A New Millennium, A Time Of Change

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You would not create much of a fuss with many people these days by stating with confidence that a New Year as well as a new millennium began on Saturday, January 1, 2000. Consensus on this matter, however, at least in North Carolina and the 12 other original colonies, goes back only around 250 years.

If you had lived anywhere in North Carolina in 1750, the New Year would not have been greeted on the first day of January. You would have wished family and friends a happy New Year on March 25, the spring equinox. It was not until 1752 that Great Britain and its Colonies joined other European countries in officially adopting the Gregorian calendar of 1582, which British Protestants had long regarded as some sort of infernal plot on the part of Pope Gregory Xlll.

According to the United States Naval Observatory, the nation’s official timekeeper, the end of the second millennium and the beginning of the. Third will be reached on January 1, 2001. Despite this fact, much of the world, including us in the York Rite, celebrated the new millennium on December 31, 1999, when the calendar flipped to the year 2000. If people believe something is true, it is true.

There is not necessarily universal consensus even today exactly what year began on January 1. On the Jewish religious calendar, this year is not a millennium but the year 5760. For Muslims, whose calendar begins in July 622 (the date of Mohammed’s flight from Mecca to Medina), the coming year will be a youthful 1378. Dr. Albert Mackey’s Encyclopedia of Freemasonry lists four Masonic calendars: Ancient Craft Masonry, AL 6000 (year plus 4000); Royal & Select Masters, AD 3000 (year plus 1000); Royal Arch, 2530 (year plus 530); Knight Templar, AO 882 (year minus 1118). Perhaps in the ordinary scheme of things, none of this really matters. The fact is that we have been fortunate to experience a new millennium, an event that has happened only five or six times in recorded history.

Speaking of the fuss created in preparations for the New Millennium, remember the concern about the Y2K computer bugs? Although no major problems occurred, some Y2K glitches did happen. The Raleigh News and Observer dated December 21, 1999 carried a story titled “Millennium Bug in Drivers Seat’. It seems that Polly Rosenburg, living in Arizona, applied for new driver’s license a month before her 100th birthday. Her approaching birthday caused the state’s driver license database to throw a statistical conniption. The drivers license system had been fixed for Y2K problems but was bridged to deal with the calendar rollover. Consequently, Rosenburg was issued a license with a 1999 date of birth rather than 1899. State officials assured Rosenburg that no police officer would question her age. But she insisted upon accuracy and was issued a handwritten license.

We have entered the Millennium and many of us are concerned about our future, including the future of Masonry as we move forward into the 21st Century. The future is, of course, an illusion. Nothing has happened there yet. What Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, California, may be said about the future: There is no there. Marshal McLuhan states for whatever future we see, it is only a projection of the past. Imagined futures are always more about where we have been than where we are going. What I am driving at, is that in order to have an agreeable encounter with the twenty-first century, we will have to take into it some good ideas. And in order to do that, we need to look back and take stock of the good ideas available to us.

How far back should we go for ideas? We can start first by taking a look at the 20th Century, just completed. Our century has been glorious, and it has been damned. it has sent humanity through unprecedented horrors on the way to the stars. In the words of the English philosopher Isaiah Berlin, “the most terrible century in Western History;’ The world wars carried destruction to the far corners of the planet. The chronicles of human wreckage the Holocaust, the gulag and the recent atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and in Africa haunt us still. At the same time, ours has been the century in which science and technology have opened dazzling new prospects for suffering mankind.

Our 20th century began with an optimistic mood about the future of democracy. Then the Great War showed Democracy could not guarantee peace, and the Great Depression showed that Democracy could not guarantee prosperity. Fanatical anti-democratic movements arose communism fascism, Nazism, and militarism.

In the end totalitarianism collapsed before the superior power, energy and vitality of free societies. Where totalitarianism suppressed the individual, democracy empowers individuals, giving them the opportunity and the right to think and debate and invent and dream. Individuals can make a difference in history.

But the conditional triumph of democracy does not solve our problems. The failures of democracy in the 20th century produced the totalitarian challenges. In the century ahead, if people are not once more to turn their backs on freedom, democracy must construct a humane, prosperous and peaceful world. It must deliver the goods.

