Extract of an address by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, Past Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory, at the North Queensland Masonic Convention, 1 May, 1994.
Freemasons have suffered the decline in numbers that many organisations have experienced. There are the usual reasons – too much time and too many entertainment options; too little time and too much pressure to allow coming to meetings. Plus reasons of our own – we have not marketed ourselves, we have rested on our laurels and waited for people to come to us, and for fear of telling outsiders too much about our movement we have told them too little.
The craft used to have a high degree of support from Australian males. Now we have too many drop-outs. I have tried a survey of why lapsed Masons lost interest. My survey was not constructed scientifically, but certain types of comments kept recurring. People referred to old, dingy Masonic buildings; boring speeches; slipshod ritual; inedible suppers; predictable toasts; social events that never change – all evidence of a lack of initiative and imagination. Fortunately, these issues are relatively easy to address once we decide to break out of our time warp and present ourselves better to the community and our own members.
In some ways our public relations must already have started to improve if an advertisement in last Sunday’s “Sun Herald” in Sydney, and maybe in other papers, is an indication. Placed by someone in Buderim, it offers two books that purport to expose Freemasonry. One is “Sin in the Camp”, the other “Death in the Temple”. The advertisement is headed, “National attempts to present new image are whitewash”. Whitewash or not, our “attempts to present new image” are clearly being noticed!
Among the ex-Masons I surveyed, some offered serious criticisms that go far deeper than merely where we meet and what we eat. Here are some, with my suggested responses:
1. “Who has time for Lodge meetings?”
Joseph of Navardok said that he changed from being a merchant to an ethicist because of what happened in a train. Sitting in a cold carriage on the way home from a business trip he was drawn into a conversation by an old man opposite him. Joseph explained he was a merchant and did a lot of travelling. “Do you get time for reading or thinking?” asked the old man. “Hardly,” said Joseph: “I am on the go all the time”. “I went through the same stage when I was young,” said the old man. “Take my advice – spend less time with business and more with books, less time with customers and more with yourself.” “Yes,” said Joseph, “but how shall I live?” “Yes,” said the old man, “but how will you die?”
Because of our pace of life, we often have no time for ourselves. We have to make time to think about time. That is why Masonry believes in regularly immersing yourself in an atmosphere in which you assess ends as well as means, goals as well as methods.
2. “Who wants archaic language like you hear in Lodge?”
True: Masonic ritual uses old-fashioned language. But isn’t there a place in life for words that have a noble, classical ring, far removed from the cheap coarseness of so much that you hear day in and day out? “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” is rather more elegant than “F… you, I have to look after my own a…”
3. “Why are Lodge meetings so pompous? Can’t they unbend?”
There are Lodges where the dignity becomes stuffiness, but what’s wrong with order, pattern, style and propriety? Things are so relaxed these days that manners no longer make the man. Somewhere there has to be a place where there are standards.
4. “Who needs all that ritual?”
Solomon Goldman wrote about religious ritual in terms that apply to Freemasonry: “Man is not a wholly rational being. Man has body, senses, imagination, memory and feelings, as well as reason. He is a creature of habit and associations as well as logical motives. If a religion is to appeal to the whole of man, it must satisfy his search for the picturesque and colourful, the beautiful, the stimulating, as well as his search for the true and the good”. If we all lived on a rarefied philosophical plane we might be able to manage without rituals. But as ordinary mortals, we need ritual as reminders and symbols.
5. “All those grandiloquent titles – Worshipful, Very Worshipful and all the rest!”
Yes, they’re grandiloquent. But any Mason can earn them. We do not go by “the external advantages of rank and fortune”. Two hundred or more years ago you could buy yourself an office. In Masonry that doesn’t work. In an age when everyone tries to topple leaders off their pedestals, Masonry is democratic. If you have a record of community service, you can stand for office. If you besmirch the office, you can be replaced.
6. “Whenever I come to Lodge all I hear is sermons”.
Don’t be mean to sermons. Personally I gave given thousands of them and some at least must have made a difference to my audience. In Masonry the ritual charges are not actually sermons – they are inherited texts that enshrine the principles of the craft. The art is to put them across with liveliness, graciousness and conviction.
7. “It’s hypocrisy to call each other ‘Brother’ and not mean it!”
It’s sad if you don’t mean it, but most do. The truth is that Lodge membership makes you part of a community. You befriend people you might never meet otherwise. You soon discover the truth of the Jewish saying:
“I am a creature of God. My neighbour is also His creature.
My work is in the city. His is in the field.
I rise early to my work. He rises early to his.
As he cannot excel in my work, I cannot excel in his.
Perhaps you say: I do great things and he does little things.
In the end it matters not that a man does much or little,
If only he directs his heart to heaven.”
Masonry is a microcosm of the multicultural society. Not that there is nothing more that we need to do in this respect. We need to find a place for every ethnic group… a place for women, not just as tea-ladies… for youth, for whom we should have a category of junior members. The Lodge ought to be a centre for the whole family. More: every Lodge should create a forum to listen to members’ views. We should have a broader range of meetings – not just degree work and old charges, but issues of ethical and social interest, perhaps dramatised, certainly presented with imagination and personality.
There are bigger and deeper questions we ought to be asking about the very nature of the movement. Partisan politics and denominational religion have no place in the Lodge, but are there not other things on which Masonry should take up a position? Current social and ethical debate should not be allowed to bypass the Lodge. There can and must also be issues on which there could be a Masonic lobby. Lobbying the government and the public is part of the democratic way of life. Do we have to keep to a cocoon?
I am the first to acknowledge the importance of what might be called “pure ethics” – the discussion of general ethical principle in order to refine our ideas of what we believe in. But I am also convinced that we need “applied ethics”. When we say we stand for justice, can we not go one stage further and say that when children are without homes, food, education, health and opportunity, that is highly unjust and we will not let society tolerate it? When we say we stand for a good world, can we not go one stage further and say that when people selfishly exploit the natural resources of the planet for monetary gain, that cannot lead to a good world and cannot be tolerated without protest? There must be standards: why can the craft not work out where to take a stand on standards?
One of the reasons we are called Freemasons is that we believe in man’s freedom to choose. Victor Frank says in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, that even in Nazi concentration camps there were “men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the freedom to choose his attitude in any given set of circumstances”.
You may or may not agree that Freemasonry should move out of the cocoon into the market-place of ideas. You will certainly endorse my joy that the Lodge provides us with a home where we freely choose to talk of justice, peace and truth, of decency, dignity and human rights. You will certainly endorse my support for an old rabbinic debate about how I know when the time has come for the morning prayer. Morning, of course, depends on dawning. Is there enough light yet? “Enough light,” says one view, “to recognise the fact of a brother”. I don’t know how many Masons there will be in fifty years’ time. But whatever the statistics, it will always be good for the world to have a movement where you learn to recognise the face of a brother and greet him well.
For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.
Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book on the history, symbolism and teachings of Freemasonry, enlivened with personal reminiscences and humour.