Although still in its early years, the Universities Scheme has grown and expanded, not so much like a balloon, but rather more like an inflated rubber glove. The thought that university masonry would spread in predictable and orchestrated fashion is one that I abandoned in the first few months of the Scheme’s existence, when it became swiftly apparent that it would take on its own life and character, irrespective of what intentions we had for it. We are now seeing lodges taking up participation not only across England and in areas of South Wales but also, potentially, beyond these shores, wherever the writ of Grand Lodge runs.
The stated aim of the Universities Scheme is to establish or enhance opportunities for undergraduates and other university members to join and enjoy Freemasonry. What that means in practice is creating a network of lodges, each linked to a university to whose suitable members it will offer lodge membership, even while undergraduates and even if under twenty-one. Participating lodges adapt their way of operating to ensure that they are truly undergraduate-friendly, whatever that may mean in the context of their university. As I write, there are twenty-one lodges in the Scheme, but that figure will soon be out of date.
Although, at the outset, Provinces were approached and lodges were invited to participate, it is now many months since the scope for lodges to apply to participate was first announced and since that offer was first taken up. The Scheme has long outgrown its Steering Group’s capacity to provide one-to-one coordinator support for every lodge. That transformation, which has depended crucially on the skill and enthusiasm of key individuals, both in the lodges themselves and in provincial executives, has allowed the Group to focus its time and resources on the critical issues that are common to university lodges and to university masons.
The critical issues to address
One such issue is how to retain young masons when they leave university and move on. In the Universities Scheme, retention is a subject of special significance as graduates will often move many hundreds of miles to settle into their new lives as young professionals. Unless the Craft takes care to avoid it, the chance that those young masons will lose contact with their lodge is high.
For that reason, we are creating a structure to ensure that university masons will always have a ready welcome into a lodge within easy distance of their new abode, at least while they stay in England or Wales, albeit that ‘easy distance’ takes on a special meaning for those who choose to dwell on the Lizard or the Lleyn Peninsular.
Scheme lodges have an important mentoring duty to provide detailed advice and practical support for their young members’ future masonic careers. In most cases, and particularly for London-bound graduates, a lodge will develop a few ‘standard’ routes which are expected to become well trodden in time.
The link with London is especially important, as that is the destination for a large proportion of graduates. There, the Steering Group has identified a number of ‘receptor’ lodges whose character makes them suitable for graduates moving to the area, and in the vanguard of these are the Lodge of Honour and Generosity, No.165; Phoenix Lodge, No.173; and Tetragon Lodge, No.6302. All of these meet in Great Queen Street. For graduates moving elsewhere, Scheme lodges exist in many cities and may be able to offer them membership.
Many graduates will find that their old school has a lodge, many of which are affiliated to the Federation of School Lodges or the Public School Lodges’ Council, while some universities have lodges for their alumni that meet in London. Graduates can also look to their future careers when identifying a suitable receptor lodge, as many ‘specialist’ lodges welcome members of particular professions. Meanwhile, in London, the Connaught Club is an informal social group for younger masons which meets regularly and is well placed to offer advice.
The process of retaining these young men in masonry involves an element of altruism for Scheme lodges. It is a duty to the Craft in general rather than to their own immediate well-being, and includes the need to stay in touch even after a graduate has moved on.
If that represents the present and perhaps the immediate future, what will these arrangements look like in ten or twenty years? Will the receptor lodges grow out of all recognition? That will depend on a number of factors, the most important of which is whether that is their wish.
Were each receptor to receive half a dozen joining graduates per year, in ten years they would be well above average size with many joiners not offered the opportunity to take office. Is that a problem? Yes and no. Large lodges can provide much enjoyment, as the Grand Stewards’ Lodge with its four hundred members can well attest. Progressive office is not universal and receptor lodges may choose to introduce alternatives to that norm. They may also recognise that one function that they perform is as a conduit, or perhaps bridgehead, in the graduate’s new location, providing the opportunity to meet other masons locally and to join other lodges.
Receptor lodges may resolve at some point that they need to change their status once more and withdraw from that perticular role, either permanently or temporarily, while digesting their new cohort of members.
Or they may operate on the basis of an annual limit to avoid the problem, but in doing so forego the benefit of a prompt build-up of members of similar age and aspiration, with its valuable scope for attracting the like-minded. There are many questions; there will be many different solutions.
The Universities Scheme has always avoided, and will continue to avoid, prescription. The Steering Group’s role is to guide and encourage, never to rule, the lodges that participate in the Scheme. Each lodge, having made its own decision to take part, determines its own course to achieving the Scheme’s objective. And with that number growing as it is, the future looks fascinating and very bright.