Overseas Masonic Practices

- What Can They Teach Us?

Presented to the Victoria Lodge of Research on 26 July 1991.


The purpose of this paper is to examine selected Masonic practices in America and Europe, and draw any inferences or lessons that may assist thinking and practices here in Victoria.


There seems to be a general trend in Victorian Masonry today to despair over the state of the Craft. The main cause of this is the consistency with which membership has fallen, at about 5% per year, to the present level of about 40,000 members. Other cries are those of falling standards. It is probable that both problems are linked, in something of a Catch 22. It is hard to maintain standards in ceremonial when through membership decline the average age of Freemasons is steadily rising, with a concurrent lack of younger members coming in. At the same time, lodges are constantly seeking to cut costs commensurate with their shrinking memberships. With the widespread desire to hold dues down in an attempt to arrest a further decline in membership (so the theory goes, anyway), the only alternative is to cut standards. There is a school of thought that considers Victorian Masonry today to be riddled with aged lodges, doddering ritual and lamentable festive boards of cold sausage rolls and soggy sandwiches. As I said, the situation is, arguably, a Catch 22, a very largely self-perpetuating.


Prior to WWII, dues in Victorian Lodges were about 5-6 guineas – approximately the average weekly wage at that time. Had Lodges just kept up with inflation, dues today should be about the current average weekly wage – around $400 per week. Some would argue that we should raise our dues to this level forthwith – we might lose 10,000 extra members overnight but, the argument runs, would you have a high standard Lodges, and an organisation men would want to join, like Golf Clubs that charge very large fees and have lengthy waiting lists to join. I do not, necessarily, support this idea, but it does have its attractions, perhaps?


In examining what occurs overseas, and to compare these practices back to ourselves, I am going to start with four main premises which will probably be accepted by most. I contend that the success of a Masonic Lodge depends on:

  1. the quality of its ceremonial
  2. its means of involving members
  3. its successful delivery of Masonic education
  4. the quality of its after-proceedings.


To varying extents they are linked to each other. We know, pretty much, the state of play in Victorian Masonry in these four areas. Let’s look overseas.


In the United States, ceremonial tends to be of a high standard. This is achieved by an extremely rigorous system of proficiency. While there are variances across the fifty American Jurisdictions, the following is basically what happens to a new initiate. Having taken his 1st Degree, he is required to attend “candidate’s school” (run by his Lodge) where he learns his obligation, and the catechism of the degree – which is virtually thee whole ceremony reduced to question and answer form. When (and in not a few cases, if) he gets that far, he will be examined in open Lodge, where he must recite his obligation, and take one half of the catechism without error (or very little error). The Master (or sometimes the Lodge Committee later) will then reflect on whether he was good enough, and if so, invite him to take the 2nd Degree. He then has to repeat the procedure after taking his second, and after taking his third, before he gets his Grand Lodge Diploma (as Americans call the Grand Lodge Certificate).


On the down side perhaps, whereas we seem to not infrequently lose Master Masons after they have taken their 3rd Degree, in America a not insignificant number of members never reach the 2nd. Still, the Americans refuse to compromise their standards. They tend to view that, within reason, the more difficult something is to obtain, the more appreciated it will be by those who obtain it.


Incidentally, to make matters “worse” for American candidates, no American Grand Lodge has a printed ritual as we know it – although some have what they call a Monitor that contains, in plain language, what they consider to be non-esoteric material (the lectures, etc. - about a quarter the ceremonial). This means that most of what a candidate has to learn in each degree must be achieved in the proficiency classes “ear to mouth”. A minority of American Grand Lodges also print their Degree Ritual in cipher – the problem being that one must first learn the code; not easy in itself.


There seems to some logic here, perhaps? In any case, it is fair to say that without necessarily going to American extremes candidates in Victorian Craft Lodges do not have to strain themselves to reach proficiency under our system, particular with a deacon behind them to whisper the answers in their ears if they don’t know them. I have yet to see a candidate “failed” in Victoria, and I have seen some very doubtful ones in my time.


So what is the result of this in America? Sure they lose a few, but not that many. Those many that do manage to collect their Grand Lodge Diploma have a pretty good idea of the ceremonies of Freemasonry, certainly in what they actually say (having learnt most of it by memory). One strongly suspects, as a result of this learning, they have better than even money chance of knowing quite a bit about just what it is they have been taught. Aha! Here we have a whiff of American Masonic success, perhaps? That said, as an educational theory, learning by rote when out years ago – except, it would seem, in Masonic lodges.


When it comes to American Lodge Officers, as they are steeped in this proficiency system, they tend to be rather competent ritualists. Indeed, the American practice is that each officer ascending the “Lodge Line” similar to ours (inside the door to the chair), must prove his proficiency in the next office before he is promoted. They do not do this especially, I has ten to add, but rather naturally. Let me explain that.


