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The Independent Magazine for Freemasons

Brought to Light:

Contemporary Freemasonry, Meaning and Society

By: J. Scott Kenney


Dr Scott Kenney earned his PhD degree at McMaster University in 1999. He was not a Freemason when he conducted his doctoral research but was initiated a few months after receiving his degree. His undergraduate and graduate training in symbolic interactionist theory (why people join and stay with organisations and what value it has for them) coupled with his new interest in Freemasonry, led him to seek funding and undertake research into the experiences and meanings constructed by contemporary Freemasons. To this end, he interviewed 121 Canadian Freemasons in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Labrador and accessed 58 videotapes of interviews conducted with Freemasons for the film ‘Inside Freemasonry’, which was produced by Arcadia Entertainment in 2004.


The result of this is a very detailed review of all the research data. It reads a bit like a University dissertation and some of the language is consistent with his academic background – but the results are detailed, clear and very thought provoking. There are many other works cited, as you might expect, and his own data is presented in seven major chapters – Paths to Masonry; Taking the degrees; Social atmosphere and member involvement; Organisational factors and member involvement; Further factors and an overall explanatory framework; Claimed life changes; and Contemporary Freemasonry – the direction forward.


Now, you might question whether a limited sample of Canadian Freemasons is valid – but the results are consistent with much other Masonic research.


Firstly, men join Freemasonry for many reasons. Perhaps the biggest of these are family and friend contacts, curiosity, understanding of the social and charitable aspects of the Craft, the spiritual aspects and the desire to support personal and social improvement. Men are prevented from joining, as you might imagine, by bad publicity, lack of knowledge and commitment to other things such as work, family and church.


For me, the flash of inspiration came when Scott points out that the factors which support men joining an organisation are not the same factors, which support their remaining and their level of involvement. It was a bell ringing loudly!


So often lodges and Masonic leaders focus on recruitment (often it seems of anyone who is alive and willing, and at any price) when retention is the real problem. Men join, often with enthusiasm, and are quickly disillusioned by their experiences. Thus, we have seen, over the recent decades, a dramatic reduction in the number of years (even months) that new candidates remain in the Craft. The UGLE University scheme is a good idea – but how many are still in the Craft after five years? How many even fail to become a Master Mason?


The factors that support retention are not rocket science – mentoring, support, education, active brotherhood, involving wives, interesting and worthwhile meetings, activity in the community and so on. What came as a bit of a shock was how often these are neglected by lodges. When asked what were the major causes of dissatisfaction, the responses included conflict and contentious dynamics in the lodge, the inertia and obstructiveness of senior members, the pressure to conform to ‘rules’ in the lodge that jar with the member and so on. One clear source of dissatisfaction was the behaviour of Grand Lodge – its elitism, its interference and its contentious policies and practices. All of this did not balance with the rhetoric of meeting on the level and parting on the square.


The point is taken that many organisations, when facing difficulties, will seek causes in anything but poor management. W. Edwards Deming, the founder of Kaizen and quality circles, which were adopted so successfully by post-war Japan, always argued that the problems of an organisation were overwhelmingly created by the management itself. Thus, the group tasked to make things better were the group who had made things worse in the first place. This, of course, is hard for any leadership to accept.


The language at this point pulls no punches – but Scott, of course, is quoting responses and neither agreeing or disagreeing with them. However, this is what he terms a phenomenological study. What this means is that the behaviour and responses of an individual will be directly affected by what that individual feels and believes about something – even if they are wrong. Thus if you believe an organisation to be incompetent you are likely to find many examples to support your belief. Conversely, if you believe it to be charitable you will see many charitable actions.


Of course Scott is in a part of the world where there are many Grand Lodges – some promoting things which others then condemn.


But where does all this lead? What is Scott suggesting we should do?


Well, it is here that it all gets a bit murkier. There are two possibilities; the first to become more integrated, more social, more inclusive. It will widen the demographic but probably alienate many older and more traditional members. The other path leads to a more exclusive, traditional, moral, spiritual group which is likely to be perceived as an aged and deviant (even religious) subculture. Scott considers that at present, both are operating and this may continue. Of course, if you are a ruler tasked with revitalising the organisation, you might want a stronger guide. One American president asked his economic advisers what was going to happen to the economy and, thus, what he should do. He was presented with more and more options – on the one hand, he could do this, on the other hand, he could do that. In frustration he banged his fist on the desk and demanded that what he needed right now was to talk to a one handed economist!


Scott’s book has presented all the views and issues in very full detail. What some who read the book might want is less (negative) data and more recommendations.


Reviewed by Tony Martin


Wilfred Laurier University Press, 294 pages

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