As Freemasonry searches for new ways to build membership, Sarah Holmes learns what insights were revealed at an innovative light blue clubs’ conference
On a crisp Saturday in late October, young Freemasons from across the country congregated at London’s Freemasons’ Hall. The event was the New and Young Masons Clubs’ Conference, organised to share knowledge and best practice about how to keep the next generation of masons engaged with the Craft.
Testament to the growth of ‘light blue’ clubs within Freemasonry, the conference was hosted by the Connaught Club, whose Chairman Mitchell Merrick-Thirlway is a strong advocate of the need to support Freemasons after they have joined a lodge. As rites of passage go, initiation is a definitive milestone for a mason. ‘I couldn’t sleep for a whole week before mine,’ admits Mitchell, who joined Lodge of Candour, No. 7663, in 2010. ‘The ceremony was beautiful. I couldn’t have been more excited to start learning about this ancient Order.’
When Mitchell discovered that his lodge wouldn’t be meeting for another three months, however, he was understandably disappointed. ‘I imagined we’d be meeting every week, learning about different aspects of Freemasonry, its history and getting to know one another,’ says Mitchell. ‘Fortunately, my lodge secretary told me about the Connaught Club.
‘I went along to the Friday social and discovered a whole new side to Freemasonry.’
Launched at a reception held by Metropolitan Grand Lodge in 2007, the Connaught Club was formed as a social club for masons under 35 years old who were eager to engage in a more active brand of Freemasonry. ‘There are lots of masonic events and trips to get involved with. Just this October, 15 of us went to Dublin to visit the Grand Master’s Lodge to witness a First Degree,’ says Mitchell.
‘I’ve experienced so much more of Freemasonry because of the Connaught Club,’ he continues. ‘The guys are constantly bouncing ideas off each other on Facebook, and inviting one another to their lodge meetings. It’s given me an outlet for the energy and excitement that I wanted to put into the Craft.’
Although a London-based social club, the concept has spread as far afield as Kuala Lumpur and South Africa, where ‘Connaught Clubs’ have also been formed. Today, the London club enjoys a membership of 284 Freemasons under 35 years old, with numbers on the rise. It even has its own lodge, Burgoyne Lodge, No. 902. In April 2015, just five years into his masonic career, Mitchell became Connaught Club Chairman.
‘The energy is one thing,’ says Mitchell. ‘But it’s also about meeting like-minded people. Brethren of a similar age can relate to each other’s lives more easily. The club is about complementing one’s Freemasonry, not replacing it.’
The need for this early support has become clear, as masonic social clubs are cropping up throughout the Provinces. The New and Young Masons Clubs’ Conference heralded the first formal meeting for this national network. ‘It’s a chance for Provinces to exchange ideas, and share the lessons learned from the establishment of their clubs,’ explains Mitchell.
But it’s not just young masons who are benefiting. Light blue clubs give new masons of any age the support they need to get the most out of Freemasonry from day one. As founder of the Southampton Light Blue Club, Andy Venn appreciates the challenges of integrating new masons into the Craft. ‘I remember how daunting it was to come into a lodge full of established, older Freemasons,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t young myself – I was 43 coming in – but most of the brethren were between 60 and 80 years old.’ Thanks to the Southampton Light Blue Club, new members are now greeted at the door by brethren and officially introduced to the lodge.
A social structure
Regular social events have played an important role in easing new members and their families into masonic life. From an impromptu drink down the pub through to organised lodge visits and trips to places of masonic interest, the structure is informal and unpressured. Masons can get involved as often as they like, and events are scheduled to fit around family and work commitments.
‘So far this year, we’ve had three really successful breakfast meetings. We invited British Superbike rider Kyle Wilks to talk, and after that the actor Jeremy Bulloch, who played the bounty hunter Boba Fett in the Star Wars films,’ says Andy, adding that it was a talk by Lance Bombardier Gary Prout, who won the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross for his service in Afghanistan, that really struck a chord with the Southampton masons. ‘When one of his comrades was hit by an explosive device, Gary ran out under Taliban fire to administer first aid and attempt to rescue him,’ recalls Andy. ‘It was an amazing story. He had 40 or so Freemasons with tears in their eyes.’
Having shared the story of his light blue club at the conference, Andy hopes other Provinces will be inspired to establish their own. ‘New Freemasons are our future. They bring a lot of value to the Craft. If we don’t stop this steady drip of younger masons leaving, we’ll stagnate.’
Retention is one benefit, but many clubs also offer a taste of masonic life for prospective members of the Craft. ‘We’ve seen a number of membership applications come off the back of our informal drinks receptions,’ says Ben Gait from Cardiff, who helped found the Colonnade Club in 2015. ‘They work well because there’s no pressure attached.’
For Ben, the conference has been fundamental in demonstrating the importance of the clubs to the rest of Freemasonry, particularly Grand Lodge.
‘If you look historically, things have tended to filter down from Grand Lodge to the Provinces. But the fact that members have organised themselves and grown this network organically says something about the changing face of Freemasonry.’
Indeed, the light blue clubs are more than an excuse for having a pint; they are actively building an organisation that’s fit for the 21st century.
Holding a social event
Andy: ‘Every time I try to get an evening social event together it falls flat. But our breakfast meetings work a treat, because they don’t intrude on family plans for the weekend.’
Ben: ‘It’s important to try different types of events. We organised a dinner at an all-you-can-eat buffet; it wasn’t the best-attended event, but the feedback we received gave us great ideas for the next one.’
Mitchell: ‘Charity events are a great way to unite people. This year, a group of us are rowing the length of the Thames on rowing machines to raise money for the mental health charity, Rethink.’