Changing faces

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.’

Feel connected

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.’   

Inspiring change

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.’

Published in Features

The national and the London chairmen of the Universities Scheme, Edward Lord and Julian Soper, give some advice on how to recruit and retain younger members

Of our members across the English constitution, only nine per cent are aged under forty. To put that percentage in perspective, it is three thousand less than the number of members we have aged over eighty. Indeed, the vast bulk of our members are aged between fifty and eighty. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with these figures, it does set a generational challenge with fifty-five per cent of our members in, or reaching, retirement. If the average age of reaching the chair is sixty-three, one can assume that most lodge decision makers are near to, or in retirement, which leads one to question the degree of representation younger members have. So how do we attract younger men to join masonry?

Simple steps

Research we conducted found that masonry is in increasing competition with many other calls on the leisure time of prospective members. It is also clear that it is less easy for those in employment to leave their workplace early in order to get to a lodge meeting. Nor for that matter do younger brethren want to stay late all the time – something that is equally true of more senior members.

Many successful lodges don’t start their work until 6 or 6.30pm in the evening and they still finish in good time to get home at a reasonable hour. They do this by taking a number of simple steps. Some, for example, don’t process in and out of the lodge. Most circulate rather than read their minutes, and do the same for the Almoner’s and Charity Steward’s reports.

All of the above not only cuts down the time taken by the formal proceedings, but also increases the pace of a meeting. However, it is not as simple as saying that time commitments should be reduced. Regular meetings, often informal, and involving members’ partners, can be important in fostering a feeling of membership. A good mentor should greatly assist in helping a new member to feel he belongs, and the formal creation of lodge mentor as a lodge office should help ensure that this happens.

The language we use to describe Freemasonry is key to it having a broader appeal, as is dispelling many of the myths that still surround us as an organisation. Being able to describe in simple laymen’s terms what Freemasonry is about is crucial; emphasising the social side of our activities as well as the contributions we make to society, both through our charitable activities and by helping each individual mason to become the best person he can be.

Much to offer

Experience has shown that, approached correctly, young men – indeed men of all ages – find considerable appeal in joining an organisation that is secular, multi-faith, cross denominational and shares their values. Indeed, in explaining Freemasonry to new and potential members, a lodge should consider emphasising the lifetime friendships, development possibilities and new experiences that are on offer.

So where exactly do we get these new younger members from? Of course, the basic approach of ‘member-get-member’ remains the best. But some lodges, particularly those that are affiliated to a school or university, find that discreet advertisements letting people know they exist often attract initial enquiries. And in some cases, the adverts are less discreet. The Province of West Lancashire took the back page of last year’s Freshers’ Handbook, which went out to over twenty-thousand students in Liverpool. That resulted in a bumper crop of candidates for the University Lodge of Liverpool.

Many enquiries are now coming through the internet. Every day we receive hundreds of hits on the Grand Lodge, Provincial and lodge specific sites, which then translate into expressions of interest from prospective members. This is rapidly becoming one of the most important marketing methods for the Craft. So if your lodge doesn’t yet have a website, then it should consider investing in one.

Communication is crucial but lodges that have successfully spanned the generations have other attributes as well, not least in making new members feel welcome. Involvement in ceremonies is also important, but involve them at a pace that is right for them – don’t force them up the ladder.

And if you find you have a masonic star in waiting, let him move forward quickly as the chances are he could help ensure the future of your lodge.

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR - NO. 23 Autumn 2013

Sir,

As a young Freemason (thirty years old), I felt compelled to respond to the letter by Harry Sykes in the recent edition of Freemasonry Today. I was initiated into my lodge (Lodge of Asaph, No. 1319) in 2008 and am currently the installed Master of the lodge. 

Whilst brother Sykes makes an extremely valid point that no-one wishes to be suffering through ceremonies where the ritual is poor, I don’t subscribe to the view that this is a result of younger masons being fast-tracked to the chair. Yes, there may well be an element of this occurring, but this is surely a more widespread problem of lodges being unable to keep up to date and attract new, higher calibre brethren. 

In fact, brother Harris-Cooksley makes a fine point on the same letters page that his lodge has been adapting to the times and people are being promoted based on merit and ability. I know of many young Freemasons, who are superb ritualists and do put in the time and effort to learn, perfect and polish their performance in lodge. I certainly take pride in my ability to perform the ritual and to understand the meaning behind it. 

Equally, I have seen many masons who have been in lodges far longer than ten years whose ritual is poor. Instead of a ten-year barrier to entry, surely a progression to the chair should be based on ability, young or old? 

