I am delighted to say that a few of the recipients of their first Grand Rank today have been in their eighties, as have many of those getting promotion, including one Brother in his nineties. All these Brethren are still going strong and continue to have much to offer.
It is customary at this meeting for the Presiding Officer to talk about the state of the Craft, which, because of declining numbers, has not always been a very happy story.
As you may know, at the end of each year, London and the Provinces provide many statistics which are then collated by the Grand Secretary’s department. This year has proved an exciting one in many respects, and while some Provinces are still suffering a decline in numbers, the overall figures are better than they have been for many years.
The most encouraging statistic is the increase of 286 in the number of initiations to 8,391, which is 3.5% up on last year. Apart from a small increase of 18 in 2001, this is the first annual increase in initiations since 1988.
Recruitment is important for our future but so is retention, and it is also encouraging that the figure for resignations and exclusions is 487 lower than in 2002. Overallmembership of the Craft has contracted by less than half a per cent to 319,725, while the number of individual Masons has risen by 0.7% to just over 274,000.
Interestingly, there are no clear membership trends in terms of size, geography or characteristics, but the smaller and more rural Provinces tend to have a larger average Lodge membership, and seem to be more successful in recruiting and retaining members.
It is also clear that Provinces which have an active policy of reducing the number of their Lodges in line with a reduction in members, are starting to report increases in initiates and reductions in the level of resignations and exclusions.
While I would be wary of saying that the membership decline of recent years appears to be bottoming out, nevertheless there are genuine signs of growth in many Provinces, which I hope we can build on this year.
There are many reasons why a Brother resigns from his Lodge, and although most of them we can do little about, some of them we can, particularly when it comes to making his Lodge night a more enjoyable and meaningful experience.
I have talked a lot this past year about how Freemasonry must adapt itself to fit the pressured lives of its newer members, bearing in mind that an initiate is likely to be in his late forties when he becomes a Master Mason.
For rituals to be entertaining and relevant they must be performed well, and in a manner that holds the attention of the Candidate and the audience. I particularly like going to meetings where the work is shared among different members of the Lodge, because it adds variety and increases the sense of brotherhood among those taking part.
None of our ceremonies should take more than one and a half to two hours or we have passed the attention span of most people, and yet we all know Lodges where meetings can last for considerably longer.
I am, therefore, delighted the Board has proposed measures to lessen the time taken to ballot for the Master and Treasurer, by allowing it to be by a show of hands if there is only one candidate and no-one objects. However, other savings in time will have to be contemplated by Lodges if they are to retain the interest of their members. There are many things we do which are not part of the actual ritual. These ‘extras’ crept into our ceremonies in the days when members could happily take a whole day off work for their Lodge meetings and time was not of concern.
Society has changed, and so must we if busy professional men are going to enjoy their masonry to the full. We must use the time available for the rituals and, if necessary, cut back on other parts of the meeting. Whatever we do outside of the rituals we should ask ourselves, firstly, whether it is really necessary, and secondly, whether it is enjoyable for our guests?
In some Provinces it has become the norm to salute every level of rank present at a meeting, which takes up much valuable time. Why not salute only the most senior Mason present and let him reply on behalf of everyone else? There are many ways of making our meetings shorter and more enjoyable for everyone, and all I ask is that Lodges are encouraged to debate this issue.
In the ceremony of dedicating a new Temple, the Dedicating Officer says ‘we trust that those who enter here for ceremonial work may go away raised and uplifted.’ Surely, Brethren, that should be our goal and the criterion upon which we judge the success or otherwise of what we do at our meetings.