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Freemason numbers on the decline as members age

Sunday 05 Jul 2009 12:00a.m.

Freemason numbers on the decline as members age

Secret societies are great material for bestselling novels like the The Da Vinci Code, but the reality for groups like the Freemasons is that fewer people these days are interested in their secrets and in New Zealand membership is at an all time low.

There were almost 47,000 members at its peak in the 1960s, now there are fewer than 11,000.

The Grand Master of New Zealand Freemasonry, Stan Barker, says although new members are joining, they can't compete with the number dying or the time-pressures of today.

"I guess I could say that my father probably would never change a nappy in his life," he says. "No young man with a family's going to: get away with that nowadays."

The decline is despite a spike in numbers when the Freemasons, known for their charitable work and donations, tried to raise their profile by inviting the public and the media into lodge meetings in 2004 .

However Freemasonry is still very much a society with secrets.

Richard Clements, a former Master Mason and current Baptist minister, left because of the ritualistic ceremonies and warns others against joining.

"Some of these vows and pledges you are asked to make are actually quite horrifying," he says. "They're actually quite graphic and really quite bloodthirsty."

Historian Peter Lineham says Freemasonry has had a significant influence in New Zealand's history - both in business and politics. Even past prime ministers have been Freemasons.

"I think the three of them that need to be picked out are in fact Massey, Holland in the 1950s and Holyoake in the '60s," says historian Peter Lineham.

During Sir Keith Holyoake's time, a new Parliament building was designed - originally sketched on the back of a napkin by British architect Basil Spence while he was at dinner with Holyoake. The building was the beehive - a Masonic symbol.

New Zealand's national anthem was written by a Freemason.

And although Masonic membership may be low nowadays and only two current National MPs belong, it still has its roots firmly planted in New Zealand.

It is estimated the New Zealand Freemasons own over $300 million of property and investments.

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