On the level
At 26, Alex Rhys has just conducted his first initiation. Peter Watts finds out how younger members are embracing Freemasonry for its sense of continuity
When Alex Rhys is asked how he came to join the masons at the age of 21, he puts it down to an instinctive inquisitiveness you might ordinarily expect to find in a scientist. ‘I’d always been a bit nosey and I was at university, procrastinating during revision, when I saw on the university website that the alumni had been on a tour of the local masonic temple,’ he recalls. ‘I then found out about the Universities Scheme in Bath, went on a tour of the lodge and found it very interesting.’
From there, Alex moved fast. He was initiated at 21 and, five years later, has just presided over his first initiation as a Master, having gained the chair of Bath’s St Alphege Lodge, No. 4095, earlier this year. The ceremony was well attended as it came on the same day that Somerset’s club for new and young masons, the Adair Club, hosted the second annual New & Young Masons Clubs’ Conference at Bath Masonic Hall – an event that attracted 60 delegates from clubs in 20 Provinces and saw much discussion about the problems and possibilities of recruiting and retaining young masons.
‘Alex is an inspirational figure,’ says Sam Mayer, who founded the Adair Club in 2012 to support young masons in Somerset and allow for better interaction between masons across the Province. ‘Some young masons can feel isolated,’ says Sam, who also became a mason at 21. ‘I didn’t experience that myself, which may be the reason I stayed. I want other masons to have the same experience I did.’
Once in the Craft, Alex embraced all that it offered. He joined a second lodge in the South West before moving to London, where he was invited by the Universities Scheme to help take over the Lodge of Good Fellowship, No. 3655, in Great Queen Street, which was seeing declining numbers.
Alex holds regular drop-in sessions for interested young masons and has also been invited to join the Universities Scheme committee. ‘At Great Queen Street, we filled the offices with interested people and now bring in about 12 people a year – it’s thriving,’ says Alex, who achieved all this while working on his PhD in cancer research.
Since becoming Master of St Alphege, Alex has decided against jazzing up ceremonies for a younger audience. ‘Our last Master tried to change the lighting levels and that caused enough of a fuss,’ he jokes. Instead, he believes a sense of continuity can appeal to younger masons, who enjoy tapping into a tradition that goes back three centuries. ‘What’s most important is that they know what to expect,’ he says.
Alex feels his role is to fill meetings with enthusiastic young masons who will maintain momentum without upsetting older members. This mix of youth and experience is one of the things he most enjoys about Freemasonry.
‘I can sit next to a judge or a student and we are all completely on the same level; there’s no hierarchy,’ he says. ‘You get to know people at the top of their profession on a first-name basis. If we weren’t wearing the apron, I’d never have the chance to talk to people like that on a professional level, let alone a social one.’
In October, Alex returned to the South West to attend the Adair Club conference, where concerns about recruitment and retention were the main topics of discussion. Delegates from various clubs spoke about the specific structure and organisation of clubs for young masons as well as asking these members what aspects of Freemasonry were most important.
Ben Batley, Assistant Provincial Grand Master for Somerset, explains how important it is for groups like the Adair Club to target masons under 40 or with fewer than five years’ experience. ‘It’s that critical group who we view as most important to take masonry forward in our Province in the next 30 years,’ he says. Somerset has also introduced a Future of My Lodge initiative for all its 88 lodges. ‘We’ve been asking lodges to think carefully about young members, those at work or with a young family and how to keep them engaged with the Craft.’
‘Nothing can prepare you for how welcoming everybody is.’ Alex Rhys
Learning the Craft
The Adair Club has both a social and learning element, so members can learn more about the Craft and are better equipped to understand their place in it. ‘Recruitment is important but so is retention, and some of the learning opportunities may suit the more inquisitive mind of the younger masons,’ says Ben.
Sam takes up this theme. ‘The tradition has always been for masonry to be quite secretive, but it’s fundamental that people know about its history, its tenets, why it’s there,’ he says. ‘If people can get a grasp of that early on it will help them develop, and that’s fundamental for retention.’
The Bath Masonic Hall conference featured workshops, speed-networking sessions and talks about the traditional membership history of Freemasonry. The information will now be spread around the Provinces, helping those who are in similar clubs or thinking of setting one up. ‘It was very positive,’ says Sam. ‘We know there are a lot of capable people committed to the cause. We will now spread the word as far as possible.’ Staffordshire had already agreed to host the third annual conference next year.
