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Spreading the word

News

Cite as: (2003) 77(4) LIJ, p.30

The new Grand Master of Victoria’s Freemasons, John Evans, is working to ensure the future of Freemasonry in the state.

John Evans, a partner at Gadens Lawyers, spends most of his working week on the 27th floor of a daunting building in Bourke Street – a long way from the bump and grind of life on the street below. Thankfully, he said, his involvement in Freemasonry has kept his feet firmly on the ground. Mr Evans, who joined the Caulfield Grammarians Masonic Lodge 27 years ago, was installed as the 38th Grand Master of Victoria’s Freemasons on 21 March this year.

“Being a lawyer tends to place you in a privileged position in the community. You can lose sight of what is going on. But my involvement in Freemasonry has given me an opportunity to relate to people regardless of age or background, because we share common principles. I have made many good friends who I probably would not have met if I had not been a Freemason,” Mr Evans said.

He said he enjoyed the egalitarianism which drew together men of different cultures, religions and incomes.

Mr Evans’ legal career path, which began when he was admitted to practice in 1967, reflects many of the stages served in order to reach the position of Grand Master. He has been the newcomer, the deputy and the boss. Mr Evans studied at Melbourne University and completed his articles at Mallesons before becoming an associate with the firm. He moved to a partnership at Purves & Purves in 1976, which underwent two mergers to become Gadens Lawyers in 1999. Mr Evans oversaw the final merger and was Gadens Lawyers’ first chairman of the Partners’ Board and held the position until October last year. Aged 59, he has a general commercial practice with a focus on superannuation and financial services, franchising and independent schools.

Belief in a “Superior Being”, integrity, goodwill and charity are the cornerstones of the Freemasons, though fellowship remains the most appealing marketing tool for the organisation. The Freemasons, which came to Australia almost 200 years ago and to Victoria in 1840, is undergoing a dramatic change.

For the next two years in Victoria, it will be Mr Evans who spearheads this cultural shift. He will guide the 20,000 Victorian Freemasons in their transition from what is widely regarded as a cloistered organisation to one that is more warmly embraced by the community. Mr Evans wants Victorians to learn more about the organisation and hear about its contribution to society. The Freemasons’ philanthropy in Australia and overseas, in countries such as East Timor, remains its best-kept secret. But word is getting out. Most people know about the Freemasons Hospital and the Royal Freemasons’ Homes for the elderly throughout the state, but there is also the organisation’s $50,000 donation for fodder for drought-ravaged Victorian farms, its Leukaemia Appeal and the support given by the Freemasons Task Force to a range of charities. During the Depression Freemasons retreated from street parades and official openings into their masonic lodges because it was felt their rich, gold-embroidered regalia sent the wrong message in struggling times. While their fellowship and ceremonies became more private, their focus remained external as they continued to use their resources to quietly support charities, individuals and groups in need. World War II led to a surge in membership and a strengthening of the Freemasonry networks so there was no need to create a public profile to attract members. After that withdrawal “we never came back”, Mr Evans said.

Decades of apparent secrecy have led to many misconceptions being circulated, he said. For the record, any real or perceived conflict between Freemasons and Catholics, or people of any other religion, is over. However, Mr Evans realised that the myths about religious conflicts and Freemasonry would be hard to eradicate and could well live on and become as steeped in Australia’s non-secular folklore as the cricketing conflict between Freemason Don Bradman and his Catholic team-mate Bill O’Reilly.

He said there had long been Catholic, Jewish and Muslim members of the Freemasons. Friendship and harmony were two of the great selling points of the organisation and a fundamental belief of Freemasonry was that men from all religions were welcome.

A man’s initiation as a Freemason includes the presentation of a chisel, which reminds the member of the organisation’s historic links to stonemasons and is also a symbol of how a Freemason should live. As the chisel shapes the rough stone into something of value, he is told, so education shapes a man and helps him make a better contribution to society.

Part of the mystique surrounding the Freemasons stems from its “secret handshake”.

Mr Evans said the handshake was actually a grip and a word, and was used as a way to distinguish senior members from junior members. Each degree of Freemasonry, from apprentice to master of the lodge, has its own grip and word that is revealed to the member once he graduates to that degree. Mr Evans said that while it was not important these days to keep the handshakes secret, it was crucial to keep the mystery surrounding it intact so that members learned something new at ceremonies.

The Freemasons, although unique in many respects, are facing a challenge common to most community, social, religious and sporting organisations. They need to attract new members to join the ranks of an ageing constituency.

“My decision to join the Freemasons was based on the people I knew and also what I knew [of the organisation] sat well with my view of the world,” Mr Evans said. But, as a husband of Middletons senior associate Rosemary, father of two sons, David and Robert, and partner in one of Australia’s largest law firms, Mr Evans understands the difficulty men face when considering joining the Freemasons.

Mr Evans believes one way of recruiting men, particularly young men, to Freemasonry is for the organisation to become more prominent in the community and let people know what it has to offer in the way of friendship and support in an environment.

The misconception of secrecy is already lifting and some of the Freemason ceremonies are now open to women, family members and non-Freemasons. However, within Freemasonry the ceremonies of the higher levels or degrees are closed to those who have not moved that high up the ladder. And, of course, Freemasonry remains closed to women, although there are splinter organisations with masonic affiliations which allow women to join. It is one challenge Mr Evans does not anticipate during his term as Grand Master, but realises that a more public profile may well threaten one of the last bastions of male fraternity.

The legal profession has been well represented in the organisation with solicitor Neville Colbran and Judges Lindsay Williams, Clive Harris, Austin Asche, Oliver Gillard and Frank Nelson serving as Grand Masters in Victoria. But Mr Evans is quick to dispel another lingering myth that membership of the Freemasons is a step up the career ladder. In fact, using Freemasonry for material gain is against the organisation’s tenets. He said his greatest benefit from Freemasonry has been the practical involvement with the community and a deeper understanding of what is going on in people’s lives.

About 250 lawyers in Victoria are Freemasons and Mr Evans would like to see that number increase, but not because it will further a young lawyer’s career. He is more interested in what Freemasonry can do for a young man’s personal development. If Mr Evans was pitching Freemasonry to young lawyers, he would try and convince them of the need to relate more closely with the community. Freemasonry would give them the opportunity to practise charity in a profession increasingly driven by the clock and the dollar.

“This profession [law] has changed a lot. It is big business more than ever before and there is an unreasonable drive in some firms to record chargeable hours, which to me is not acceptable. The pressure on young lawyers is enormous. When I go out to meetings, there are a lot of young men back at the office meeting their commitments,” Mr Evans said. “Freemasonry can provide a balance between commitment to career and commitment to the community.

“I know the demands on young people with jobs and many of them see it as impossible. We, as lawyers and as Freemasons, need to see how we can make it possible for them to be more easily involved.”

Mr Evans could well become a model for young lawyers as, unlike most Grand Masters before him, he will juggle a full-time job with the demands that come with being the Grand Master. Not that the task seems to daunt him.

He said his goals were high, but his expectations were more modest. In two years he wanted to leave the Grand Master’s job knowing he had made a contribution to the future of Freemasonry in Victoria. In the meantime, he will keep spreading the word.

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