This article is reprinted courtesy of the Valley of Tampa and with the approval of the author Ill. Carl Gilmore, 33°, Master of Kadosh in the Valley of Tampa.
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
– Bob Dylan 1989
Freemasonry has lasted hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years. Certainly, one of the foundational reasons for its enduring is its focus on moral behavior, as expressed and exemplified by its members, now and in the past. However, another reason is that it also has demonstrated an ability to adapt to changes in society while, at the same time, maintaining its underlying message of morality.
It is my suspicion that such societal changes have not necessarily been slow smooth things, but rather sudden, as a result of imposed change. An example of this sudden change might well be during World War II, when there were so many Florida members overseas, that several Masonic Annual Conventions were cancelled. Finally, when the war was over and from the US standpoint successfully so, with the return of the GI’s, in the mid 1940’s, society changed.
The GI’s brought with them the positive belief that team effort could overcome all obstacles. Activity levels increased dramatically, including fraternal activity and membership. Lodge memberships changed their long-practiced formula of building their buildings with rentable space below to support the building maintenance and the lodge room above. Instead, the constant infusion of fees from the ever-present flow of new candidates took the place of the rentable space and thus new lodge buildings tended to be designed solely for fraternal use.
Then the 60’s came and with them the Vietnam War. While society generally opposed the war, the presiding politicians did not. The resulting conflict here at home and the terrible experiences of the soldiers returning from the conflict to a society that seemed to blame them, produced a generation of largely loners. These men who saw themselves as being rejected by society, in turn rejected participation in such team efforts as Fraternal Life. The flow of new members into Freemasonry slowed dramatically and in 1977, Florida Masonic membership began to decline. Over the next 40 years, the loss of membership would reduce the fraternity to a fraction of its former size. More and more the lodge financial structure, now based on the constant flow of new membership rather than the earlier rental income, began to fail. Lodges had to merge with other lodges, buildings had to be sold, etc. Change had again been imposed.
Finally, we come to yet another change in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic. As this presently unchecked disease has spread across the country, the phrase “social distancing” or “isolation” has become the dominant concept beaten into our consciousness by a media that, failing any new real message, feels constant repetition is somehow beneficial. Instead of schools bringing children together to learn to work together, among other concepts, they are now taught “virtually” at home. Workers, to the greatest extent possible, are encouraged to work from home, again electronically connecting to their duties. Because of this societal urge/requirement to remain at home and avoid contact with others, gasoline usage and thus its price, has substantially reduced.
The question is: Is this the new normal for the long term? Or is this a just a short-term necessity, that will soon go away? Perhaps more important to the fraternity: If this is the new normal, what does it mean to the membership?
It is easy to believe that the present situation of distancing will have a long-term influence on society. The obvious cost benefits from lower fuel use and personal efficiency from lower travel requirements, argue towards its continuation. So too does the idea of lesser school infrastructure. Further, we are now being told to expect this illness to be a seasonal problem. And while science will almost certainly eventually find a cure and perhaps a preventive vaccine, the idea that another such virus could suddenly show up and afflict the world is certainly going to be an active concern for at least the present generation. It appears that the “Science Fiction” authors of the 70’s and 80′, who sometimes dreamed of a society in which individuals were surrounded and served by machines with little direct human contact are being proven right in their predictions.
So, what does this mean to our fraternity? Will the new pressure of society to maintain distancing and “safe at home” practices, further diminish our meetings, especially considering that our membership is mainly in the “at risk” category? I believe the answer is that it likely will. Although man is by nature a social animal, when faced with the real fear of becoming deathly ill from attending a meeting the rational result will be to avoid that perceived danger.
What then can we do to maintain our fraternity? We again must change with society, without losing our grip on the fraternity’s central messages. If society is going to change to less physical and more virtual interaction, then so must we. We must develop ways in which our members can participate in meetings without being physically present at the facility where the meeting is being held. It appears that virtual meetings are presently, by necessity, taking the place of traditional physical ones, especially larger meetings, such as annual conventions. Perhaps this fits with the practice of presently younger society to constantly look at a screen; be it TV, computer or cell phone.
That does not mean we won’t have traditional meetings. There are many, including myself, who won’t be satisfied without meeting and greeting old friends. It will be very hard for us with decades of fraternal experience not to want to shake hands or hug. Our continued participation in the fraternity rests heavily upon this renewal of acquaintances. Since 1717 in England, when the meetings were held at the Goose and the Gridiron, congregation, fellowship and the sharing of a meal has been foundational to our activities.
Yet, somehow, both tradition and innovation must have a place at the table of Masonry. The times are indeed Changin’. The important part is to make sure that the central core message of morality remains within the “virtual” delivery.
Ill. Carl E. Gilmore, 33°
Master of Kadosh, Valley of Tampa