Bicentenary Celebration Convocation of Supreme Grand Chapter
16 October 2013
An address by E Comp the Rev Dr John Railton, PGSwdB
Most Excellent First Grand Principal and Companions, a couple of months ago, a much-loved and highly respected member of our Order asked me what would be the theme of my Oration this afternoon. At that stage, to be perfectly honest, I hadn’t given it much thought, but I muttered something about the inexorable march of time. I won’t tell you exactly what he said, but he clearly wasn’t over-impressed! I’m most grateful to him, though, because it was his question which prompted me to recognise that, in reflecting on the significance of this occasion, my task is to navigate a careful course between the rocks of controversy on the one hand and the sandbanks of platitude on the other. So my aim this afternoon is to be just mildly provocative – in the best sense, that of being gently thought-provoking! No doubt he’ll tell me later whether I succeed!
If I were to suggest that many, possibly most, Freemasons are ‘traditionalist’ by nature, I suspect that there are many here who would have no difficulty in agreeing with me. But there are those, I’m sure, who would take issue with me – for very good reasons. So let me try to put some flesh on the bare bones of that statement. By ‘traditionalist’ I don’t mean in any sense old-fashioned, stick-in-the-mud, living in the past, reactionary – although most of us could probably name a few of our brethren to whom those terms may well apply! No, by ‘traditionalist’ I mean having the ability to appreciate and value the traditions of our masonic Orders; to understand the worth of the experience of our predecessors and the actions they took to keep alive the fundamental principles of Pure Antient Freemasonry while maintaining their relevance for daily life in each and every age.
If life for us is in equilibrium, constant, reliable, predictable and comfortable – then change is a challenge, often an unwelcome challenge. And I’m very much one of those who subscribe to the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ school of thought. But I believe we need to bear in mind that Freemasonry is a living organism. I was trying to remember from grammar school biology classes the characteristics of living things: I can remember some of them – nutrition, respiration, growth, movement, response to stimuli. Well, all of those apply to the Royal Arch – and, indeed, to Freemasonry generally. Our belief in and our commitment to all we do as masons needs nourishment and nurture; it needs to breathe and be refreshed; it needs to reproduce itself through recruitment; and it needs continually to assess just HOW it relates to everyday life – for us as masons, and for our families and communities; and how it responds to external stimuli, most obviously in the way masonry is seen by the wider world and the impact of the image Freemasonry has on the recruitment which is our life-blood.
Well, all of that has been going on from the very earliest beginnings of Freemasonry. Just as Royal Arch Masonry has breathed the oxygen of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so it must breathe the oxygen of the twenty-first. The context of today’s celebration is the passage of two hundred years of growth and evolution. If we could be transported back across those two hundred years, I wonder how much we would recognise in the practice of Royal Arch Masonry? But the Royal Arch as we know it today is the result of something like three hundred years of evolution. An understanding and appreciation of the story of the Royal Arch over those years informs and illuminates our understanding and appreciation of the Order as it is today.
After all, when you think about it, for each one of us as an individual, what we are today is the result of our personal history, our life story, our journey, our experience, our relationships, our joys and sorrows. We find our individual identity in that story, and our understanding of ourselves now is informed by a deeper understanding of that story. So it is with the Royal Arch – the better we understand how it has evolved the greater is our appreciation of what it is today.
If any one of us were to reflect on major events in our lives, it may be that we could identify two significant milestones: first, reaching a conclusion and making a decision; and second, acting on that decision. That might apply to deciding to buy a house or a car – and later completing the purchase. It might apply to deciding to seek a change of job or career – and later implementing that change. It might apply to proposing marriage and being accepted – and later entering into that marriage. In the final analysis, I wonder what YOU feel was the most significant, the most life-changing of those stages? In my case I’m quite clear – without in any way diminishing the celebration or the completion, in terms of my own growth and development it was the moment of decision which was of greatest significance.
If we translate that perception into our Masonic lives, we can acknowledge that the key to change is not the implementation of structural change, but rather the inner conviction and the decision that change is needed.
Well, we all know that the bicentenary of Supreme Grand Chapter, the celebration of structural change, is still a few years away. What we are celebrating today is the fulfillment of discussion and debate which led ultimately to the change of heart which opened the way for the later merger of the two Grand Chapters and the formation of this Supreme Grand Chapter – the final acceptance by both Grand Lodges that the Royal Arch is indeed an integral part of ‘Pure Antient Masonry’.
So let me invite you to reflect on the notion that outward change is the visible and tangible consequence of inner change; but that it is the inner change which represents true growth and progress, and it is inner change which has lasting impact.
Our predecessors in this Order did what they believed to be right in enabling the Order to flourish and take its rightful place in the structure of Freemasonry. One perspective of our celebration today is to look back with gratitude to all they achieved. We don’t live in the past, but it is the past which has given us the present. A second perspective is to value what our Order is today, and to continue to nurture what we have inherited. And the third perspective concerns our task and our duty to make sure that what we do today honours the heritage of our predecessors, because what we do will impact future generations of Royal Arch masons. May we prove equal to that challenge. In another two hundred years, I wonder what Royal Arch masons will be saying about us and about our contribution to the on-going growth of the Order we love.
I can do no better than to end with the prayer with which every Royal Arch meeting begins, the prayer which is known to many church congregations as the Collect for Purity and is used at the beginning of every Communion service. ‘Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love Thee and worthily magnify Thy Holy Name. So Mote It Be.’