Warmest of welcomes - Charles Hopkinson-Woolley on creating harmony in a lodge

Wednesday, 01 September 2021

As a member of five Craft lodges and two Royal Arch chapters (along with two Rose Croix chapters and a Mark lodge), I am often asked why I am a member of so many masonic units

I invariably reply that it is because I enjoy my Freemasonry so much, but I rarely stop to think about what exactly it is that gives me so much pleasure. When I try to analyse it, it is clear that there are many components. Among them are the sense of tradition, the pleasure of a good ceremony or well-delivered ritual, the joy in seeing old friends and making new ones, the satisfaction derived from our charitable activities, and the conviviality of a good meal. However, it is clear that underpinning all of this is the importance of a sense of being among friends and of enjoying a pervading atmosphere of goodwill and togetherness, whether in the lodge room, or afterwards. It is this sense of ‘harmony’ that is the foundation of a happy lodge; its presence will help to ensure that a lodge is well-attended and growing, while its absence, in the long term, will lead to dwindling attendance and a shrinking membership.

The importance of this harmony is not immediately apparent to a newly Initiated Freemason; there is so much for him to take in that his early progress in Freemasonry is probably driven by curiosity and the encouragement of his Proposer and Seconder. However, it is specifically referred to by the Worshipful Master in the First Degree ceremony, when it is drawn to the attention of the newly made Freemason immediately after he has been invested with his apron. The Worshipful Master warns the Initiate that he should never put on this badge if he is about to visit a lodge in which there is a brother with whom he is at variance, lest the harmony of the lodge be disturbed. This seemingly minor caution, so little remarked upon perhaps because it is followed shortly after by that magnificent piece of masonic prose, the Charge after Initiation, is one that we neglect at our peril. We must ensure that our meetings are harmonious, and that we avoid dissent between brethren with differing views and priorities, not just when we visit other lodges, but also in our own.

Active membership of the Craft is first and foremost a hobby. Time spent in Freemasonry is time away from our families and our work, and we may end up spending considerable sums on dress and regalia, annual memberships, travel, charitable donations and dining. If a member does not enjoy his lodge or chapter meetings, he will lose interest in attending, however strong his sense of duty. We must therefore think carefully about every element of our meetings to ensure that they enhance, rather than detract from, enjoyment: is the time of the meeting convenient for the members, is the stipulated dress code popular, are brethren encouraged (but not pressurised) to attend a lodge of rehearsal, are the meetings well-run and efficient, and is the quality of the dining arrangements and meeting venue appropriate. One of the many strengths of Freemasonry is the diversity of its lodges and membership, so each of these aspects should be viewed in the context of the lodge in question, and not be aligned with some imaginary template. Younger working Freemasons generally benefit from meeting times that allow them to leave their job at an acceptable time, often prefer more formal dress codes and enjoy high-quality dining, while older Freemasons might prefer earlier meeting times, and may be more concerned about the cost of dining. A lodge whose brethren are mainly retired might wish to organise a regular lodge of rehearsal so that the members can enjoy a drink or a meal together afterwards, while the Director of Ceremonies of a lodge with a young membership might find it more productive to arrange evening or weekend video calls to rehearse those taking part in the ceremony and give them confidence and direction. 

Just as important as all of these factors is an acceptance that the arrangements can never be perfect for every member of the lodge, and that we must avoid intolerance when this is the case. For example, there should be no stigma attached to a late arrival; better that the member in question feels confident that he will be warmly welcomed even if he has missed part of the ceremony than that he be too embarrassed to come at all if unavoidably delayed. Most of these matters will be decided by a lodge committee, but there is one facet of Freemasonry that can be a considerable source of friction or ‘variance’ between members and clearly falls within the responsibilities of the Director of Ceremonies, namely the ritual. 

