As he approaches retirement from the position of Assistant Grand Master, David Williamson reflects on a career as an airline pilot, becoming President of the Universities Scheme and why Freemasonry is not about a ‘blinding light’
When did you become interested in flying?
I’ve had a fascination with aeroplanes since I was a boy. I won a flying scholarship when I was seventeen and my first passenger was my wife –my girlfriend at the time. It was one of my biggest disappointments; there I was thinking she’d be impressed, but she hated every minute of it!
I joined British Overseas Airways Corporation in 1968, and eventually became assistant flight training manager on the 737 at Heathrow. Later, I worked as assistant flight training manager on the 747-400 fleet until I retired in 1998.
How did you come to Freemasonry?
It was the early 1970s and I was approaching thirty. I knew that my father was a Freemason, but I had little idea what it was about. After my mother died I would go and spend time with him and it was then that he spoke to me about Freemasonry. He was Junior Warden and his lodge wanted him to become Master the next year. He asked me what I thought, so I asked him what was involved and whether he thought it was something that would interest me. He said it might.
What attracted you to join?
I did a lot of reading. There was no internet then but I found out that notable people such as Mozart had been Freemasons. It struck me that there was something special about Freemasonry. On the night I was going to be initiated I was excited because I felt there was going to be some kind of revelation. And it wasn’t like that at all. The night was amazing, the atmosphere incredible and I can’t remember if the ritual was good or bad. I read the Book of Constitutions I had been given later that night. In retrospect, I was a little disappointed, but it taught me a valuable lesson: Freemasonry is a journey – not a blinding light but a series of learning events.
How did you become Assistant Grand Master?
I became the Provincial Grand Director of Ceremonies, both in the Craft and the Royal Arch in Middlesex, before becoming Deputy Grand Director of Ceremonies in 1998. In March 2001, Lord Northampton took over from Lord Farnham as Pro Grand Master. The chatter within Grand Lodge was about who the next Assistant Grand Master was going to be. I certainly didn’t think it would be me as I had been appointed to take over as Pro Provincial Grand Master of Middlesex, so it came as a bolt out of the blue. But I took on the role in March 2001.
‘Freemasonry has an appeal for young people... It has a set of values, it has structure and it combines many aspects of life that you don’t always get elsewhere.’
What was your first duty?
London Freemasonry was not like it is now – it didn’t have a Metropolitan Grand Master and the Assistant Grand Master would carry out most of the ceremonial functions. But around the same time as I was appointed, there was a push for London to be self-governing, as it is now. Lord Northampton asked me to chair the committee to make this happen. It was a very exciting time.
What kicked off the Universities Scheme?
Around nine years ago I visited Apollo University Lodge in Oxford. I had been extremely impressed; the members were very young and the ritual was excellent. I spoke about it to Lord Northampton, saying it was fantastic and that we should have lodges like this all around the country. He said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ From that was born the Universities Scheme. I formed a committee with Oliver Lodge, now the Grand Director of Ceremonies, as Chairman and we used Apollo University Lodge and Isaac Newton University Lodge, Cambridge, as a pattern. We now have fifty-nine lodges.
What do you feel appeals to young people?
Freemasonry has an appeal for young people, which we’ve perhaps overlooked. It has a set of values, it has structure and it combines many aspects of life that you don’t always get elsewhere. The motivation for me is that these are bright people who are going to make their way in society with a knowledge of Freemasonry. Even if they were to leave, hopefully they will have a positive view of Freemasonry that they can take out into the world, although of course we hope they will stay. While the goal of the scheme is to ‘attract undergraduates and other university members to join and enjoy Freemasonry’, we also want to keep them; retention is our biggest challenge.
What about recruiting masons from elsewhere?
The principles of recruitment and retention in the scheme don’t just apply to universities. It’s about approaching membership in a different way. You’ve got to think about how things are different now from fifty years ago. The scheme is a good way of saying
‘if it works here, why can’t it work there?’ It certainly does not address the membership issue but it points to how things could be done elsewhere.
Is Freemasonry changing?
Rulers used to come from the nobility, with Provincial Grand Masters often local landowners, whom you might see once or twice a year. That has all changed. I am the first Assistant Grand Master for several years without a title and Peter Lowndes is the first ever Pro Grand Master not to have one. We have learned to communicate at a different level. You can stand on a stage or you can stand on the floor and we appreciate that we need to put ourselves about. We’ve got to sell our message at a personal level and lead by example. That’s a big change.
‘We have learned to communicate at a different level... We’ve got to sell our message at a personal level and lead by example.’