The traffic sweeps up Great Queen Street in London, past the grandiose frontage of Freemasons’ Hall. Freemasons dodge in and out of cafés and bars, and among them a tall, sandy-haired, smiling figure weaves his way between the cars to meet me in front of the main doors; this is Russell Race, Metropolitan Grand Master for London. It must be said that since Metropolitan Grand Lodge offices were moved from the opposite side of the street into Freemasons’ Hall itself, there’s been much less crossing the road.
Until 2003 London Freemasons were administered by the Grand Secretary’s office. During that year Grand Lodge voted to set up a London unit, to be self-governing on the pattern of Provincial and District Grand Lodges: Russell Race was appointed Deputy Metropolitan Grand Master and, in 2009, Metropolitan Grand Master.
‘When the idea of Metropolitan Grand Lodge was first mooted, there was opposition wasn’t there?’ I asked.
‘One objection was the feeling that London honours were decided by the Grand Master and by making London a separate organisation you were lowering the bar and giving that decision to a lower authority. In reality it never was the Grand Master – it was a section within the Grand Secretary’s department.
‘The other fear was that London would become “provincialised”. Many members were aware that Provincial Grand Masters give a diktat and it tends to be followed. So some were fearful that London would go down that route, controlling particularly what lodges did with their charity money.
‘The third concern was that there would be a bigger bureaucracy: it would increase their subscriptions, other than increases that would have happened anyway. In practice, the staff of Metropolitan Grand Lodge has grown slightly, though much of that growth has come through volunteers.’
‘Were the fears of the detractors in any sense realised?’
‘No. Dues have gone up, but they have gone up countrywide. Importantly, London masons now have a better focus for charitable giving. There are three main strands for the Metropolitan Masonic Charity – medical care, charities that help younger people in London, and the elderly.
‘A lot of what we have been doing in London is about breaking down barriers. The move across the road has been very important. The old building didn’t make a good showcase for London Freemasonry and it was not a good working environment. The move has also enabled better contact with members of Grand Lodge. But Grand Lodge recognises our independence and that’s important. London has its own issues, its own problems.’
‘How good are you at publicising Freemasonry?’
‘One of the recruitment areas we are keen on is our young group, the Connaught Club, which caters for young people up to the age of thirty-five. Freemasonry is felt by some to be not elitist, but ageist in terms of dealing with young people. But I think young people who come into a lodge benefit immensely from having other young people around them. The Connaught Club has very lively social events and at least two open events a year at which members are encouraged to bring non-masons along. When they come into Freemasons’ Hall we have a reception in the vestibule with a talk about Freemasonry, a very informal question and answer session then we go into the Grand Temple and show them around. It’s about encouraging our members so that they feel relaxed and easy talking to nonmembers.’
I noted that there is cautious optimism in London regarding the numbers of new initiates: ‘Are these new initiates younger men than before?’
‘Definitely. The average age of intake has dropped quite sharply – a lot of young people are coming in. Some of the school lodges are starting to benefit, there are a number of graduates and undergraduates in the universities’ scheme, and some lodges are now inundated with candidates and are having to farm out second degrees in multiples all over the place, so it’s a good sign.
‘We are initiating something like 1500 per year, which equates more or less to the number of lodges, so you might think that’s fine. But it doesn’t work like that. Those 1500 initiates are concentrated on 800 lodges so there’s quite a discrepancy between those that are thriving, those that are doing alright, and those that are doing less than alright.
‘It’s important to get a lodge to recognise early when it’s not doing too well, rather than putting panic measures in place when it’s late. It’s never too late, but if you’ve got eight or ten members, you’re really on a downward spiral. You’ve almost gone past critical mass. Once a year the lodge committee should have a session on the health of the lodge. It’s not just a question of what are we doing next week. It’s where are we going as a lodge: where do we see our membership going in the next few years; are we getting proper succession in the lodge? Are we aware of certain stewards who say, I’m not going to take my place on the ladder. Are we aware of a junior warden who says I’m not going to go through the chair? Or do we say, let’s park that problem because it’s not a very nice thing to hear. Even lodges which are healthy nominally can go down very quickly, and they start losing members.’
The Brotherhood of Creation
I asked what he regards as the ideals of Freemasonry. ‘Like many other people I regard the charitable expression of Freemasonry as being just that – a charitable expression. It’s a means of demonstrating what’s in here’ – he touches his heart – ‘to start with. The ideals of Freemasonry are humanity, the fatherhood of the Creator, allied very closely and inextricably to the brotherhood of His creation, His offspring. If you just keep it at that very simple level, you suddenly think, why are there divisions across society? We are one of the few organisations – this is very important – that has this interreligious ability to share values between people of very different views. Many organisations have good ideals, good principles and good charitable aims but the charitable aims we have are a natural expression of what we should be doing anyway; it doesn’t specialise us.
‘In a lot of what I do, day to day, in this job, it’s very easy to get bogged down in the minutiae. It’s very hard to sit back and say, why do we do this?What we’re trying to do in Metropolitan Grand Lodge is to create environments in which people in their lodges and chapters can focus on the important things. I’ve been to many initiations over the years where it would be very easy to slightly turn off and say, “I’ve seen it all before”. But the only way I can make it work for me is to put myself in the position of that candidate and just share what he is experiencing.
‘So I think we’re setting the framework in which people can go beyond the words of the Craft and think about the more spiritual aspects. I’m very conscious that a lot of our members are in Freemasonry for different reasons. For some of them it’s companionship, meeting their friends, having a good dinner, but every now and again you hope that something from that ceremony suddenly strikes a chord with people. I’m a great believer in the ritual and the sanctity of the ritual does mean a lot to me.’
With Russell Race we have a Metropolitan Grand Master who combines the outer form of Freemasonry with its inner content and thereby manages to make something harmonious of the whole - for the advantage of all his Brethren.