Dan Roback, Lodge of Asaph, No. 1319, London 


Sir,

I read with interest Harry Sykes’s letter in the summer 2013 edition regarding falling standards. He seems to be blaming it on new brethren getting to the chair too quickly and suggests a new rule that you have to be in Freemasonry for ten years before being allowed to take the chair.

I feel in this regard the last thing we need is more rules. I was installed in under five years from my initiation. I’m sure I can hear ‘tut tut, shouldn’t be allowed’, but with the encouragement of my proposer, I visited at least as often as attending my own lodge, I joined chapter, I read and most importantly, I hardly missed a lodge of instruction.

I was one of three initiates who joined in consecutive years; there was a tiny bit of competitiveness between us when performing at lodge of instruction and also lots of support. We were all inspired by our preceptor who earned our respect by using a carrot NOT a stick; each of us conducted a first, second and third ceremony before taking the chair and we even held our own lodge of instruction in the summer. Since becoming a Past Master, I have been Director of Ceremonies for eight years; the other two have served as Secretary.

How to inspire brethren: by Past Masters setting an example with their ritual; by holding regular lodges of instruction with a good number of Past Masters present to support the brethren; not forcing junior brethren to rise up through the offices just to prevent another Past Master from taking the chair; and not being afraid to hold them back if you feel they need a bit more experience.

Remember we are all different. I felt very ready for the chair and holding me back for some arbitrary period may well have had an adverse effect.

Paul Gosling, William de Warenne Lodge, No. 6139, Uckfield, Sussex


Letters to the editor - No. 21 Spring 2013

The future of Freemasonry 

Sir,

This year the Master, Senior Warden, Junior Warden, Inner Guard and Stewards of our lodge are all in their twenties. I joke that I feel the years – at my ripe old age of twenty-eight.

I read with great enthusiasm the article entitled ‘No Time To Be Retiring’ in the winter 2012 publication. Of particular interest and surprise was the startling fact that maybe ‘only nine per cent [of Freemasons] are aged under forty’.

Being part of the Universities Scheme has undoubtedly helped attract young men to our lodge, but this by no means tells the whole story. The traditional approach of ‘member-get-member’ is strongly encouraged and utilised. It has been remarked by our visitors over the years that our lodge has a very special atmosphere and feeling. Indeed, the presence of young men in the lodge allows our numerous and distinguished past masters to impart their knowledge and experience. They teach, and our lodge is the richer for it – Lodges of Instruction really are an education in masonic knowledge.

Candidates, young or old, who approach and join our lodge form part of a close circle of friends. Our newer brethren are encouraged to progress at their own pace, and to attend our social events whenever possible. Whether it be open lodge or the Festive Board, age really isn’t an issue. We have Freemasons who are knowledgeable and those with much to learn. We move forward as one, and are reminded of our lodge motto, which is translated from the original Latin: ‘The one light brings us together in comradeship’.

We have embraced the web and social media and look forward to our eightieth anniversary in 2014, as well as Grand Lodge’s three-hundredth anniversary celebrations in 2017. We are fortunate, and the future promises to be bright.

Ben Gait, Universities Lodge, Cardiff, No. 5461, Cardiff, South Wales


Keeping up standards

Sir, 

I read with interest the article ‘No Time To Be Retiring’ in the winter 2012 edition. While the I concur with the sentiments expressed by Edward Lord and Julian Soper, I take issue with the suggestion that lodges should consider dispensing with the processions in and out of the temple in order to save time, as is apparently the way forward of some lodges. Indeed, most past master lodges do not process in, but in my experience mostly process out. If we go down the road of continually reducing the time spent in the temple we will lose the traditions and the history of lodges. Cutting down the time taken by ceremonial proceedings will deprive the new masons of the solemnity of the Craft.

Barry A Fennings, Merchant Navy Lodge, No. 781, London


Sir,

I have read with interest the recent letters regarding ‘keeping up standards’.

I wonder if falling standards in some lodges is a contributory factor in the reduction in their membership. Young Freemasons to whom I have spoken clearly did not join Freemasonry to participate in slipshod lodge workings and noisy conduct at the Social Board. Equally, older brethren do not want to see a lodge taken over by brethren to whom learning the ritual is a bore or who find the social side of Freemasonry is not what they or their partners expect.

When young men are installed in the Chair after a few years, as opposed to the fourteen to fifteen years it took yesteryear, their approach to Freemasonry can be somewhat limited and they may see promotion to higher rank as theirs by right, as their masonic education has been neglected. Perhaps ten years of membership should be a minimum for Masters of a lodge?

I consider we rank and file Freemasons fortunate to have a platform like Freemasonry Today in which we can express our views for consideration by the brethren.

Harry Sykes, Ben Brierley Lodge, No. 3317, Middleton, East Lancashire

 

 

 

 

 

Published in Speeches

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