Canadian Press, June 21, 2003
TORONTO (CP) – As far as frat groups go, they’re not exactly what anyone would describe as “with it.” In fact, they can’t even be called refreshingly retro, since their ancient rituals date back to the Industrial Revolution.
The Freemasons are old and their ancient traditions are threatening to keep them that way, fear leaders of the secret society who say it’s time to lift the veil on closely guarded rituals and start luring young recruits.
“The World War II veterans that swelled the ranks of Freemasons are starting to die off,” bemoans Stephen Dafoe, an Alberta Mason who writes books and edits an Internet newsletter about the men’s group.
“There are some lodges back east that I frequently visited that were really having a hard time and they were so starved for members you were seeing one or two, or even three, lodges go in together and do what they call an amalgamation.”
With the average age of Canadian Masons hovering in the mid-60s, the danger of the secret society dying off has grand masters doing what was previously unthinkable – placing recruitment ads in newspapers and forming public relations divisions for tactics on how to sell Masons to a new generation.
At a national conference in Winnipeg last April, discussion papers included Crisis in Masonry: “Highlighting that our failure to adapt to the present is resulting in decreasing membership and devaluation of the Craft,” and Public Awareness: in which “community involvement is the method of promoting the cause.”
Ideas for quick fixes include one-day classes in which the ancient three-month process of initiation is compressed into a convenient drive-through format for today’s busy young man.
The idea is a controversial one, with many Masons fearing the push to increase membership will dilute principles of brotherly love, relief and truth.
“I’m dead set against it,” says Dafoe, 41, who joined a Belleville, Ont. lodge 12 years ago. “Each degree has a certain amount of memory work that the candidate has to remember. Then he has to prove that he remembers that stuff before he takes the next degree. When you slam them through all in one day . . . I don’t think that it makes long-term committed members.”
“If they don’t have the time to take the degrees in the normal fashion – one a month or one every couple of months – then they certainly won’t have the time to come out and attend and support their lodge on a regular basis.”
About 75 candidates took the one-day class in Montreal earlier this year, says Philippe Decelles, chairman of public relations at a Montreal lodge.
Whether the measure is successful in retaining new members has yet to be seen, but Decelles was not optimistic of the tactic, more commonly seen in the United States.
“Of course it’s very easy, all they do is sit on the side and listen,” the 75-year-old Decelles complained. “They don’t do anything.”
What it is exactly that recruits are made to study is still closely guarded. However, the original “Secrets of Masonry” are likely nothing more than building trade secrets and passwords that took the place of union dues cards when the fraternity formed in 1717 England.
Today, secrecy largely revolves around acts of philanthropy, says Karim-Aly Kassam, a University of Calgary professor in communications and culture who is quick to dispute persistent rumours the group has more to do with religious cults, world domination and sacrificial goats.
“The mystique of (Masonry being) something secretive has been made a little bit too much of – especially in our liberal democratic society, it’s not possible,” says Kassam, noting Masons in Canada must register in municipal rosters.
“If you did a Web search you would find out exactly what rituals they use and what words they use because that information in our 21st century society is available.”
In a recent TV cartoon parody, Homer Simpson joins the “Stonecutters” and learns they keep the metric system down, the existence of aliens under wraps and Steve Guttenberg’s acting career afloat.
Dafoe says real Masons more likely keep busy organizing charity efforts, golf tournaments and family picnics.
Still, membership has declined steadily across North America, with the most recent statistics revealing 3,148 fewer Canadian Masons in 2001 than the previous year. In 2001, there were 111,898 Canadian Masons, nearly half of them – 62,297 – residing in Ontario, the country’s most populous province.
Trends are similar in the United States, where there were 1,774,200 Masons in 2001, down from 4,103,161 in 1959 – the highest point since records were kept in 1925.
It’s not easy keeping up with the times – or even this century – when 300-year-old traditions demand members preserve rituals and ceremonies dating back to the industrial age.
Despite the push to include young initiates, today’s secret meetings still kick it 18th century-style to maintain ritual authenticity and each lodge’s links to other chapters around the world, says Dafoe.
“It’s very difficult to update the fraternity to be a little more in keeping with the times. You have a tradition and some of the things in Freemasonry do seem to be a little archaic,” he says.
But the unwritten rule in which Masons are forbidden from inviting non-Masons to join is softening, says Dafoe.
“I don’t see anything wrong with the fraternity asking someone that we really feel would make a good member or at least talking to them about it,” he says.
The Masons’ membership woes are far from unique, with their declining rosters mirroring trends in other fraternal organizations.
Freemasonry ranks burst through the seams after the Second World War when men coming out of the army were looking for the kind of fellowship and camaraderie they had in the barracks.
In the 1950s, it was also easier for men to attend evening lodge meetings because life was simpler then, says Dafoe. Today, several lodges have adapted to busier lifestyles by offering daytime or weekend meetings.
“Now we have both members of the family working and paying for big-screen TVs and whatnot,” says Dafoe.
“With stores being open nine till nine, a lot of the younger potential members that work retail simply can’t come to a meeting. . . . There are more demands on the individual’s time today and I think that’s probably the biggest problem that we’ve had with the younger members.”
At age 27, Shawn Hartman is the youngest member of the lodge in Hinton, Alta., a community of roughly 10,000 people about 270 kilometres west of Edmonton.
He joined in January after meeting several Masons through his computer business, deciding he had a lot to learn from his elders.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my youth,” said Hartman, who is married with a 16-month-old son.
“I find that the friends I have, although they are a lot older, have usually made the same mistakes I have or are going to and I can learn.”