Attendance and participation of Freemasons in regular Lodge meetings in Mumbai and elsewhere in the world: an overview and observations
by Ujjwal Dey
Brethren who have been years into Freemasonry have noticed the glory of Masonry. They have also witnessed its steady decline. It is a decline in membership, attendance, participation and learning of the craft. All over the world this change is felt in busy cities. Mumbai is no exception. We spend on average 2 to 3 hours simply commuting from home to office to home. In between we run around for household errands, bill payments, shopping and dropping kids to tuition or school. Then like every good Indian family we entertain a range of relatives and neighbours and old friends. At the same time we are members in an ancient fraternity, the summons of which are optional distractions for some of us.
It is a bitter truth we have to face. We may wake up everyday at 7 am and brush our teeth and have the apple or coffee. We will even bow down to the idols at home, the photos of deities around us, bow or rather nod at the temples we pass on our way to work and then finally touch the idol at our cubicle desk before booting the office computer. It’s a routine. A ritual. A blind one done with habitual faith. We can pray and sing bhajans but can’t find time to meditate. It says a lot about the nature of the city-dwelling-human. For us, even the God is a chore to get done and move on from. Offer the beggars a few pennies and the dogs a few biscuits and God is now on our side – bribed with money, because we don’t have time for Him.
We, as Freemasons, have an additional obligation. A Holy altar and a unique Temple and Craft Rituals. Our temple is also a temple of God. It is also sacred. We never seem to treat it as such. How a man behaves at his temple, church, mosque, gurudwara, etc. is definitely not how he interacts with the Masonic Temple. There is no sanctity, no reverence, no dignity.
In our eagerness to boost membership, we have managed to get a few hundreds to join various Lodges. Even the Grand Lodge of India offered a congratulatory pin to every Mason who proposed more than two candidates to his Lodge. We were all so happy for a few months. A festive banquet attended by 30 members sometimes. This boost crumbled soon enough. It was a house of cards built to guard Masonry as if it were a fort made of stone. Alas, we can only make good men better. Others, they joined, they saw, they got bored, they left.
Bored? Such a cruel word for Masonic practices? Well, there could be other reasons too. Maybe they thought it was a wonderful club full of rich influential people. Maybe they thought they will learn some unique secrets about how the world works after they are raised. Maybe they joined because some dear friend nagged them to do so. Whatever may be the reason, one can be sure, when they were initiated and blessed with the gift of “Light”, they didn’t appreciate it. They found no meaning in it. Some candidates have even found the various rituals tedious and unnecessary. The allegory and metaphors and symbolism were lost on these new minds.
What does Freemasonry mean to you? Have you ever asked yourself this question? Is it another excuse to get out from home and have good whiskey? Is it an excuse to network among heavyweight businessmen? Is it reduced to a hobby of yours?
Well Sir, Freemasonry is a belief system. You may have mechanically taken an oath on a Holy Book, but those Volumes of Sacred Law define the brotherhood of man. All children of one Almighty Father. This is a belief system. The religious fanatics will not allow you to believe this nor let you fraternize with those others who are pagans in their eyes. Similarly, the rituals, the symbols, they encode a belief system about a way of life. Faith, Hope and Charity are not words one learns by rote for specific ceremonies – it is a culture of Freeemasons all over the world since time immemorial. Do you believe, honestly, from the bottom of your heart, that you are a Freemason?
Being a gentleman is only half the effort of being a Freemason. The other half comes from practice of craft, virtue and honor. Is there honor in joining a Temple and then excommunicating that Temple for the rest of your life? So many summons unanswered. So many requests for payment of membership dues unanswered. Would your close-knit community of family accept such behaviour from you? Marry a woman, enjoy the night, then disappear the next day, maybe even leave the city forever. Or would your close-knit community of religious followers accept such behaviour from you? Join a congregation, enjoy the feast, drop a few coins, then don’t answer the doorbell when they keep coming back to invite you for the various festivals and poojas. Unfortunately, today, Freemasonry has such “members”. Their names continue in the Lodge records. Sometimes the Lodge pays the dues to the Regional Grand Lodge from the pockets of subscribing members, so as to keep the membership number from depreciating at each meeting. In my eyes, even the participating Masons are degrading the Craft by allowing such behaviour.
But the veterans of the Craft didn’t give up. They had a new idea. Give important offices in the Lodge to these new members and then these (shallow) men will have a feeling of importance and pride. That would boost attendance. The new trick worked as well. Everyone wanted to attend and learn the Craft Rituals so as to be an officer in the Lodge. The trend was very pleasing. However, as with all Karma, intentions are more significant than actions. The new officers passed the Eastern chair and decided they have achieved all there was to be done as a Freemason. Some were encouraged to go work for Regional Grand Lodge or even Grand Lodge of India. Those are however responsibilities. Most of these men were cultivating hobbies, not responsibilities. Just as we discard a guitar after a few months of purchase, the fad of being an officer in the Lodge died away as well. The intention of these new members was to flatter themselves with new ranks. They still had no belief in Freemasonry.
Well Sir, we are a brotherhood. If you can’t feel it in your heart that I am your brother in spirit and gesture – then simply advocating the formality of “Bro.” as a prefix to my name will not help you become my brother. The day you believe in the ancient prophecy of man being simply “one” under the eyes of the All-Seeing-God, that day, you will feel guilt and shame at missing meetings with brethren and ignoring summons to the Masonic Temple.