Freemasonry’s increased confidence in reaching out to younger people is epitomised by the figure of Alex, whose enthusiasm remains unabashed despite the occasional quizzical response from colleagues and friends. ‘It’s difficult to explain that we wear aprons and do these little plays,’ he says. ‘But I am very open about it – for lodge meetings I wear a suit to work and my colleagues know where I’m going. I don’t hide anything.’
Alex enjoyed the conference, noting the enthusiasm and how people new to Freemasonry would have benefited from meeting others at a similar stage in their journey. As for how his first initiation played out, Alex says that it went as faultlessly as it could have done, remembering his own initiation five long and busy years ago.
‘I was probably more nervous this time as I had an actual part to play, whereas for my own initiation I didn’t know what was going to happen. Everybody says Freemasonry is sociable, but nothing can prepare you for how welcoming everybody is. They are all there to see you flourish, and want you to get the most out of your experiences.’
From the Grand Secretary
We are delighted at the response to the first Membership Focus Group survey with 5,265 of you taking part. Please do read the very interesting results in this issue on page 16, as they reveal how members cherish mutual respect and moral values while still embracing fun and enjoyment.
The Membership Focus Group survey is a classic example of involving members in the future of Freemasonry – not least members at lodge and chapter level. Our ability to communicate with individuals in order to seek their views is increasingly important to ensure the success of our organisation going forward.
It is therefore crucial that we recognise that it is right and proper to talk openly about our membership and to feel proud of that membership. To that end, we must meet the challenge to find a simple manner of communicating our unique offering to new members, as well as to family, friends and acquaintances. Actions speak louder than words and we are increasingly convinced that the challenge of communicating what Freemasonry means will be met by members at lodge and chapter level.
In this issue of Freemasonry Today, we talk to masons who are sharing the message at a local level. Our profile of Somerset’s Adair Club reveals how combining a modern outlook with traditional values can ensure new recruits to Freemasonry feel part of their Province. Meanwhile, we look at the masonic contributions to sports charity Street League that are giving unemployed young people career direction by encouraging them to use the team-building skills found in football.
Our feature on the pioneering work being carried out in RMBI care homes shows how residents can be made to feel more secure. The charity is finding that, whether it’s memories of flying with Franklin D Roosevelt or pretending to be Father Christmas over the phone, life stories can be used to better understand and care for its residents.
Looking further back, the spirit of Freemasonry is revealed in a fascinating document held by the Library and Museum. We learn about the hundreds of Freemasons held at Ruhleben internment camp in Germany during World War I and the launch of a campaign to send food parcels to their aid. It is just one of the many stories in this issue of Freemasonry Today that show why we should be proud to be members of this fraternal organisation.
‘Actions speak louder than words and we are increasingly convinced that the challenge of communicating what Freemasonry means will be met by members at lodge and chapter level.’
In a bid to ensure that new recruits to Freemasonry feel part of their Province, the Adair Club embraces a relaxed ethos. Simon Lewis finds out how a modern outlook and traditional masonic values combine in Somerset
About five months after I became a mason I was made redundant,’ remembers Griff Bromfield-Jenkins, a thirty-year-old mature student from Bristol. ‘Redundancy can sap the life out of you.’
At the time, Griff was the youngest Freemason he knew. Many young men in his position, without a wide network of support, might start to lose their taste for lodge business. Luckily for Griff, his Province has a club for the rising number of young Freemasons in Somerset. Established in late 2012 and named the Adair Club after youthful Crimean War hero Colonel Alexander Adair – Somerset’s youngest ever Provincial Grand Master – it’s an informal network of friends who help each other through the early years of their masonic journey.
Founder and Club Secretary Sam Mayer explains how he got the idea: ‘I joined Freemasonry in Devon in a small village lodge and felt very much at home, but then I moved up to Bristol and joined a lodge that was much older. I was quite young in the chair at twenty-seven and the next youngest was probably double my age. I could see that being an issue for some of the younger guys coming into Freemasonry. So I set up a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter account and we started a club, initially for the under-thirties, doing local visits to other lodges. We did a tour of the Bath Ales brewery back in August.’
‘Could it be a nationwide movement? I’d certainly be keen to form a network with other groups.’ Sam Mayer
‘There were about fifteen of us,’ says Griff, who’d heard about the Adair Club at a talk given by his Provincial Officer. ‘We had a few drinks and it was a relaxed way of getting people together who’d never met, since we were all from different lodges.’
One of them was Dave Gleeson, a sales manager from Bristol who, at thirty, is about to have his first child. ‘It’s nice to get a wider mix of friends from my own age group,’ says Dave. ‘We’re all at a similar stage in our journey through Freemasonry, still learning the traditions, finding our feet. Sam’s a good guide because, although he’s still quite young, he’s been a Freemason since he was twenty-one. He has a great understanding and is able to impart that to me and the other guys. One of the first events he arranged was a visit to the Bath temple where Colonel Adair’s regalia is on display, so that was a good starting point.’
