In my response to one of the latest in a string of blog posts decrying "Freemasonry is dying" in attempt to garner internet traffic, I said that I am becoming exhausted by the endless complaints regarding our decrease in membership alongside a void of actual work and solutions. Quite frankly, these posts have no vision. “Who are we shouting at to fix the problems?” I asked. We should all know that this isn’t likely to grab the attention of Grand Lodge Officers who, in their defense, do not have the means to truly address the supposed problem. This problem (if you want to call it that) will be best addressed by individual Masons and individual Lodges who care enough about survival that they are willing to make programming changes to address the changing needs of the market. In saying that, it occurs to me that some lodges have figured out the template for future success while a majority of well-meaning lodges are spinning their wheels trying to figure out what to do. You have to do more than say you want change and expect someone else to enact it.
While I was in college, the Interfraternity Council (IFC) hosted a speaker for all of Greek Life. This speaker, in an admittedly hokey manner, brought a textbook, a sweater, and a water bottle. He said the textbook represented out ritual. The sweater (with greek letters) represented our membership (or Brotherhood) in our respective Fraternities. The water bottle represented the social element of our organizations. These three components make up the the Fraternity experience. However, the individual chapters only function when stacked in the proper order. He demonstrated that when you use the bottle as the base, the sweater and the textbook will not balance. He then showed that if you use the textbook as the foundation upon which the sweater and the bottle can rest, your organization will maintain equilibrium.
Similarly, in Masonry, the ritual (textbook) must serve as the foundation for everything else we do. It is what makes the Craft. The brotherhood (sweater) can flourish with the ritual as a unifying foundation and only then can social activity (again, the bottle) be introduced. Freemasonry has these mixed in various orders. We lead our pitch thinking that we must show potential-Masons that we have fun and we donate to charity. We might talk about how George Washington was a Mason. To establish these things, we work hard to make social activity and Brotherhood a reality in our lodges. Eventually, we have brought new brothers in on the pretense of these activities alone without properly addressing that Masonry is a body of philosophical instruction. BROTHERS, this is summary of mid- to late- twentieth century Freemasonry establishing how we arrived here today.
What I find, is some of the most well-meaning brothers recognize the need to bring back education while still deprioritizing it below membership by shortcutting the paths to true enlightenment through the use of a number of non-ritual-centric practices. I hear those apologists say, “after all, who will we teach if we don’t have any members left?” We would be better served by initiating only those who seek the true path of Masonic enlightenment; those ones who will still fill our temples when the dust settles. Anything grander than this is in conflict with what the Entered Apprentice degree teaches us about our ego (buildings, membership, Grand Lodge viability).
In the decade and a half since I heard the above lecture, I have been shown it's truth time and again. I firmly believe that those lodges who have prioritized along the stated pattern (ritual>brotherhood>social) are the ones who will remain when the dust settles. In marketing terms, the unique value proposition that we offer is an intiatic experience coupled with a moral doctrine. We have the market on this product if we position ourselves as such. My close friends and Brothers know I like great dinners but that isn’t the unique product the Craft provides. You don’t need to be a Freemason to find a good meal. We aren’t unique in our charitable giving nor in our programs for youth. We have to lead with the unique value that only we can provide.
The successful template for True Freemasonry is in the ritual. The ritual provides for spiritual growth. The ritual provides for love among brothers. The ritual provides for convivial meals. But it is essential that we discuss, treat, and run our Craft in that order. If you are an LEO, teach the ritual. If you are a DEO, teach the ritual. If you are a brother who loves the Craft, teach the ritual. It is on each of you.