-encrusted sledgehammer over your head, and the heads of tens of thousands of other readers, I want to impart my honest conviction that the way to Masonic deliverance is by rapid and intentional consolidation. As promised at the onset of this article, and since I am a man of my word, I will return to the tale of the two cities called Detroit and Pittsburgh, which holds important lessons for our fair institution. In 2013 New York Times columnist Paul Krugman asked the following question in an article titled “A Tale of Two Rust-Belt Cities”: “[I]s the crisis in Detroit simply a function of the industrial decline of the U.S. heartland, or is it about internal developments within the metro area that have produced a uniquely bad outcome?” The author states that both Detroit and Pittsburgh possessed “iconic monolithic” economies and both cities’ metropolitan areas experienced comparable declines in their labor markets from 1970 to 1990. From 1990 to as late as 2006, “the eve of the Great Recession — you could argue that there wasn’t a whole lot of difference in aggregate performance between greater Pittsburgh and greater Detroit.” However, after 2006, Detroit’s economy plummeted while Pittsburgh weathered the storm.
Krugman concludes his column with the following statement, “It’s hard to avoid the sense that greater Pittsburgh, by taking better care of its core, also improved its ability to adapt to changing circumstances… If you like, sprawl killed Detroit, by depriving it of the kind of environment that could incubate new sources of prosperity.” A study released by the Brookings Institute in 2013 substantiates Krugman’s thesis. Greater Detroit topped the list of metro areas with the most decentralized, that is sprawling, labor forces. In 2013, only 7.3 percent of greater Detroit’s non-farm workers were within 3 miles of its central business district (CBD), while 77.4 percent of its workers were over 10 miles from its core. In comparison, 25.2 percent of Pittsburgh’s workers were within 3 miles of its CBD while 45.2 percent were over 10 miles away. “Now, Lance,” you may ask, “what about other sprawling cities like Dallas or Los Angeles? They haven’t seen the same decline as Detroit.” You are correct, however, unlike Dallas or Los Angeles, Detroit was hemorrhaging people as it sprawled. To quote one writer, “[Detroit] was drawing existing residents from the center to the periphery. Homes in the central city were abandoned — and the tax revenues that came from those households evaporated. Detroit, unlike some of its wealthy suburbs in Oakland County, only saw one side of this migration — the losing side. And it was poorly equipped to deal with the fallout.” What I glean from these articles is that after a period of long-term decline sets in, or rather the beginning stages of death, which we call dying, a city or an organization is left with the paths of Detroit or Pittsburgh. We can choose to be like Detroit and attempt to maintain a sprawling edifice, figurative or literal, while simultaneously experiencing a shortage of revenue. The alternative is to follow the path of Pittsburgh and take care of our core at the expense of the periphery. In short, any organization that is struggling with its identity, losing members, and bleeding revenue must immediately focus on excelling at its most basic function. In Masonic terms, the initiatic process, or rather, making Masons. What I will now prescribe is the bitter pills of truth that so many refuse to swallow:
We must accept the fact that Freemasonry is in extremely unhealthy condition, losing membership at a rapid pace, and attempting to maintain an infrastructure designed for a much larger membership base. In other words, accept that we are dying, though we are not yet dead. Any attempt to soften this conclusion is a practice in euphemism.
We must make the difficult decision to cut off and remove recognition from any and all organizations that do not make Masons or support the initiatic experience, namely the Order of the Eastern Star, DeMolay, Rainbow Girls, and the like. These institutions must stand or fall on their own merit. Other appendant bodies must be evaluated on an individual basis.
We must consolidate lodges in areas experiencing rapid decline. Such consolidation must occur in urban as well as rural counties. Most counties need only one lodge. In most areas multiple adjacent lodges saturate the market and create negative competition for fewer and fewer initiates.
We must sell off buildings requiring millions of dollars to repair, especially those that are used once or twice a year, and when used are filled at half-capacity. For example, if a Grand Lodge’s building is in disrepair and requires $18,000,000 to restore, the Grand Lodge should make the determination that the building is a liability on its balance sheet and cut its losses. The Grand Lodge could purchase a smaller structure for its administrative uses and rent a hotel and conference center for its communications.
We must demand that our constituent lodges meet certain minimum standards of dress, ritual, and general decorum. Our populations are increasingly professional and urban. They demand a certain level of formality and rigor. For example, Texas’ population is roughly 85 percent urban and 15 percent rural. It is essential that we meet the needs of the areas where we can see the greatest potential growth.
Finally, we must understand the needs of the men of Generation Z. So much focus has been placed on what Millennials want, and rightly so, since they are the largest generation in the United States. However, the oldest members of Generation Z are now eighteen years old and are now eligible for membership in our Fraternity. After hundreds of conversations with young Masons, my guess is that the next crop of initiates will want similar things out of the Fraternity as Millennial men, namely the mysteries delivered in a formal, mystical, and demanding manner.