Some brothers suggest to meet only 4 times a year instead of meeting once every month. This is offered as a solution to the attendance problem. Well Dearies, there are plenty of Chapters and Mark Lodges – all of them meet only 4 times a year – I ask you, are they free of this plague of absenteeism?
Meeting once a month or once in three months – does that ever influence participation of members? Well Sir, you have to look at your brethren and identify who live up to be a Freemason and who treats it as an interesting pastime. Do not make this sacred institution a refuge of elitist wannabes. Do not attract candidates without the effort to carve those rough ashlars into spectacular emblems of Freemasonry. Every candidate is a major responsibility for the Master Masons in the Lodge. It should not be left to a handful of Past Masters to raise a brother. He is to be raised together, as a family unit, so that he may feel the bonds of brotherhood and be so attached with the Lodge members to become its rightful heir in the future.
- Suggestions to all Worshipful Masters reading this article:
Do not accept apologies if they don’t mention a reason. Simply saying “Sorry, I won’t be able to attend” is not an apology, it is an excuse. Such empty apologies should not be recorded in the minutes of the meeting.
- Brethren of the Lodge should take keen interest in the missing brethren. What woe or tragedy has befallen them to keep them away from Masonic duties? Are they sick? Is there a financial setback in their career? Lack of attendance could also mean that a fellow brother has fallen into bad times and we should pursue him to be his aid, his Light in his time of darkness.
- The Regional Grand Master should demand that each Worshipful Master submit a report at the end of their terms about why specific brethren have less than 50 % attendance in their year of reign. Again, reasons are expected, not excuses.
- Every Lodge should amend its by-laws. It should be made clear that members who have not paid their dues for over 24 months will no longer be considered as members of the Lodge. Further, these members’ names should be registered with the Regional Grand Lodge and the Grand Lodge of India so that he may not become a member of the same Lodge or any other Lodge until his past dues are paid. Freemasonry is about charity. But this charity is reserved for those in need and who are in distress. These non-paying members are causing thousands and even lakhs of Rupees to be diverted from the pockets of paying members to pay the dues to the Regional Grand Lodge. These thousands of Rupees could have been better and more Masonically used for charity to the millions of downtrodden in India (and just look at Mumbai streets).
- Every Lodge should amend its by-laws to re-evaluate its absentee members. If these members have paid their dues but not attended more than 25 % of the meetings in a Masonic year – then he needs to be re-evaluated as a Master Mason. Apart from an email, a registered post should be sent to his last known address with acknowledgement received from the post office that the letter has reached its recipient. The letter should inform him of his current standing in the Lodge – absent for over 75 % meetings held. “Dear Sir, do you wish to continue as a Freemason in our Lodge?” Let him respond at length. He may indeed have serious problems because of which such a serious absence has occurred. But a response is required. If not, let it be balloted to remove that brother’s name from membership of that Lodge. We are not a club that you pay and walk in when you feel like having a drink with a different crowd of people. Believe in Masonic principles or please join us again at a later date when you are free from other obligations that take up your time. We meet only once a month. The Masonic Temple is not demanding your salute every single day, is it?
- The members of a Lodge are more than just brothers. They function exactly like a family unit. So there should be no embarrassment of any brother. At the same time, the brother found to be at fault of protocol should not request private response with the Worshipful Master. All the brothers in the Lodge deserve to hear the reasons for his absenteeism. This is not at all to mock him or humiliate him. I believe ONLY SHARING OF PROBLEMS can build stronger bonds among the brethren in a Lodge. How many 70 year old Masons in your Lodge do you keep in touch with? Do you ask them about their health or other concerns? Similarly, the young absentee brother may also be having serious problems – maybe in office, maybe with his child, maybe with his own belief-systems. His sharing of his problems is one of the many factors that will unite the brothers and build stronger bonds that stand the test of time and fate. After all, we all share good news with the brethren. Yet we shy away from sharing the worries that haunt us most of the time.
- Masonic Education Program should not be a correspondence course. All Lodges should make it a practice to cover small but significant portions of the syllabus at every meeting. This can be taken up after the primary working is over and the Lodge is open to any point in particular. The designated ARGM can be the judge of knowledge of tested member. Instead of one year, it will take every Lodge three to four years to cover the syllabus. But these brethren will have practical and comprehensive knowledge of Masonry. And it will stay inside them for a long time to come. This is nothing new that I suggest. This is how Masonry was propagated a 100 years ago in this very India.
- One inter-Lodge meeting should be mandatory for every Lodge in a Masonic year. So one Lodge would have to have a joint meeting with another Lodge of any region in India or even within the same city. This helps newer brethren learn about how other Lodges are functioning. It also improves fraternal bonding among Freemasons of different Lodges.
- Every Master Mason is a living, walking, talking brand of Freemasonry. By simply being a better Mason, we will naturally attract good friends in every circle of people. This makes it easier to find a suitable candidate for your Lodge. Since you are a shining example of Masonic values, you will therefore bring virtuous members to your Lodge. Let every Master Mason live the values and thus promote Freemasonry in a natural and healthy way.
- The Regional Grand Lodge should announce a Top Ten Lodges of its region at its Annual meeting. Reasons for the selection should be mentioned clearly even if in brief. Similarly, the Grand Lodge of India should announce a Top Ten Lodges in India at its Annual meeting. Valid citations should be read acknowledging those Lodges’ qualification for the honour. Lodges in India themselves should learn from these venerable Lodges and aspire to be better and better.
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Copyright Ujjwal Dey 2012