What matters in history are not always the things that happen but also the things that obstinately refuse to happen. It was in 1882 that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche made his celebrated and dire pronouncement: ‘God is dead.’ He was speaking for many intellectuals, who believed the! progress of science would cause a decline in religious faith with Christianity the principal loser. As the year 1900 approached, many leading secular thinkers, including George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells argued that the dawning 20th century would mark the close of history’s religious phase. But here we are, at the new millennium, and Christianity is alive and well in the minds and hearts of new believers. Two thousand years ago, Christ preached a doctrine of gentleness, love, and boldness of spirit. It took hold; it is still with us and grows ever stronger. The evidence indicates that it will still be flourishing another thousand years from now, for it continues to strike new roots and regain lost territories.

The past 20 centuries have shown the doctrine of: “to love God with all thy might and heart and soul and love thy neighbor as thy self,’ cannot entirely banish the darker side of humanity. It cannot end war, cruelty, greed and the miseries of the poor. But it mitigates all these things, and it offers a continuing vision of our better, purer selves, and the better purer world we could create. It carries us with faith and hope into the future.

Surely, this is indeed good news for the future of Freemasonry. Freemasonry respects the dignity of every human being. Its philosophy of the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, the moral law, the Golden Rule, and the hope of a life everlasting organized within a Fraternity of men from all levels of society, are still valid and still has a future.

But currently we face a serious dilemma, the growth of 20th century Freemasonry appears to have not done well. Recent statistical studies predict that based on the trend of Blue Lodge membership losses, America’s Freemasonry can only survive until about 2040. Further, Lodge attendance and participation, only averages about 10%, may impact on meaningful Masonic work. Can it survive? The experience of 300 years of the Fraternity has clearly shown that when Masonry does not work, it is because it has stopped concentrating on its overall fraternal purpose and agenda. Perhaps we became self centered and lost focus on the greater mission of the Fraternity and its duty to humanity.

Before we shoot the messenger, let’s reflect on something. The good acts of Freemasonry have not disappeared. Charitable and other good Masonic works do continue. I do not recall seeing data which correlates the amount of charities, degree of community services and other activities to membership and attendance. Maybe we might be shocked to discover that the 10% attending out of the current 50% remaining have been carrying the load for all these years. Would it surprise you to know that only about 20 - 24% of this Nation’s population ever volunteers for anything?

The origins of modem Freemasonry trace from 17th and 18th century Europe, during a time called the Age of Enlightenment. It was an intellectual movement in which ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and man were synthesized into a world view that gained wide assent and that instigated revolutionary developments in art, philosophy, and politics. Central to Enlightenment thought were the use and the celebration of reason, the power by which man understands the universe and improves his own condition. This led to the notion that man should try to embrace all knowledge and develop his capacities as fully as possible. One of the movement’s most enduring legacies is the belief that human history is a record of general progress.

It was during this period that Freemasonry blossomed and flourished. Freemasonry, insisting on a universal brotherhood was to exert a profound influence on the great reformers of the 18th century, such as Newton, and Hume in England, Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau in France, and Jefferson, Franklin and Washington in what was to become the United States. The Enlightenment, a period of high optimism, contributed to the reform of governments based on natural rights and functioning as a political democracy. In America, Thomas Jefferson contributed to this ideal in drafting the Declaration of Independence. Of the 56 signers of the Declaration, 20 were Masons.

During the 20th century, dramatic changes and challenges have developed, particularly in science and technology. Many of these changes will continue into the 21st Century. The world population, which is a measure of our technological ability to preserve life end feed ourselves, has risen steadily. In the last two hundred years the growth has become exponential, that is, the population grows by the same percentage each year. Currently the rate is about 1.9% each year. 1.9% may not sound very much but it means the world population doubles every 40 years. Can the present exponential growth continue for the next millennium. Technological developments have also been growing exponentially. According to Stephen Hawking, a renowned physicist, the world’s population, by the year 2600, would be standing shoulder to shoulder putting great demands on the earth’s resources and environment.

