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.’