Sunday, 01 October 2006 01:00

Young Masons: The Universities' Scheme

A scheme to encourage undergraduates into Freemasonry is outlined by Oliver Lodge

It is said that young men have no interest in Freemasonry, that such formality is alien to youth and that the minimum age for initiation is ‘the full age of 21 years’. The trouble with generalisations such as these is that, generally, they are misleading.

We need to challenge the mantra; if we don’t, we are ignoring our own history and missing an important opportunity.

My hypothesis is that young men come in all shapes and sizes and that, perhaps surprisingly, large numbers are indeed interested in Freemasonry.

Those Masons lucky enough to have come across either Apollo University Lodge or Isaac Newton University Lodge will know very well that these two hugely successful Lodges attract substantial numbers of initiates every year from undergraduates at their two great universities. Both Apollo at Oxford and Isaac Newton at Cambridge have, in their own very different ways, proved to the Masonic world that young men can and do make exceptional Freemasons, producing many of the leaders of the English Craft today. And there is nothing hypothetical about that.

Likewise, age itself is not a barrier. Provincial Grand Masters have the authority to dispense with the traditional minimum age for initiation, as they have been doing for many years. This is no longer the rarity that it once was, and may well one day beg the question of the need for the continued existence of the regulation.

That may make clear why the Assistant Grand Master, David Williamson, has set up the Universities Scheme. That, and the fact that at present less than 800 of the many thousands of English Masons are under 25.

We live in a time of an aging population, but in the Craft our population is aging faster than most.

While one might be tempted to suppose that this arises because we Masons live life to the full and survive well, in reality it has rather more to do with our reluctance to make Freemasonry properly accessible to those who have not yet established their professional careers. The Universities Scheme is about to change all that.

In essence, the scheme is setting out to enable specified Lodges to appeal to undergraduates. More formally, the scheme’s objective is 'To establish and/or enhance arrangements and opportunities for undergraduates and other university members to join and enjoy freemasonry.'

To this end, the AGM has established a group of Masons, well below average age, but with vast experience of university Masonry, to promote the scheme. With the enthusiastic support of the Provinces in question, as well as the members of the scheme group, he has visited Lodges in Bath, Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Exeter, Oxford and Sheffield to invite them to participate in the scheme.

He also plans to visit Manchester in the autumn. Each of these visits has resulted in a Lodge devoted to becoming or firmly remaining open to undergraduates from that city’s university. In some cases that is a commitment amounting to a very real challenge for the Lodge in question.

It would, however, be a mistake to give the impression that Apollo and Isaac Newton are the only undergraduate Lodges in the country. At Durham, the Universities Lodge has been actively welcoming undergraduates to its fold over recent years. Likewise, St Vincent Lodge in Bristol and, to varying degrees, in other universities too. On all of this, the scheme intends to build.

Who can doubt that momentum is a wonderful thing? Apollo has been fortunate to have existed for nearly 200 years (indeed, there existed, even in the 18th century, a University Lodge in Oxford). Blessed with critical mass, established undergraduate Lodges just free-wheel, picking up initiates effortlessly as they go. Or so it seems.

In fact, while they may appear on the surface to glide like swans, they achieve it by paddling like fury under the surface.

Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that their existing undergraduate membership exerts a gravitational pull, reinforcing their daily efforts to ensure a healthy future. For those setting out on this path for the first time, the biggest hurdle is the first one. How are the first few undergraduates to be found?

A typical initiation path is that a chum will suggest that Masonry might interest the individual; he will be introduced early-on to other young members; he will meet the secretary and be given a fairly frank outline of what he can expect and what is expected of him. Very few do not proceed to initiation.

In seeking to answer that question more broadly, each participating Lodge is setting up a committee to determine its own unique approach. If that looks like successive wheel re-inventions, it is not quite so. The function of the scheme group is to provide to participating Lodges the benefit of the group’s collective experience and ideas.

But, more importantly, it is fundamental that each Lodge should resolve the question in the way that suits its own circumstances and customs. The AGM’s scheme has no intention of seeking to create clones across the country; rather the focus is that the objective should be achieved in a range of different ways, further enriching the diversity of Freemasonry and fully respecting the individuality of each Lodge.

Let me nevertheless offer a little of the thinking of the group. Recent experience has shown that a fair proportion of young initiates first made contact with Freemasonry through the internet. To some that will come as quite a surprise; others will have known or guessed that it was so.

But the conclusion must be that a website is a valuable thing. University Lodges must be prepared to be fairly public affairs; they must advertise without shame, to freshmen each year, using opportunities to promote Masonry in general. University Lodges should support undergraduate charities and ensure that such benevolence is known to the public. Another, probably unsurprising, feature of successful experience is the opportunity for undergraduates to meet the Lodge either over drinks or dinner, in order to acquire an impression of the people and, even more importantly, of Freemasonry itself.