If we were looking back from the year 2030, what changes occurring now will have most affected our lives by then? Two major developments that stand out in response to that question are the fields of information technology and genetic research. Spurred by the computer chip and rapidly expanding computing capacity, information technology already has revolutionized aspects of our lives from the work place to personal communications. The ever increasing computer capacity has made the mapping of the human genome possible. Research presently underway, will soon identify all the estimated 100,000 genes in human DNA and determine the sequences of the 3 billion chemical bases that make up that DNA. What will we humans do with this knowledge about our own natural information system? How will the two technologies continue to interact end influence each other? The possibilities are full of advantages and challenges that will most often be defined and answered by all of us as we make choices in our everyday lives. The biological age we enter has serious ethical and moral challenges on the personal and national levels. if we truly believe in the dignity of every human being we as Freemasons must become involved.

Brethren, Freemasonry does not live in a vacuum. Nor can it continue to survive by secretly staying behind the closed door, guarded by a man with a drawn sword in his hand. Freemasonry exists in a world of constant change. Change is a given in our culture and society. We have two options: we can be proactive and innovative, using positive change to enhance and strengthen Freemasonry; or, we can ignore these changes, simply continue to do what we were doing three hundred years ago without: adapting to the world as it exists today, and continue achieving the same negative results. The course of action to take is obvious but not easy because of our natural reluctance to change. However, we must encourage and reward new ideas, be willing to try and experiment with new approaches. Clearly, these innovations and changes should be developed and shared among all parts of our Masonic Fraternity.

What vision might the York Rite propose, here today, that could reverse Freemasonry’s grim future forecast for the year 2040? 1 propose “Commitment towards Masonic Unity.” The idea of Masonic Unity is not new. Currently, Masonic Unity is being considered by many different Masonic organizations. Unity is the theme this year of our Grand Master, Most Worshipful Charles E. Cathey. The York Rite has always recognized the critical importance of an active partnership with the Blue Lodges and the Grand Lodge in our State. Recently, a number of Grand Jurisdictions at the national level, including the Shrine, York Rite, Scottish Rite, and a number of Grand Lodges, have formed the Masonic Renewal Committee of North America to develop ways to enhance membership.

But true Masonic Unity requires the commitment of the individual Mason. Unity begins in the heart and mind of the individual Mason. There are things than can and should be done at the State and National levels: coordination of efforts and public awareness campaigns are some examples. But the finest membership campaigns and education programs, prepared by Grand Jurisdictions, are to no avail unless accepted and put into practice by a motivated individual. The Fraternity begins with a Mason, who is a committed, proud, active member of his Blue Lodge and his community. At the York Rite Summer Assembly, here in Waynesville, N. C., July 16, 1985, Grand Master Ira Boyd Hopkins gave a talk titled, ‘Commitment: the First Step to York Rite’s Future.’ He stated that Freemasonry’s very survival depends upon every Freemasons commitment to the Fraternity, which is entrusted, to each of them. He went on to say ‘ It is time for fraternal evangelism.” Further stating, Fraternal evangelism is simply the process of bearing and sharing the good news of brotherly love, friendship, relief and truth. It includes commitment toward spreading the word about the craft and its opportunities and inviting friends to become Masons.

Many say that to recruit men into Masonry is not and should not be allowed. Perhaps it is long over due. It is being done in Great Britain and other countries. The Rotary, Lions Clubs and all the other organizations seeking good men for membership do it, The typical argument is that ‘a man must seek membership on his own free will and accord. Fine, what is wrong with inviting a friend, after explaining the craft to him and than allowing him to use his own free will and accord to either accept or reject a petition for membership?

Brethren, Freemasonry does not survive in a vacuum. We must be ready and able to act pro-actively in our world. Never let it be said a few good men cannot change the world, for it has been done. The. Fraternity has and can continue to help guarantee the transition of values to generations yet unborn and serve as models for the continuation of the basic ideals of our Republic. Remember the watchword of the American Revolution, “united we stand, divided we fall.” It is still valid. Let us focus our attention on each of our members and help motivate Commitment. We must also encourage and .reward innovation. Let us seek and promote Unity, not uniformity, but Unity with a purpose – commitment to Freemasonry and Fraternal Evangelism.

Richard M Ripley, Grand Warder,
Grand Commander, Knights Templar of North Carolina