Our Fraternity may be dying because of external factors, but our condition was clearly exacerbated by internal ones. While we may be dying, we are not yet dead, and there is a way out of our present malaise. The way is to follow the example of the City of Pittsburgh by acknowledging our decline, consolidating down to our most basic core, and doing our most simple functions extremely well. The alternative is to be the fraternal version of Detroit, sprawling, mismanaged, constantly experiencing budget shortfalls, and failing to deliver the most basic services. We have two paths before us. Which shall be choose? I echo what Dickens wrote in his A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
As Masons our pride in our Fraternity stems, in no small part, from our belief that Masonry is the same as it was 300 years ago, and we report with pride our glorious history and point to the great achievements of those brothers who came before us, those many years ago. But we must reflect honestly upon the current state of this Honored Fraternity. Where are the social and political leaders who take our values and give voice to our moral teachings? Where are the entertainers, who with reverence, boldly proclaim their belief and commitment to Masonry? Do any of you remember Red Skelton? He was at the top of the entertainment field for Decades, never a curse word or hateful comment, and at the end of his TV show, he would sign off by saying…….” God Bless”. He was a Mason, and proud of it. Give me the name of one Politician, one musician, one actor, or any other famous person of today, who is a Mason?
Today, we are more likely to hear a politician spew hate and lies in hurtful ways rather then seek moral and just compromise and togetherness. You can’t listen to a popular comedian, actor, singer, or other performer without hearing a barrage of foul language, belittling of others, or hurtful statements towards their fellow human beings. Why? Why is there such a marked contract between the present and just 40 years ago. I believe It has to do with the moral compass of our society.
So now, let us speak of the Part Masonry played, if any, in this tragedy. There is no question that Masonry today is not the same as existed when the First Premier Grand Lodge was organized in England in the early 18th century. Even as we proclaim our history and our profound influence upon our society, and the role which Freemasonry played. We are NOT the same Fraternity which produced presidents and other great statesman around the world. Freemasonry isn’t even the same as existed 50, 40, or even 30 years ago. Yes, our rituals, teaching, and beliefs have not changed, but our significance and influence in our society has waned. What changed? More importantly what needs to change? I believe the fundamental change is a decline in the moral fabric of our society. This will not be turned around until and when, there is an outcry from the citizens that enough is enough. We are not alone in our fall from influence. Churches, synagogues, and other places of worship have also suffered their loss of influence as have other fraternal and benevolent organizations. It would take a genius to point to the incipient cause of this decline. One thing is certain, if this trend continues as has been the case for the last 50 years, there will not be a significant number of churches or other organization such as the Masons, who will be around to teach young people how to be guided by a moral compass.
We as Mason, and all the other Good organizations, are not going to turn this around, simply by existing. It will take a National Crises to move the moral compass of this Nation. Let me give you an example of where such a crisis did occur. In 1945 the Soviets occupied Poland, imposed a communist government upon the people, and ruled from the Kremlin with an iron fist. For over 40 years Poland was a communist state, churches and synagogues were banned, and a public proclamation of your faith could land you in jail or worse. Now, a few decades after the fall of communism in Poland, that country boast 92% of its population as being “religious”. During the communist period, churches didn’t disappear, yes attendance was down, but they were there, keeping the faith, ready to welcome back the people. The lesson to be learned here is that Masonry cannot be allowed to fail in any way. We must continue to be viable and available when, we as a nation, are ready and able to embrace the teachings of leading a moral life. Masonry is a living teacher in an unbroken tradition of hundreds of years. The fraternity of Masonry is the way society should work when society works well. Early masons were not innovators in the respect that they invented virtuous behavior or morality, but rather they distilled what was already known into concise teachings of already old and ancient beliefs. They knew that it is virtue and morality that binds a society together and in the absence of such behavior, there is chaos and destruction. It is our ritual and social fraternity which bind us together, but larger it binds society together. Our overruling power is education and teaching and our mission now, should be to stay relevant.
Just like all other pendulum swings throughout history, I am personally convinced that our society, when they had enough of unsavory behavior, enough of the moral vacuum, enough of the stick it to your neighbor behavior, the pendulum will swing. And when it does, Masons will be ready. Ready with our ability to teach about ethical behavior, ready with our working tools and our spirit to embrace those future brothers who will come to us for the lessons of Masonry, which have for so long been passed from generation to generation. The basis of a society should not be laws alone, but an established morality embedded in the society. We are among the few worldwide organizations who have the ability help make this possible. To do this we need to grow our craft, stay relevant, ever ready, and always keeping our faces pointed toward the light so we will not view darkness ever again. Without virtue and virtuous behavior, a society is morally bankrupt. The ideal is universal brotherhood among mankind and I believe Masonry will once again play a leading role towards this ideal, but we must stay relevant, we must stay active, we must continue to grow and not shrink, and we must send our message of brotherly love to all who are willing to listen. There are many men who are good decent men, let’s find them and bring them into our band of Brothers.