The avoidance of un-undergraduatefriendly features is also significant. Careful consideration has to be given to costs, to dates and times, to early involvement of new joiners and many similar details of the Lodge’s administration.

In addition to all of this activity within the university Lodges, a valuable contribution to this theme is the recent pair of reductions in dues agreed by Grand Lodge, both for its own levy and for that of the Grand Charity.

All costs for undergraduates and other young men are magnified in their significance, whether they be subscriptions, dining fees or the price of regalia. With initiative and determination, ways can be found to ameliorate the burden.

It is also to be hoped that the profile of the scheme itself will result in an enhancement to the usual paternal or family-based encouragement. Where such suggestion might typically have awaited the initiate’s 30th birthday, it might now instead relate to establishing contact with the Lodge of an undergraduate’s university, ten years earlier.

Although the focus of the scheme is squarely on universities, everyone involved is very well aware of the relevance of it to young men outside university life. To them, Freemasonry should extend a similar welcome whenever and wherever the opportunity arises. Universities may represent merely the start to the process of Masonic involvement of a materially wider age-group.

There is no doubt that the scheme represents a project that will take many years to achieve its full potential. The challenge will be to continue to innovate, to continue to drive the programme in the face of occasional set-back and disappointment.
But with momentum, the scheme will deliver.

Oliver Lodge is chairman of The Universities Scheme Group

Published in UGLE

The following article is from a speech delivered by Laura Chapman, Grand Charity chief executive, at an evening hosted by the Grand Charity at Freemasons' Hall, London as part of Freemasonry in the Community week

My association with Freemasonry is very recent and confined to my role in the Grand Charity. 

My closest previous link, so my sister advised me when I was being interviewed for the job here, was that my Great Uncle Bill, from Buffalo, New York, had been a Mason some 50 years ago. Sadly, he died when I was very young and therefore was unable to share his Masonic experiences with me.

Before coming to work for the Grand Charity three years ago, my understanding of Freemasonry, its purpose and structure was, at best, limited. To the extent that I had perceptions at all, they were of an organisation that was introspective and secretive, and, therefore, was not likely to be of much use to anyone other than its members.

What a surprise I had!

I discovered that the Grand Charity alone over the past five years has made grants to charities of the wider community totalling nearly £11m. When the donations of the other central Masonic charities are included, that figure rises to £24m. This is before the donations made by Freemasons within their own communities through local and Provincial Lodges are considered.

No one has attempted to estimate the totality of Masonic giving to non-Masonic charities, but a conservative estimate would place the figure at well over £30m in this five-year period. In today's world of materialism and self-interest, one has to ask why Freemasons are so committed to community support?

The answer lies in the philosophical basis of the movement: a commitment to the three principles of Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth. Of these, the most important is charity: providing 'relief' for those who are less fortunate. These philosophical tenets are expressed practically by committed support for charitable activities, at both local Lodge and national level.

The Grand Charity is the central Masonic charity and is the primary vehicle for making grants to national charities, serving the wider communities of England and Wales.

The Grand Charity receives many hundreds of grant applications each year. Over the years, the council, or trustees, of the Charity have given a great deal of thought to which of these should be supported, and have developed policy guidelines for the selection of grants.

But, at a broader level, what is the Grand Charity trying to achieve on behalf of more than 300,000 Freemasons who support it? Five key objectives guide the grant-making policy of the Grand Charity.

First and foremost, is making a profound and significant difference for someone who is in great need.

Of the hundreds of applications made each year, those that receive priority are for people in the greatest distress, whose lives can be profoundly improved by our support.

The second key objective is realising as significant and widespread an impact as possible.

The Grand Charity seeks to support problems that are widespread in the population or changes that will ultimately bring benefits to many people, rather than a few people helped directly. Third is identifying areas of need that individual Freemasons and their families are worried about and affect their daily lives, and that they can then feel proud to be supporting.

The Grand Charity acts on behalf of all Freemasons in England and Wales and seeks to support those issues of the greatest concern to them and their families.

Fourth is offering opportunities for further involvement by local Lodges or individual Freemasons.

Many of the charities supported by the Grand Charity have offices throughout England and Wales and offer opportunities for volunteering or further involvement by local Lodges.

Finally, an objective that has become increasingly important in recent years is offering opportunities for the grants to be seen publicly to be making a genuine contribution to the well being of the wider community.

Raising public awareness about the charitable activities of Freemasons is a slow and difficult task, but one that most Masons believe to be very important.

Through the Grand Charity, the other central Masonic charities and the more than 8,000 Lodges throughout England and Wales, Masons are committing millions of pounds to help those who are less fortunate than themselves.

Published in The Grand Charity
Page 22 of 22

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