David Williamson, Assistant Grand Master, discusses Freemasonry with Michael Baigent
Our new Assistant Grand Master, RW Bro. David Williamson, cares deeply about Freemasonry and one of his major tasks is to help plan its role in 21st century society: it cannot simply roll into the future without change. But that change must emerge from Freemasonry itself, for many of the challenges facing the Craft today derive from within: the lack of commitment, for example, demonstrated by many modern masons. It is important, he believes, for Freemasonry to be so revitalised in the future that it again plays a significant part in every mason’s life.
But how might this sense of value be instilled? Especially in those who, through apathy or dissatisfaction, are drifting away? David Williamson mentioned a phrase used by his predecessor, Lord Northampton, that aptly addressed the solution, "to bring back the enchantment of Freemasonry". An enchantment which masons felt when they first entered but which some have since allowed fade. He urges masons "to revisit the feelings they had at their initiation" in order to rekindle that sense of mystery and commitment which will draw masonry’s moral and spiritual precepts into their lives.
He is keen that all Freemasons should benefit from the wisdom in the rituals but explains that this demands positive action. "We must look at what the words in our rituals mean." While he is aware that not every Freemason is going to have the same level of appreciation, all need to be encouraged to seek meaning. And what of those who enter seeking the spiritual aspects of Freemasonry? And who get disenchanted with the rather rigid system they find? It is true, he regretted, that "there is an over-emphasis on the letter of the ritual, rather than the spirit."
I asked whether he remembered his own initiation? He clearly did, and it still meant a lot to him. It was in 1972; his mother had just died. At the time, his father was Junior Warden of Andover Combined Services Lodge. It was a difficult period and they often spent time together. On one occasion his father began discussing Freemasonry: he explained that he had been asked to accept the office of Master but he was apprehensive about accepting such an advance.
As the conversation progressed David Williamson became so intrigued about Freemasonry that he asked his father, "would I like it?" With the result that his father, "went into the Chair a year early and initiated me." He remembers being blindfolded, he remembers entering the lodge, and he remembers that the first voice he heard was his father’s. The evening proved a very moving experience, particularly so, he recalls, when, in a voice highly charged with emotion, his father called him, "Brother, and son…".
At the time David Williamson was flying VC10 aircraft for BOAC. This was a demanding career requiring a complicated personal schedule. I alluded to the difficulties which many modern Freemasons have with the separate demands on their time of career, family, and Freemasonry. He understood: as a long-haul pilot, he had to confront that problem right from the beginning. His response was to re-organise his life in order to accommodate Freemasonry, which, once he took office in his lodge, meant being present fourteen times a year. But he felt that regular attendance was important. All Freemasons, he believes, should take the commitments they have made seriously; all should demonstrate their "fidelity to the lodge."
Following his initiation he entered the Royal Arch in Sir Francis Burdett Chapter in Middlesex; he also joined the Mark, Royal Ark Mariner and Rose Croix degrees. From 1995 to 1998 he served as Provincial Grand Director of Ceremonies for Middlesex, when he was appointed a Deputy Grand Director of Ceremonies: his recent promotion took him by surprise.
The Assistant Grand Master
The post of Assistant Grand Master was created in 1937 specifically to look after London, which now has 1600 lodges and 55,000 Freemasons. At present, this primary role remains David Williamson’s main focus. Lord Northampton changed the face of London Freemasonry by setting up an executive structure, London Management, which looks after the day to day running of London masonry thus allowing the Assistant Grand Master more time to focus upon its future development, a vital task in this time of internal reflection and change. He chairs an important committee which is looking into all aspects of the future of London Freemasonry: its recommendations are to be presented to the Board of General Purposes next year. This is a task of immense responsibility for its findings will affect London Freemasonry for the century to come.
Among the Assistant Grand Master’s other major tasks is to undertake some of the Rulers’ official visits in England, Wales and overseas. While there are only three rulers of the Craft, there are 47 provinces in England and Wales, and 33 districts overseas, for which they have responsibility. In addition there are fraternal visits to the other Grand Lodges with whom United Grand Lodge of England maintains a cordial relationship. He recently returned from the 220th annual meeting of the Grand Lodge of the State of New York, the first representative of the United Grand Lodge of England to do so for some twenty years. "The United Grand Lodge of England is the Mother Grand Lodge of the world," he explains, and "we should be playing our part in world Freemasonry as well as learning from other jurisdictions."
Masonry in the 21st Century
"We have to aim at being accepted in the community. We must start this from within Freemasonry; we must change the manner in which we involve our families." He is grateful to his wife, Margaret, who has always supported his masonic activities while pursuing her own full-time career in education, latterly as a secondary headteacher and school inspector.
He considers that Freemasonry must modify its orientation as a strictly male association, because in the modern world, with its changes in social behaviour, this is no longer possible. Our wives, sons and daughters, and our non-masonic friends, need to be more involved. We must try to get them interested and demonstrate that we are not a "bunch of old fogeys".
He is impressed by the support given by American freemasonry to women’s organisations such as the Order of the Eastern Star, and youth organisations, such as the Order of DeMolay for boys and the Order of Job’s Daughters for girls and thinks that there could be a case for building bridges between such organisations and English Freemasonry.
