The Sliding Doors moment for Dr David Staples came as he was changing into his robes for his very first meeting as a Freemason. Staples was in his first year at Oxford University, having joined Magdalen College from humble roots in south-east London, and found himself swept into the Apollo Lodge by an enthusiastic housemate. Despite his best efforts, he still didn’t have a good idea about what Freemasonry was actually about and he began to wonder what he was doing
'I remember I was getting changed and started thinking, “Do I really want to do this?”’ he recalls almost 30 years later. ‘I was in half a mind to go home. It’s amazing how these little decisions affect your life. I had no idea then what an impact it would have on my life.'
That’s an understatement. Dr Staples, now 46, soon became absorbed in the Craft, developing parallel careers in the NHS and Freemasonry as he moved around the country, from Oxford to Bath to Nottingham and then Peterborough, with a year in Australia. In the medical world, he became a clinical director, while in Freemasonry he made it to Deputy Grand Director of Ceremonies. Then, at a dinner in London, he received a tap on the shoulder. ‘Somebody said to me, “What about Grand Secretary?” My reply was “Well, I don’t know him terribly well but he seems like a nice chap."'
It soon became clear that Dr Staples was being invited to apply for the role. In 2017, following a rigorous nine-month interview process, he was appointed both Grand Secretary and the UGLE’s first Chief Executive.
This was a new role designed to help modernise the processes of Freemasonry without impacting its history. It’s an approach that seems to sit well with Dr Staples’ ability to combine tradition with modernity. The hallway of his Victorian home features contemporary art alongside hunting scenes, while the landscaped garden contains a section of solar panels. Dr Staples is a music lover, and one room boasts a baby grand piano, a Victorian pump organ and a curious eight-horned trumpet he bought as a joke for his wife. He is an occasional lodge organist and one perk of his job is that when everybody else has gone home, he can have a quick play of the organ in Grand Temple at Freemasons’ Hall.
In the dining room at home sits a completed 750-piece jigsaw depicting Bernard Picart’s Masonic Lodge board at Freemasons’ Hall, which is a sign of how some members of the household have spent their lockdown. It’s doubtful whether Dr Staples himself has found the time, so vigorously has he set about transforming UGLE while working occasional shifts at his local hospital and assisting with the odd bout of home schooling.
He set himself two targets when he took the job. One was to modernise processes to reduce form- filling, something that will be completed with the roll out of Hermes. The other was to rehabilitate the image of Freemasonry among the public. Although he had never hidden his own love of Freemasonry from colleagues, he was frustrated that negative messages and conspiracy theories continued to circulate widely. When The Guardian published an article revealing the existence of secret lodges in Westminster packed with MPs and journalists, he launched Operation Enough Is Enough.
‘The reality was that both these lodges had been mentioned in the newspapers when they opened, had no active MPs or journalists and met in Camden,’ he says. ‘That gave us the ability to lodge a formal complaint. We took out full-page adverts in newspapers and I did 26 interviews in one day. That was the line in the sand.
'The membership knew we were standing up for them after they had been kicked around and misrepresented. It was partly about galvanising them, saying you can’t speak nonsense about Freemasonry, and we were giving fair warning to the press that Freemasons were not an easy touch.'
Aware that such an approach could only be used sparingly before losing impact, UGLE’s campaign then took a different line, arguing for greater transparency to remove suspicion while promoting masonic contributions to charities and good causes. This accelerated during the pandemic, when Freemasons raised hundreds of thousands of pounds, earning widespread praise. ‘We are now in a transitional period where we get an awful lot of good press, but the first sentence is always a caveat,’ says Dr Staples. ‘In 18 months, I think that will change and the past will be the past.’
Recent polling shows impressive results, with Freemasonry increasing 25 points in net favourability over the past two years, and scoring particular gains in the under 50s. Dr Staples feels this can increase and he makes a passionate case for Freemasonry’s place in the modern world.
‘This is an organisation that has a purpose in modern society, which no other organisation really fulfils,’ he says. ‘Traditional spirituality is on the decline, but we teach important principles while allowing you to have a really good time.
‘We have been doing ecumenical, multiracial, multireligion, multibackground stuff for centuries. Freemasonry was the first organisation ever to have one man, one vote. We were one of the first organisations to provide free healthcare for the public. The fundamental principles of the European enlightenment spread through Freemasonry from country to country, Grand Lodge to Grand Lodge. These were revolutionary social principles that are now entirely absorbed within democracy.'
For Dr Staples, the pleasures of Freemasonry became clear when he left Oxford and was invited to join Middlesex Lodge, No. 143 in London, his home lodge. Here, he encountered Freemasons of diverse age and occupation, whose knowledge and life experiences he could absorb. As time went on, new faces became old friends, providing a reassuring sense of familiarity. A lodge meeting became a place where he could forget about the operating room or the latest NHS restructuring. His love of Freemasonry runs deep and connects with his own character. He speaks eloquently and succinctly about the core philosophical messages of Freemasonry, the three lessons imparted through ritual that he feels cannot be contested by anybody.
So as somebody who believes passionately in doing his part to make the world a better place, he leapt at the chance to lead UGLE. Many might consider being a doctor in the NHS close to the pinnacle of public service, but Dr Staples felt like a moth in a monolith. As Grand Secretary, he could create positive change on a larger scale.
‘As a doctor, I am not convinced that I was making a lot of difference, whereas working for an organisation that is values-based and rehabilitates that in the public mind – that really does make a difference,’ he says. ‘Just look at the COVID-19 initiatives. These are big projects that make a difference to tens of thousands of lives. That is something that Freemasonry has been doing under the radar for a very long time.'
His time is occupied with helping draft the UGLE’s strategy for the next five years, starting in 2022, which will continue to build on progress made since 2017, elevating Freemasonry from the margins into the mainstream. ‘I am working every hour God sends but I enjoy it,’ he says. ‘It feels important, which is in line with the message at the masonic core – doing something for the right reason.'