The danger of going to the press to discuss Freemasonry can best be illustrated by what appeared this morning in Britain.
Something tells me that the United Grand Lodge of England had the very best of intentions when they invited the Independent reporter in to have a chin wag about their future plans and the upcoming tricentennial celebration next year. They were quite open and honest with the guy about declining membership numbers and their programs and policies designed to interest and retain potential millennial Masons in the fraternity. Indeed, the reporter included those strategies down in the article: the upcoming video, the Universities Scheme's 55 lodges, reduced dues prices, the redesigned logo (oy!), and all the rest did, in fact, get into print.
But in the very finest Fleet Street journalistic tradition, the playbook always requires a big sneer at Masonry right off the bat, and a few smaller ones sprinkled throughout (such as the obligatory "rolled up trouser leg" reference that is in almost every single story you can find in the UK press, the hidden inclusion of the word "conspiracy" in the hyperlink of the story, and of course, the requisite no-women mention). In this case it starts with the very headline that might just as well have been written for the Past Bastard parody website:
Older freemasons told to smile and stop criticising in bid to attract millennials: Senior brethren told to look like they are enjoying themselves as recruiting younger members is hailed as the new hope for halting the decline of freemasonry
Older freemasons are being told to smile, look like they are enjoying themselves, and avoid criticising as the movement seeks to keep millennial masons happy and halt a decline in membership that has seen lodges closing at a rate of nearly 100 a year for the past decade.
Pro Grand Master Peter Lowndes, second only to the Grand Master the Duke of Kent, the Queen’s cousin, told senior brethren gathered in the Grand Temple, wearing white gloves, aprons and, if suitably qualified, the Royal Arch Breast Jewel: “I am not for one minute suggesting we try to turn our meetings into a pantomime, but most certainly I am saying there is no harm in being seen to enjoy ourselves.”
Mr Lowndes, 68, an Old Etonian chartered surveyor, issued his plea as English and Welsh freemasonry takes the extraordinary step of welcoming in a documentary film crew while preparing to celebrate its 300th anniversary against a backdrop of steadily declining membership numbers.
Figures seen by show that the number of lodges on the register of the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE), the governing body of English and Welsh freemasonry, has gone down from 8,389 in 2006 to 7,401 today – equivalent to a loss of almost 99 lodges a year.
UGLE documents show that in the second quarter of this year alone, 37 lodges closed while only two new lodges opened, a net loss of 35.
While the UGLE reported 270,000 individual masons in 2007, the current membership is 204,775 – a drop of 24 per cent to well below half the peak of more than 500,000 masons that freemasonry experienced in the immediate post-war years.
But while membership has declined among all other age groups, among millennials aged 21 to 30 it has increased by 7.65 per cent in the past two years.
Although still only 2 per cent of the total membership, 21- to 30-year-olds have now been described by , the official journal of the UGLE, as “a significant reprieve from a death knell for us all".
Already efforts to attract the younger age group, and to resolve at least one worshipful brother’s complaint that “some lodges look like God’s waiting room”, have included creating 55 new university lodges since 2005.
There was also the consecration last year, in a Novotel in Southampton, of the Lodge of Brevity, where younger, time-poor working masons can enjoy meetings that are kept short by dispensing with items like reading the minutes, which are instead scrutinised online.
Membership fees have been reduced for under-25s and millennial masons have themselves suggested freemasonry could benefit from “an advance in the use of social media”.
The recruitment drive has not yet gone as far as the UGLE admitting women members, but Pro Grand Master Lowndes now seems to have used his most recent Quarterly Communication speech to throw his full weight behind attempts at attracting millennial men into freemasonry.
The rest of this depressing obituary may be read HERE. The drive-by assailant of this piece is Adam Lusher, in case you want to ask for someone else to cover your tercentenary officer installation.
Somehow he left out the usual "dodgy handshake" reference, but the comments section took care of that.
This kind of offal is pretty standard in Britain and France, so it's not surprising. We are very fortunate indeed in the U.S. that we aren't usually handled this way by reporters and editors. Here, Masonry is generally pretty respected, if a little misunderstood, when we appear in print. Most articles in the mainstream press stateside these days will make a "peek behind secret doors" reference and bring up the occasional founding father or two. And there's no getting around the demographic issue. But sadly, the European press continues to follow in the worn footsteps of Abbé Barruel and Leo Taxil.
I suspect in the continued run-up to 2017 in England and the anniversary celebrations across the country, this kind of treatment will be the rule rather than the exception. Sympathetic or celebratory stories about Freemasonry there don't sell papers, I'm afraid.
Somebody tell the handsome maid Hannah to freshen up their drinks all round. They're going to need it.