There is no restriction in an American Lodge on who can do charges, or who can sit in any, I repeat, any chair, regardless of the office one might officially hold. Thus, although you might only be Junior Deacon in the Lodge team, for example, you will he asked (and expected) to perform in any chair, in any degree, up to and including that of Master. You can guarantee that a new Line Officer, by the time he is elected Master, will have performed as Master in all degrees many times, particularly once he gets to be Warden. In most American Lodges, while the Master will conduct the business at a Stated Meeting, he will rarely perform a degree ceremony as Master during his year of office. The Wardens, or even more junior officers, will share the work, or for that matter, any other ordinary member who shows both interest and competency. Charges, too, are shared around the members, not just the officers. Here we have, perhaps, part of the American secret of the successful involvement of members in the Lodge?


As a matter of interest, American dues tend to be about equivalent to ours, around $100 per year. Their “Festive Boards” (they largely do not know the term) tend to be simple, but the food of high quality and abundance. There are no toasts or speeches, as a rule, and no alcohol is served. Whatever you think about the latter, it does keep costs down –

though that does not necessarily concern the Americans.


All these things are very positive aspects of American Masonry. Added to them needs to be that their Masonry is very open, so to speak. There has not been, in America, the tendency to “secrecy” that we have had in Australia until relative recent years, and with which we are still “hung over”. American Masonry does an enormous amount of charitable work, and Lodges will do such things as march down the street in a parade, in regalia at the drop of a hat. Masonry in America has a big public image, and a pretty good one, too. Sure, American Grand Lodges have lost membership in recent years, but nowhere the extent of the Australian decline. Overall, it would seem that the Americans have at least a reasonably successful Masonic System, based on my four original premises.


I now turn to the British Isles, and we will start with Scotland. In 1982, when I took out the figures for my book Masonic World Guide, Scotland had the highest membership ratio to population in the world, 1:18 – i.e.: one person in 18 in Scotland was then a Mason; or one male in nine; or given you cannot join until you are at least eighteen years old, about one eligible male in six. Those are not bad figures! I have recently redone these figures, and as of 1988 (the latest population numbers available to me), the ratio was out to 1:24: or one male in 12, or about one eligible male in 8. A tragic decline, brethren! Dare I add that in 1982 the Victorian ration was 1:53, and in 1989 was 1:102 – a loss of just on a half in 7 years.


However, it is does need to be added that the Scottish figures are probably a bit rubbery. Scotland a system of Life Membership. Under thus system, a member, rather than resign can take out “life membership” of his lodge, and doubtlessly most Scottish Masons who decide, for whatever reasons, to discontinue active membership use this facility. As a result, “life members” stay on the books as it were, giving an impossible to measure distortion. Thus, the active membership of Scottish masonry is lower than the actual membership figures would suggest. How much lower is impossible to say.


Nevertheless, comparatively speaking, Scotland is clearly not a membership basket case. What, then, is the secret of Scotland’s relative success? It is certainly not their ceremonial, which, while not terrible, certainly is not up to American, English, or eve n Australian standards in my experience – although in the hope of getting through any waiting crowds of angry Scottish Masons alive, I hasten to add that doubtlessly many Scottish Lodges perform superb ritual, even if I haven’t seen it. Admittedly, I haven’t attended all that many Scottish Lodges. What I must also add about Scottish ceremonial is, that while the ritual delivery is not always perfect, I have always heard it sincerely rendered, which is clearly the most important thing.


Undoubtedly, a main Scottish secret is their “Festive Board”, known as Harmony. If you do not like a great deal of singing, liberal amounts of whiskey, and general good-natured, uninhibited (but nonetheless largely decorous) frivolity, then Scottish Masonry is not for you. Clearly, it is for the Scots and, except in the Northern Summer, on a fortnightly basis, as well. Two other factors that probably contribute to the success of Scottish Masonry are a very strong tradition of family membership, and quite inexpensive dues, even by our standards. So, let us cross Hadrian’s Wall, and move south.


England, according to John Hamill recently, suffered only a small membership decline in the early eighties, but has since picked up. As the English Grand Lodge is not yet fully computerized they are not yet sure of their figures, and I personally suspect that the growth of the English Constitution has been greatest in foreign parts (such as Africa) rather than in Mother England itself. Time will tell, but nonetheless it is clear that English membership has not yet copied the Australian slide. Why? Ritual and ceremonial in England is largely comparable to that in Australia in content, style and emphasis. Thus, the answer is not likely to he found there, except to say that there is considerably more variety in English ritual than here (where there is none). This probably making local visiting more interesting. So, where do we look?


English Lodges, by and large, tend to be small by our standards and thus every member tends to personally know everyone else. Consequently, this greatly assists member involvement. Secondly, English Lodges mostly only meet 4, 5 or 6 times per year. This keeps dues down but, interestingly, fewer meetings require fewer candidates, and allow for longer time lapses between degrees, as a rule. There are probably inherent advantages in this. You do not have to get candidates from street corners, or rush them through three degrees in almost as many months. Lastly, the English have a custom, particularly in London, of substantial dinners after meetings, and early finishes. No low-quality fare here.


