December 2008 - Pro Grand Master's Address to the Quarterly Communication

December 2008

An address by the MW The Pro Grand Master The Most Hon The Marquess of Northampton, DL


As this is the last Grand Lodge at which I shall preside I would like to take the opportunity to put on record some of my thoughts about English Freemasonry. Looking back over the past 300 years it is clear that Freemasonry has adapted to fit the society of the day from which it draws its members, and to ensure its future will have to continue to do so. In fact the cause of many of its recent problems was that it lost touch with a changing society and stopped communicating with the popular world. It shows the resilience of the Craft and the strength of its ethos that in so short a time it has been able to adjust itself to a new openness without in any way compromising its basic tenets.

But as well as looking outwards to our relationship with society we have also had to look inwards at the way we do things and see if they are still relevant to the 21st Century. Becoming more open was not just about our interaction with the public - although who could have foreseen 20 years ago that many of our Provinces would now have their own stands at County Shows - it was also about being open with our families and friends and learning how to explain our Masonry to non-Masons in layman’s terms. There are so many good things in Freemasonry that can be openly talked about, and the majority of Masons now accept that the only things we want to keep private are the modes of recognition without which one can not attend our ceremonies.

When I became Pro Grand Master I said I wanted to integrate the Craft more and this I have tried to do by having better communication with London and our Provinces and Districts. My business meeting with all Craft and Royal Arch Rulers on the eve of the Annual Investiture has made it possible to discuss common issues and agree a way forward. It is one thing to have a vision but not much use without also having a strategy for its implementation. There is now a much closer integration between the High Rulers, the Board and the Grand Secretary when it comes to making decisions. This has been made easier by having a smaller Board, comprising mostly Brethren who have had considerable business experience, and a Grand Secretary who can now concentrate on our own Brethren, leaving responsibility for our relationships with other Grand Lodges to the newly-appointed Grand Chancellor.

On the business side, Grand Lodge is now on a sound financial footing and no longer has to rely on investment income to cover its annual expenditure. This magnificent building deserves to be maintained to a very high standard. I am delighted that all our Masonic Charities felt able to come together within it. This has been an important change in their thinking and they can now work together and share resources to improve their efficiency, and thereby the quality of care we provide for Masons and their dependents who need our assistance.

Together with integration, we have tried to become more transparent in the way we do things. I lost count of the number of times I heard Brethren in the Provinces question what London does with all their money. This was one of the reasons why I was keen to start the Rulers Forum, and give many more Brethren, through a group system, access to those who make the decisions. It provides a forum in which questions can be asked and new ideas put forward. The more transparent we are, the less we will be criticized either by the general public or by our own members.

I have also held various conferences with all our Provincial and District Grand Masters to agree a common vision for implementation by them in a way that best suits their members.

So, as well as integration, I believe firmly in decentralisation. One size does not fit all and each Province and District is unique. However, to decentralise takes trust and much effort has gone into building better relations between the Centre and those who have the responsibility of managing our Brethren at a local level. The future success of the Craft depends as much on the quality of its leaders as it does on the quality of its candidates.

We need Metropolitan, Provincial and District Grand Lodges to manage our Lodges and we need the equivalent Grand Masters to inspire their Brethren to practise out of the Lodge what they have been taught in it. They must also see that the rules laid down in the Book of Constitutions and the edicts of Grand Lodge are adhered to. But it is in the individual Lodges that the real work is undertaken and the precedence of the Master and the sovereignty of the Lodge are paramount. I have tried to impress on Brethren that they are responsible for the success or otherwise of their Lodges, and to give them the freedom to explore ways of making their ritual more impressive for the candidate and more enjoyable for their visitors. Many bad habits have crept into our ceremonies over time which have nothing to do with the rituals and which only serve to increase the length of our meetings. We are trying to accommodate young men with pressures of time and money, family and business. We should consider anything which makes it easier for them to enjoy their Masonry as long as it is within our rules. We should not be afraid to experiment with new ideas.

This leads me on to the importance of education. I still find it difficult to believe that when I joined Freemasonry over 30 years ago there were many Brethren who were unable to answer even simple questions about the meanings behind the symbols in our rituals. To talk about education was frowned upon and yet intelligent young men were being asked to join an organisation which could hardly explain itself because it had never had to do so, let alone in an inspiring and meaningful way. I have been involved in and supported several educational initiatives to study different aspects of Freemasonry including the Library and Museum Charitable Trust, the Centre for Masonic Studies at the University of Sheffield, Canonbury Masonic Research Centre and The Cornerstone Society. There are also many research Lodges that do excellent work. The latest Grand Lodge initiative has been the Orator Scheme, which I hope will encourage Masons to look deeper into the meaning of the rituals on their personal journey of self-discovery. I chaired a successful meeting with all our Orators recently and feel confident that the objectives of the scheme will be met. I hope that soon we will have a similar scheme for the Royal Arch.