Of course, he points out, Freemasonry can only change as fast as those inside and outside allow. But, "we must be imaginative – look at ways of positive change. Many of our practices are becoming seen as obstacles to young people who might otherwise join. We must look at our lodge working and see if it can be improved: the time of the meeting, the length of speeches, the type of festive board, and even dress." Freemasons must also address some basic questions: can they afford the time for masonry? Can they afford to spend their family money on a purely male pursuit?
David Williamson is determined to seek those changes which might be necessary for Freemasonry to remain relevant and to flourish throughout the 21st century and beyond. Changes which render it fit for modern life but which continue to draw upon the tradition of wisdom, morality and charity which has characterised Freemasonry through the centuries.
Michael Baigent speaks with John Hamill and Christopher Connop
The masonic "Week of Action" next summer which will highlight the benefits Freemasonry brings to the community, is drawing ever closer.
Provincial organising committees have been formed, ideas for events are being compiled, masonic websites around the country are flagging local events, and a central "Command Centre" at Freemasons’ Hall in London has been set up to coordinate efforts, answer queries, send out information, compile a database, and deal with the Press. Remember the date: 26th June to 2nd July 2002. Once the idea for the "Week of Action" was approved, a group was formed at Freemasons’ Hall, London, to plan and inspire events: the Central Steering Committee. Chairman is John Hamill, Director of Communications, and secretary is Christopher Connop, Media Manager. Other members are the Grand Secretary, Jim Daniel; London representative, David Wilkinson, member of the General Council; Provincial representative Keith Madeley, Chairman of the Yorkshire West Riding media committee; Ben White, Information Officer Province of Somerset; Jane Reynolds, former Chief Executive of the Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution together with MDA Public Relations chief, Col. Mike Dewar and his colleague, Liz Sokoski. The function of the Central Steering Committee is, in the words of John Hamill, "to facilitate, offer advice, and to make sure that the central programme happens…". This central programme is the heart of "Week of Action" and opens, on Wednesday 26th June, with a concert in the Grand Temple at Freemasons’ Hall, London, centred around nineteen cathedral choristers, all of whom receive bursary assistance from the Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys. On Saturday 29th June there will be an "open house" at various masonic meeting places in London, all will have displays and other events. The week will finish on Tuesday, 2nd July when Freemasons’ Hall is hosting the Annual General Meeting of the London Topographical Society; a demonstration to them of how the building is part of the London community. On every other day there will be a free lunch-time public lecture on an aspect of Freemasonry held in one of the lodge rooms. There will be two exhibitions at Freemasons’ Hall, the Library and Museum plans a display showing the community aspects of Freemasonry, while, in conjunction with the Royal Photographic Society and George Eastman House in New York, there will be a display of the extraordinary photographs of Freemason, Alvin Langdon Coburn. Outside London, events are being prepared by provincial committees and all have nominated local coordinators. John Hamill explained that, "We are not asking for anything new but for all to draw together, in this one week, events which would normally be done during the course of a year. This week is not a fund-raiser".
Many masonic Provinces plan open days and local thanksgiving services. Some will be held not only in Churchs, but also in Synagogues, Mosques and Hindu Temples with multi-faith services based around hymns and readings from the Holy Books of several faiths, in the presence of leaders of those faiths. Every Province will hold events involving local charities to show the general public how often Freemasonry contributes to their general benefit and how often masonic buildings are used by the public. Masonic Centres will be inviting local civic and business leaders to a lunch or dinner so that they will have the opportunity to meet Brethren and learn more about Freemasonry and its contribution to the community. Concerts and theatrical events are planned – one Province will have an "evening" with actress Prunella Scales. Many original ideas are being mooted: a masonic centre in the west country is sponsoring a photographic and art competition among school children on the theme of the local community. There will be twelve winners; each winner will have his or her art-work published in a masonic calendar which will be sold for charity. Freemasons in another Province have the agreement of all local public libraries to mount an exhibition in each during this week. Media coverage is another avenue to be explored: the Provincial Grand Master or Information Officer could do a "phone-in" on local radio or interviews with local Press. Charitable events, usually spread across summer, could be drawn together in this week: days out for disadvantaged children, or a funfair set up in the grounds of a Masonic Centre. A lunch could be held for the elderly, for war veterans, a variety show might be performed, evening concerts arranged, even a disco for the young teens at a Masonic hall! Sports events can be arranged, especially at secondary schools – a "Masonic Cup" could be donated for the winner. Masonic exhibitions might be arranged in the local museums – how many Brethren and Lodges have antique regalia and jewels which could very easily and effectively be loaned for an interesting display?
The profile of Freemasonry
The purpose of this week is to raise the profile of Freemasonry. Both John Hamill and Christopher Connop stressed that they did not believe that there is a public opposition to Freemasonry, rather, they felt, the general public know very little about us. The aim then, is to demonstrate to the public that we are not only an interesting organisation but that we make a very positive contribution to the local community. One major change observed over the last year or two is the increasing amount of favourable coverage which Freemasonry is getting from local newspapers. Many are running supportive articles and many Provincial Information Officers are now forging good relationships with the regional Press. Christopher Connop noted that, "We are beginning to be seen as interesting local news in provincial newspapers". Building upon this evident goodwill, Information Officers need to ensure that the newspapers to know about the events planned for this week, and for them to be well briefed so that they might cover them sympathetically and with interest.