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.