This is all part of our vision for recruitment and retention. Personally, I see recruitment as a public relations and marketing exercise and the best public relations we can ever have is the individual Mason talking to his friends enthusiastically about his Masonry. The best marketing will, I hope, soon be our Grand Lodge website. This is the single most important public face of English Freemasonry. It is the easiest way for men to find us, and it is where we should be laying out our stall to attract quality candidates. It is then up to Lodges to ensure their interview process sifts out unsuitable men. A lot of effort has been going on behind the scenes to develop a first class website, aimed at men in the 35-50 years old age range. This will include some video element and is due to go live in March. I am very excited by its potential.

For retention, we have the Mentoring Scheme. Every candidate should be given a Mentor to help him understand what we do and why, and introduce him to the other members of the Lodge. Nothing puts a candidate off more than a holier-than-thou approach from more experienced Brethren who should know better. Arrogance has no place in an organisation which teaches Brotherly Love as its first Grand Principle. A candidate should be encouraged to ask questions - and if we do not know the answers we should point him in the right direction to find out.

I would like to say a few words about charity. I have always thought that our second Grand Principle, Relief, is as much about the work of the Almoner as it is about that of the Charity Steward. Of course, we must give generously to support not only our Masonic charities but also those less fortunate than ourselves. But Relief is about having compassionate feelings towards our fellow beings. I interpret our ritual to mean that if the candidate comes knocking on our door with an open mind - a perfect freedom of inclination - then the system of Freemasonry will open his heart and make him a wiser and more compassionate person. Charity is therefore an effect of our Masonry, not a cause. The very large sums our members gave spontaneously for the Tsunami Appeal was a good example. I was therefore pleased that in our recent troubles we were never tempted to deflect criticism by claiming we were primarily a charitable organization. Other overseas Grand Lodges have gone down that route with unfortunate consequences.

The many millions raised for our Masonic charities from Provincial Festivals never fails to make me proud to belong to such a generous organization, and the money we give to the Grand Charity for non-Masonic giving reflects well on the Craft. There are also the large sums given to non-Masonic causes by individual Lodges. When I joined Freemasonry it was an unwritten rule that we did not talk openly about our charitable giving. I hope that has now changed. There is no doubt that the best - and probably only - publicity we can expect is from the local press and we should therefore concentrate our efforts on local causes. There can be few better ways of promoting the good things that Freemasonry stands for than by being seen to be doing something for our local communities and that is as much about practical help as it is about financial assistance.

As we approach our tercentenary we can be rightly proud of what has been achieved by English Freemasonry since its inception. I know of no other organisation which teaches such noble virtues to its members. For me, the two qualities which stand out more than any others are tolerance and trust. Tolerance reflects the universality of the Craft and trust enables its members to unite in peace, love and harmony.

As the mother Grand Lodge of the world we have a responsibility to share our experience with those younger Grand Lodges who ask for advice and support. We are the arbiters of regularity and our recent conference on that subject left overseas Grand Lodges in no doubt where we stand on the matter. We take the view that it is the individual Mason, imbued with the principles of the Order, who makes a difference in society and not Freemasonry itself. In other words, Freemasonry is just the system which makes men better-able to play a responsible role for the good of society. I wholeheartedly endorse that position but enjoy the thought that if you could put those individuals together outside of Freemasonry you would have a collective wisdom and generosity of spirit which might be of great benefit to society.

Over the past 25 years we have had to go from being reactive to proactive, as a consequence of the attacks against us. I believe we have been successful in repositioning ourselves back into society and the temptation is now to ease off and slide back into our old ways. I hope that will not happen. We are fortunate that there have been some landmark cases in the European Courts which have been in our favour - but we can not afford to be complacent. We must always be able to defend ourselves with rational argument. The efforts made by so many Brethren should now be channelled into attracting and retaining good men and improving the quality of our Masonry. This will ensure our future and preserve one of the last great initiation societies in existence today. I am sure my successor will have many ideas of his own. I wish him well and he will continue to have my full support.

Brethren, I end by thanking my wife, Pamela, for her love and support without which my job would have been much harder and my enjoyment of it much less.

She has always taken a keen interest in the positive psychological changes Masonry brings about in men. I thank the Grand Master for appointing me as his Pro and giving me the opportunity of serving the Craft and the Royal Arch in such challenging and exciting times. His experience of all things Masonic stretching back over 40 years has been invaluable and we are truly fortunate to have him as our head.

I thank my fellow Rulers - past and present - who have worked so hard to bring about change, and finally I thank all those Brethren who have supported me during the last 14 years as a High Ruler. We have worked together to ensure that the Craft we all love and enjoy, and its Grand Principles of Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth, will continue to inspire men for many generations to come.

Freemasonry: a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.