I now move to Europe, where Masonry is different again. At the outset, I want to make it clear that across the Continental Grand Lodges, there are reasonable differences, but in general terms what I am about to say applies.


Overall, Masonry in Europe is not numerically large, though this is largely by choice. The average Grand Lodge has about 5000 to 6000 members, with the largest being Italy with about 25,000 members and Germany with 21,000.


In a nutshell, Continental Masonry is not particularly easy to join, and under many Grand Lodges a wait of one to two years from application to admission (if you do get in) is not uncommon. A high academic/social standing is tacitly required under most Grand Lodges. For example, in Greece you will be lucky to get in without holding a university degree. Indeed, I know of' cases of men who have joined the Craft in Australia in order to affiliate back in Europe, being the only way they could get in. Dues tend to be around $300 - $1000 per year (about the average weekly wage, or more) with high standards in ceremonial and repasts.


These oddities, as some Masons may call them, are all reflections of a Masonic emphasis that is essentially different from the Anglo-Saxon norm. In effect, continental-type Lodges are Lodges of Research. The overriding interest is not in ceremonial or reciting ritual – indeed, in most Lodges the ritual is all read. For the Continental Mason, the content of the three degrees are but the beginning, albeit an important beginning, to the study of Masonic life and philosophy.


Indeed, in some Constitutions, lodges only work each of the three degrees once in any year, regardless of the number of candidates available. Progress is extremely slow by our standards. Let us take a newly-initiated brother. To be passed he must wait a minimum of twelve months, and previous to his passing pass an oral and/or written examination of his knowledge of the 1st Degree, and usually have presented at least one research paper on some aspect of the 1st Degree, to his Lodge. The same procedures apply between the other degrees. It generally takes at least five years to reach the Master Mason’s degree in most European lodges.


I suppose your immediate question is what are they doing if not ceremonial? The answer is lectures and discussions. Except over the three northern summer months, most continental Lodges meet weekly, or at least fortnightly. Most meetings consist of lectures under the direction of the Lodge Orator (or Lecture Master) both for the training of candidates and for the general education of members. Any philosophic, social, or scientific subject is fair game. Religious and political discussion is not permissible, of course. In short, what you can be very sure of is that candidates, by the time they become Master Masons, are very aware of what Freemasonry is about and what it teaches. They know why they are sitting in the Lodge room. Now brethren, I suggest to you this is a rather good starting point in holding onto your membership. I have talked to brethren in Europe who have been members of their Lodge for years, and never heard a resignation read out. Interesting, is it not?


So, the European Masons are very selective in whom they accept as members. Their main criterion is the intellectual ability of the candidate to absorb the teachings of the Craft. Next, they are very adept at training those they get. In addition, they are equally proficient at involving members in the Lodge. Lodge memberships tend to be quite small, on about twenty-five members in total, on average, under most Grand Lodges. Consequently, every member is in office. Not unusually, even an Apprentice, on the night of his initiation, is made a steward. There is no such thing as progression through the chairs under most Continental Grand Lodges. In many, the Master serves for many years in that office. Other members rotate around various other offices, and each has several understudies who will assume the office in their turn. When it comes to lectures and discussions, everyone participates. When you have a highly trained and knowledgeable membership, there is little reticence in expressing one’s opinion and ideas. I strongly suspect the reverse is true in our Lodges, even in this one perhaps. In a continental Lodge everyone is involved. Attendance tends be very high. While probably not particularly necessary due to the emphasis of their Masonic System, many continental Lodges have penalties for serial non-attendance, such as membership suspension, or even expulsion.


As a consequence of these practices, generally-speaking there have not been membership losses in Europe. On the contrary, in most European countries membership continues to rise, though it is not an issue with our European brethren. Expansion is not rapid, very much by design. There is certainly no shortage of applicants. It is interesting how many men want to join something that is not easy to get into, and maintains very high standards in its activities….


The foregoing is but a relatively brief overview of overseas Masonic practice, as a comparison with what we do in Australia in general, and Victoria in particular. In systems I have examined – the American, Scottish, English, and Continental – there are, clearly, differences in approach between each of them, and us. While I have not, purposely, endeavoured to put forward a strong opinion in any direction on these systems in this paper, one thing is very clear. On the question of retaining, or even expanding, membership numbers over the relatively recent past, they have largely been demonstratively more successful than us. What I have indicated, perhaps, is that as systems of implementing my our basic premises – ceremonial quality, membership involvement, Masonic education, and quality after-proceedings –

overseas jurisdictions, in their Masonic mix, as it were, seem to in varying degrees offer quality in these areas. I submit to you that in examining our problems, overseas practice certainly merits close attention.


He is a hard man who is only just, and a sad one who is only wise
- Voltaire, Freemason



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