It's difficult sometimes to tell with a news article whether the reporter intentionally added needless, ignorant and insulting swipes to the story herself, or if some sneering editor inserted their own after the piece was submitted. That's especially true with anti-Masonic insults. I've come to just expect them in the UK papers with stories about the fraternity, but it seems like a recent development in Australia.
Unfortunately, smart-assed, snarky news writers seem to be the big thing in the mainstream press now, in some desperate attempt to remain "entertaining" enough to snag enough eyeballs to justify their ad rates.
From The Woman Set To Save Freemasonry by Susie O'Brien:
Freemasonry is an ancient worldwide secular society of men with its antecedents in medieval stonemasons’ guilds.
It has a long and distinguished history in Australia, starting with botanist Joseph Banks on board the Endeavour in 1770.
Until the 1970s, just about all Australian prime ministers were Freemasons. Other well-known members included cricketer Sir Donald Bradman, Sir Robert Menzies, Graham Kennedy and the inventors of the Freddo Frog and Vegemite.However, these glory days are well and truly gone.
In the 1960s the Freemasons had 110,000 members in Australia; now there are only 9500 [sic - see my note at the bottom]. The organisation is losing 700 members annually — an unsustainable 8 per cent loss per annum.
It’s no wonder this men’s-only club is undergoing the biggest overhaul in its Australian history.
There is simply no choice. With declining revenues, memberships and relevance, the Freemasons must modernise or slowly die.
In a startling move, the person Freemasons Victoria has chosen to oversee this monumental task is a woman; its first female CEO, Jane Sydenham-Clarke.
Engaging, razor-sharp and dressed in chic black, Sydenham-Clarke has built an impressive reputation turning around struggling organisations. Or, as she calls it, undertaking “change-management journeys”.
This is one woman who likes a challenge.
Sydenham-Clarke is more inclined to address the gender issue head-on.
“I want to state the obvious. I am not a man,” she told a room of curious Freemasons in September. “But I am daughter of a very proud Freemason.”
It was just nine days after taking her post, and Sydenham-Clarke was addressing a Freemasons business lunch in a distinguished mahogany-lined room at the Rendezvous Hotel. It was almost certainly the first time anyone at such a gathering had thrown around such un-Masonic terms as “robust in the digital space” and “building brand architecture”.
“We’ll be moving with the times,” she told the lunch. This involves “getting the product right” and working out “what success looks like”.
“Today’s young man is well-educated, they have a family and they’re time-poor, so we need to ensure we are relevant to their lives,” she said later.Given the average age of a Freemason is 67, this emphasis on engaging younger members is no mean feat.
Five weeks later, after a frantic whirlwind of meetings, events and research, Sydenham-Clarke admits the Freemasons is like a “parallel universe”.But it’s one she’s clearly happy to inhabit.
It’s fair to say that in her previous positions she didn’t get escorted to her car after a meeting by a swordsman decked out in ceremonial garb.
It’s telling that this ancient organisation has turned to a woman to rescue it — a woman it won’t admit as a member.
This doesn’t appear to be an issue for Sydenham-Clarke. She is adamant the Freemasons can bring about renewal and rejuvenation without admitting females as members.
A tour of the new Box Hill Lodge, led by Freemasons Peter Atkin and Richard Elkington, is both enlightening and baffling.
It is a nondescript office-style building on Maroondah Highway, but inside it contains two plush meeting places redolent with ceremonial artefacts and centuries-old traditions. The meeting rooms are grand and rectangular, with wooden seats facing inward towards a rectangular chequerboard carpet.
Ancient symbols of Masonry abound. These include the rough and smooth stones representing the journey from ignorance to knowledge and the compass and square representing lessons in conduct.
A letter G is suspended over the central carpet, and three grand wooden thrones dominate one end of the room. There are also wooden cupboards containing symbols of the three degrees of Freemasonry teachings and ritual processes: the shaping tools, the managing tools and the recording tools.
Once a month Freemason members from surrounding lodges meet there. They come to meetings in dinner suits, wearing different sheepskin aprons according to their rank and experience.
Atkin says the sheepskin is highly significant because it “reminds us that despite how high up you get, you remember who you were when you first came through the door”.
A sign in the Box Hill Lodge cloakroom for a prostate cancer support group symbolises the age range of the cohort.
Atkin says he was initiated to the Freemasons 46 years ago.
“I’m a young guy,” he chuckles.
This is what passes as a joke in Freemason circles.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the passion and respect both Atkin and Elkington feel for this somewhat strange set of rituals. But at the same time, it’s all a bit odd.
Where else do grown men discuss the Grand Architect of the Universe? Wear ceremonial aprons? Stand around talking about installation of the Sunshine Wisdom Lodge or the Lodge of the Golden Fleece?
And that doesn’t even include the secret bits they don’t talk about: the rumoured rolled-up trouser leg on initiation, the secret handshake involving...There it is, right on cue: the rubber stamped "rolled-up trouser leg" trademark of the Anglo-influenced press. Never mind. You get the picture. But honestly - was there some compelling reason to take special schoolgirl glee in the middle of an otherwise fairly respectful piece to go out of the way to toss off completely unnecessary and uncalled for insulting wisecracks, and even childishly dish up what she thinks is the "secret handshake"?
Then there's this a little farther down:
Change is definitely afoot, but there’s a long way to go. Sydenham-Clarke will have her work cut out.
First the Freemasons need to get over the public perception that their organisation is little more than a bunch of old men keeping ancient secrets, exchanging secret handshakes and riding goats at initiation ceremonies.Reynolds is keen to make one thing very clear — there are no goats.“I haven’t seen one yet,” he says.
Given he joined the organisation at 24, and has been a Freemason for close to 40 years, he probably knows.
Secret rituals? Yes.
Good to get that cleared up.
Sydenham-Clarke also wants to move the agenda on from handshakes and farmyard animals...Yuk. Yuk. Yuk.
Feel free to read the whole thing if you feel some morbid compulsion. Sadly, this is what passes for "journalism" now, and we need to be aware of it before we go nosing around for publicity. It's certainly been all over the mainstream press in England since the 1990s, and it has apparently been transplanted to Australia now.
If so, I'm afraid Ms. Sydenham-Clarke's mission to build Freemasonry's brand architecture in Victoria may be an arduous uphill battle.
NOTE: Reporterette O'Brien obviously wasn't taking careful notes and makes things appear more dire than the truth. She asserts early in the piece that there are just 9,500 Masons in Australia today, down from a height of 110,000. While it is certainly down substantially from its greatest post-WWII numbers these days, the most recently compiled Australian numbers actually show there to be 36,907 Masons nationwide. (That number does not include lodges operating under charters of the three Home GLs of England, Ireland, and Scotland. And if you want to unofficially toss New Zealand in just because they're so close, that adds another 7,900.)
From Grand Lodge figures reported in late 2015:
South AU and Northern Territory 2,507
Western AU 3,600