If we genuinely love our Freemasonry, we must be careful to encourage our brothers in this regard, and not to do anything that might unwittingly cause offence or unhappiness, however well-intentioned. In far too many lodges, I have seen a senior and experienced Freemason correct a more junior brother in the midst of a piece of ritual. Whenever I witness this, my heart sinks, as all too often, the brother who interrupts is just trying to show off his own knowledge. In the meantime, the brother who has been corrected may have lost the thread of the ritual, and will, in many cases, suffer embarrassment. Even worse, I have witnessed a Visiting Officer cross the floor of a lodge to remonstrate with the Inner Guard for a supposed error when, in fact, the brother in question had done nothing wrong. How discouraging it must have been for the Inner Guard, and what a dreadful example was set by a senior Freemason to all those present. A better approach would have been for the Visiting Officer to have a quiet chat afterwards with the Director of Ceremonies, who could then have decided what action, if any, to take.

In a well-run lodge, the only prompts should come from the Immediate Past Master or another nominee for the Worshipful Master or from the Director of Ceremonies for everyone else. Even then, as long as the sense of the ritual is clear to the candidate, an interruption is more likely to detract from his experience than to enhance it, and should only be made when a prompt is clearly required. The only time where accuracy is more than simply desirable is for obligations, and even then, a correction is only essential if the meaning of the words has been compromised. There are many different forms of ritual recognised by UGLE, and all are equally valid, so there is no need whatsoever to insist upon perfection. The fact that the Emulation Lodge of Improvement awards silver matchboxes to those who deliver a word-perfect ceremony shows just how difficult and highly prized it is. While always aiming high, most of us should be content to remember that the experience of the candidate is paramount and that imperfect ritual that is delivered with feeling and meaning is infinitely preferable to complete accuracy delivered in a relentless monotone. What matters is that the brother has made an effort to learn the ritual. Reading from the book should be avoided at all costs as it means that there will be no eye contact with the candidate (essential for a meaningful cermony) while the lack of effort it betrays demonstrates an absence of respect either for the candidate or for the other members of the lodge. Learning the ritual is part of the shared experience that helps to bond the members of the Craft together, so it is important always to do one’s best when agreeing to take on work.

For a new Freemason, the challenges of getting the ritual and ceremonial aspects right are probably the most nerve-racking aspects of Freemasonry, and even relatively experienced brothers may experience a degree of stage fright or a senior moment from time to time. When a less experienced member of the lodge is playing a part in the ceremony, greet his delivery with warm smiles to put him at ease, pay close attention, and follow it with encouraging remarks and congratulations, regardless of whether or not it was spot on. That way he will be more willing to continue up the ladder, or to take on additional work, while others witnessing this may be more prepared to contribute in future.

While some enjoy the limelight, and relish the mental challenge of learning the ceremonies by heart, others find the experience incredibly challenging. The Director of Ceremonies should therefore ensure that each Officer with a part in the ceremony is given the chance to say how much work he feels comfortable to take on. In the case of the Worshipful Master, much of the work can be split up into convenient sections and may be delegated either to Past Masters, or in the case of the Working Tools, to more junior brethren. Difficulty with learning ritual by heart should not be a barrier to passage through the chair – as long as he can open and close the lodge, a brother who contributes significantly to other aspects of the lodge should be given the chance to be installed as Worshipful Master, with the rest of the work allocated to others during his year. 

Over the past year, we have all learnt what is meant by an ‘R-number’ in relation to the transmission of viruses, an R-number greater than one signifying that each person carrying the virus is on average infecting more than one new victim. We ought to be mindful of our own R-number when it comes to the Craft, and should strive to ensure we each introduce at least one more good candidate during our period of membership. However, it is even more important that we do not end up with a negative masonic R-number, by putting off our brethren through our own actions. Ask yourself after each meeting whether it was a better meeting for your attendance, or a worse one (the Redman Test, so named because I was taught it by VW Bro Graham Redman). Remember that a smile of encouragement to a brother new to ritual is more likely to lead to success and satisfaction than an interruption, that a single ‘well done’ after a good delivery is worth a hundred demonstrations of your own proficiency and that the enjoyment of all is far more important than perfect accuracy in the ritual.


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