Dave cites the history, rituals and morals of Freemasonry as key reasons for joining. Sam and Griff agree. But what keeps them coming back is the social side – and the Adair Club has been crucial for that. ‘We’ve done a couple of curry nights, had Christmas drinks and visited some university lodges. Sam, Griff, Harry – they’re all from different lodges and I’d never have come across them if not for this club.’
‘It’s important to have a steady stream of new guys who stay around long enough to make a difference.’ Dave Gleeson
Harry Blinston, an insurance sales manager from Weston-Super-Mare, has, like most of the group, been a Freemason for less than five years. Unlike them, he’s forty-nine and married with three kids. ‘Freemasonry has been seen as a bit fuddy-duddy,’ Harry says. ‘People think it’s a bit dusty, a bit “old gentleman’s club”. That couldn’t be further from the truth. My ten-year-old son has made some fantastic friends through my lodge, Saint Kew (No. 1222), which is incredibly active. But it’s obvious that if you don’t retain new members, the thing will struggle.’
With a core membership of around thirty and rising, no subscription fees and easy communication by social media, the Adair Club is not only building stronger ties within the Province but also further afield. On a trip to Freemasons’ Hall in London last year they met members of the Connaught Club, a young masons network founded in 2007, and saw how things are done at the Lodge of the West Indies, No. 9424. ‘Halfway through they stop, have a shot of rum, then go back to finish off the ceremony,’ recalls Griff.
‘There are quite a few clubs like ours now,’ says Sam. ‘As well as the Connaught in London, there’s a new one in Bristol called The Dunckerleys. Then there’s The Trelawny Club in Cornwall and various Light Blue clubs around the country. Could it be a nationwide movement? I’d certainly be keen to form a network with other young masons groups as they develop. I’m already in touch with South Wales, Devon and Cornwall. I’m sure it will go from strength to strength in the future as more people take it up.’
So is it working? Are new masons more likely to stay when these groups support them? John Winston, Somerset Assistant Provincial Grand Master, who becomes Deputy Provincial Grand Master in April, has the figures to hand: ‘We’ve seen a definite boost in retention,’ he says. ‘Sam said he wanted to start with a small nucleus in Bath, where there are a lot of younger masons thanks to the Universities Scheme. We have held on to them. Now the club is spreading to the other big towns. They’re getting on well, organising social events and supporting new members.’
Recruitment in Somerset has gone up in the past eighteen months, too – which is not the case in every Province. ‘I used to think it was unusual for people to become masons in their twenties,’ says Harry, ‘but I’ve got two friends who joined last year. One’s twenty-four and the other is twenty-one.’
‘I met a mason the other day at the University of Bath who was twenty-four and already Junior Warden,’ adds Dave. ‘It’s important to have a steady stream of new guys taking over the reins, and staying around long enough to make a difference. A lot of the older guys are from the police and civil service, those more institutional backgrounds, whereas most of the Adair Club are from sales or professional services.’
‘Change doesn’t imply a criticism… It doesn’t have to be about throwing out tradition.’ Harry Blinston
Along with fresh blood come fresh ideas. ‘As Freemasonry grows in Somerset, we’re keeping the traditions that we love, some of which have been unchanged for centuries,’ says Dave, ‘but we’re also modernising. We shorten the rituals wherever we can to give people time back to spend with their families.
I think we were the first in the Province to get a Twitter account and I’ve built a website for my lodge (Eldon, No. 1755), which is primarily for recruitment but also has a social element. It all helps us with our charity work and keeps us in touch with other lodges.’
None of the Adair Club would dream of changing the core tenets of Freemasonry. They’re unanimous in their love of the ritual, the history and the traditions. Keeping those alive is what the club is for. ‘Change doesn’t imply a criticism,’ says Harry. ‘I was speaking to a senior Provincial Officer the other day who was concerned: he didn’t want to throw out tradition.
But change doesn’t have to be about that. If you don’t evolve, you go the way of the dinosaurs.’
With a growing membership, the support of a progressive Provincial Grand Master and a wealth of youthful energy, the future looks bright for the Adair Club. ‘I’d like another visit to London,’ says Griff. ‘Sam’s looking into a clay pigeon shoot, which would be fantastic, and another brewery visit! We’re toying with the idea of a lodge tour of Scotland. But we’ll have to see what the wife says about that.’ Progressive as the Adair Club may be, family still comes first.