Our Future's Debt to the Past

Saturday, 19 April 2008

The Grand Secretary, Robert Morrow, talks to Julian Rees

When you enter the office of the Grand Secretary of the United Grand Lodge of England, you feel the palpable weight of the history of Freemasonry over nearly three hundred years, and the way in which Grand Secretaries have influenced affairs in that time. 
Yet Robert Morrow, in the first few words we exchanged, proved himself to be the most approachable of Grand Secretaries. ‘Where does that easy contact with people stem from?’ I asked.

‘My background was in senior management in banking, a sphere where you learn to see the good in everyone, and to reciprocate their goodwill.’ But then he added an interesting insight into his own thinking. ‘My training at Oxford University, reading latin, greek and ancient history, and therefore my exposure to ancient texts, gave me perhaps an insight into the way the human mind works. Particularly when you read Aristotle, whose Ethics describes the different kinds of person, which gives you the beginnings of an understanding of the human mind.’

Not long after leaving Oxford he went into banking, but not before he had started on his masonic journey. ‘I never knew a time when I wasn’t going to be a Freemason. On the evening of my twenty-first birthday I went across the road and asked my father’s best friend if he would propose me into Freemasonry.’

Robert comes from an impressive masonic pedigree; there are Freemasons on his father’s side going back at least six generations.

‘What was it that you found in Freemasonry?’ I asked.

‘Two things I think. First, it was a whole new cycle of things that one could get involved in and learn about. It wasn’t long before I discovered Quatuor Coronati and started learning. It was a rich seam to mine, and it is a seam I am still mining. I do not believe you can ever get to the end of the journey, and that is what is so wonderful about it. The second thing I think was the social aspect. There I was, twenty-one years old, and the way the lodge took me to its heart and looked after me was the beginning of a very special relationship. I didn’t know what to expect. I spent the first days wondering what was going on.

‘I often say to initiates, if we have done our job properly tonight, you should by now be thoroughly confused, but please don’t worry. The next time you watch a first degree being conferred on a candidate, take part in his ceremony, and think back to when it was being conferred on you. That is something I still do, even after all these years.’ Did he feel that society might be too bound up in materialistic pursuits, and that Freemasonry might be an effective antidote? ‘The answer to that has to be a simple yes. The ‘me-now’ generation is the most avaricious grasper of satisfaction over a feeling that some things are better enjoyed by waiting for them. Freemasonry can be an antidote to this but only, surely, for those who are so inclined.’ 

‘How would you describe the function of the Grand Secretary?’ ‘Well, he is effectively the Chief Executive of the United Grand Lodge of England. Like any big organisation there has to be somebody who has got day-to-day hands-on responsibility for running it.

As in running any organisation, it would not be possible without the assistance of others, and I am extra lucky to have a team of dedicated people who are absolutely top-flight.’ What about his relationship with the other Rulers? ‘When I give talks to lodges from time to time, I often start with an overview of the hierarchy – what the Rulers do, what the Board of General Purposes does, the Grand Master’s Council and so on, and I say that I am the servant of many masters. A Grand Secretary ought to have in his makeup some view of the future, where he thinks Freemasonry ought to go and how to get it there’.

He explained that the vision of Freemasonry, the richness of what Freemasonry can be in the future, is ‘very much the province of the Pro Grand Master, and without his will in driving forward change in Freemasonry, it would be enormously difficult to have confidence that Freemasonry as we know it is going to survive for another three hundred years. Society has changed more in thirty years than in three hundred, more in three years than in thirty. We have to accept that if society is changing at that rate, Freemasonry must change with it, must adapt, otherwise it will become a dinosaur, and we all know what happened to the dinosaurs. But I don’t want to see Freemasonry changing at a very high speed or changing its essential nature. I don’t want to see it changing its reliance on its past. Change for its own sake is inefficient and ultimately doomed to failure.’

‘Tell me about the relationship of Grand Lodge with foreign jurisdictions,’ I asked. ‘I regard our relationship with other recognised Grand Lodges to be a very important part of my job,’ he said.

‘This area is my own specific responsibility. I think I have been able to build on what my predecessor, Jim Daniel, did. There is a very large masonic family out there, and it is nice to know that we are respected by other Grand Lodges. But we do not have any power outside our own jurisdiction. We are the biggest, and we have acquired a certain “mossy” sense of seniority.’ Is the United Grand Lodge of England in some way a sort of reference point? ‘Without question. I get a huge number of enquiries and requests from other Grand Lodges, ranging from points of protocol to advice on disciplinary issues. But we are not the world’s masonic policemen, nor a masonic mediator. If we can help, it’s important that we do so, but only if we’re asked to do so.’

What did he think about the different roles of national masonic publications?

‘When we started MQ, it was as a vehicle for disseminating Grand Lodge and Grand Chapter news. At the beginning, it had perhaps too much lifestyle content. We have changed that in line with feedback we had. Freemasonry Today too has changed since its launch, and you now have what I consider a very successful magazine. You can cover aspects of Freemasonry that MQ can’t, and I find it fascinating. You have some superb writers, you pick on topics of unusual interest, and you do write on esoteric and symbolic aspects in a way that focuses on specialised masonic interests. Your contributors tend to be more independent of the hierarchy, and that is immensely valuable.’

I asked him to tell me about the present health of Freemasonry. ‘I think we can begin to be quietly confident of the future. It is early days, but we are beginning to see signs of improvement. After the second world war there was a gigantic increase in membership, and of new lodges. With hindsight I suppose we can say it wasn’t the best answer, since membership was never going to be sustainable at that level. I believe that as men came back from the war, they had formed a special bond and they found in Freemasonry a way of continuing that.

‘Kipling said “All ritual is fortifying. Ritual’s a necessity for mankind. The more things are upset, the more they fly to it”. Thank God we haven’t had a major war for sixty years, but that means that continuing source of bonding has fallen away. And the simple fact is that we have too many lodges. We must accept the fact that lodges have to close, there is going to have to be amalgamation and so forth, and we are beginning to see some encouraging trends. It is still very early days, and in some parts of the country numbers are still going down, but in other parts there are encouraging signs of an increase in membership.

‘The policy of engaging in the community again is beginning to pay dividends. The “Freemasonry in the Community Week” was a huge success. The local press gave us good coverage, but I think the national press focuses too much on bad news, not good.’

Why was Grand Lodge’s public relations machine unable to break through that? ‘I think “was” is the operative word. We learned from the experience, and we contemplated doing it again after, say, five years. The Pro Grand Master commented that if we did it again we should call it “The Freemason in the Community”. I think this would give a nice fillip to the idea and would give people a slightly newer direction in which to take the initiative.’

This then is a man who evidently has big ideas for the future, ideas which he tantalisingly doesn’t want to talk about just yet. ‘There are some very interesting and exciting initiatives, which I hope it will be possible to progress,’ he says. ‘We have to keep Freemasonry relevant to what’s going on, without betraying that huge historic debt to the past. I haven’t stopped thinking of things to do.’

Clearly not, and with such an energetic Chief Executive mapping out the future, we can only surmise that Freemasonry can look forward to a very interesting future.

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