An accountant by profession, Anthony Wilson explains why he brought modern business practice to Freemasonry when he became President of the Board of General Purposes ten years ago
How did you come into Freemasonry?
I’d been married to my wife for about a year and was spending a weekend down at my father-in-law’s.
I noticed after lunch that he was walking around the garden with his brother. I knew he was a Freemason but I didn’t know that his brother was. They were deep in conversation and later he sidled up to me and asked if I’d ever thought of becoming a Freemason. I said I hadn’t, I knew about it but not in detail, so he told me what was necessary and proposed me for the Tuscan Lodge, No. 14. I was about twenty-six when I joined.
What drew you to the Craft?
Initially, what attracted me was the intrigue of finding out what Freemasonry was about, but once I’d been through the ceremonies my whole view of it changed. It was relaxed but there was also a formality – it wasn’t an easy ride. Don’t just expect to get things out of it; put things into it and you’ll get enjoyment. I realised that there was a lot of knowledge, that it was telling you a story linked to your values and that it gelled with what I stood for in life. The other aspect I was grateful for was that it brought me into contact with a large number of people I wouldn’t otherwise have met.
How did you become President of the Board of General Purposes?
One thing I’ve learned from Freemasonry is that although you don’t expect things to come along, somehow people notice you. I was asked to sit on a committee to look at the future of London, which brought me into contact with the Rulers and the Grand Secretary. From that I was asked to become a member of the old Board of General Purposes.
When the old Board was restructured I came off it but was subsequently asked if I would become President of the Committee of General Purposes, which is the equivalent to the Board of General Purposes for the Royal Arch. Having been President of that for about three years, I was asked if I would like to become President of the Board, which I had already rejoined on becoming President of the Committee. This is my tenth anniversary in the position.
What does the Board do?
We’re responsible for the governance of the Craft; the relationship between individual lodges and the Grand Lodge; the relations between Grand Lodge and the Provincial Grand Masters; the relations with recognised foreign Grand Lodges; the finances of the Craft and its assets – of which Freemasons’ Hall is one. We set the membership dues to run the services at the centre of the Craft and we manage the PR with the outside world. Very largely, we do everything apart from the ceremonial side. What I do as President would not be possible without the Deputy President, the Grand Treasurer, the Grand Secretary and the whole team at Freemasons’ Hall. It’s very much a collegiate affair – we’re a team and I’m very fortunate with the support and counsel I get.
What drew you to the business of Freemasonry?
My background is in chartered accountancy and I’ve always been interested in business and how you can improve it. Working on the Board was a way of helping the running of Freemasonry that wasn’t purely ceremonial but rather administrative. When I was in the profession, one of the first audits I did was for the Grand Lodge 250th Anniversary Fund, which is a charity that sponsors research fellowships with the Royal College of Surgeons. I didn’t think that some twenty years later I’d be approached to become a trustee for that – it’s funny the way the world moves.
How did the old Board function?
Pre-1999, the Board of General Purposes met eight times a year. It consisted of nearly fifty people and all its business was done through a number of committees in the morning which reported to the full Board in the afternoon – it wasn’t an environment in which discussion ever took place. It had the hangover from thirty to forty years ago when Freemasonry wasn’t so much run by the Rulers, who were more titular and ceremonial, but by the then Grand Secretary and the President of the Board. They would basically decide what they wanted and the Board was there to serve that way of doing business.
How is the Board different now?
It’s much more transparent. Gavin Purser spent a lot of time working on a new structure when he was President to create a Board of about twelve people who meet six times a year. It really is a better way of conducting business. We have proper discussions and I don’t think over my ten years that we’ve had to vote on anything because consensus has come from discussion. It’s a much better forum where each member is now an active contributor. We also sit in a boardroom where everyone can hear each other; the old boardroom had a wonderful dais at the top and the rest of the tables were set in a horseshoe shape, so if you were in the south of the room you couldn’t hear what someone was saying in the north – you could just about hear the podium. The Rulers have also become more involved, which is a great advancement, and I work with them closely.
How have things changed during your presidency?
Change is slow because you’ve got to take the members with you. One of the things I’m very proud of is advancing professionalism in the way in which the Craft is run. The organisation that supports the Grand Secretary has been streamlined; it’s more efficient than ten years ago because we’ve brought in standards you’d expect to find in business. There’s also much greater willingness to accept the culture of change in this building. The staff see the benefits and I would like to think the whole working environment has improved.
Is the Board structured differently?
We’ve increased our focus on the outside world. In the old days, dealing with the foreign Grand Lodges was handled by the Grand Secretary who also dealt with internal affairs and our members. Together with the Rulers, we saw the need for someone who would just focus on external relations and so created the role of Grand Chancellor.
Is managing Freemasons’ Hall a challenge?
By far the largest asset we have is Freemasons’ Hall and a lot has happened here over the past ten years – we had to strip out asbestos, which was a nightmare because it was everywhere. When the Hall was built, asbestos was what you used for safety and it took three or four years to strip it out while still allowing the building to be used for purpose. The new maintenance challenge is what’s called Regent Street Disease, which is named after buildings in that street that were built around a steel frame – a very popular method in the 1920s. Unfortunately, the steel and what surrounded it weren’t always fully airtight so the steel was capable of rusting. Freemasons’ Hall is one of the first all-steel-frame buildings so has the disease, but we’re tackling it – we’re very proud of this building.
What is modern Freemasonry?
When I took the role on, what worried me was Freemasonry no longer being relevant to the society we lived in. If you look over the years of our membership, numbers peak and trough. Membership has always been high when we filled a much-needed role in society but that changes because society changes. So that’s something we’re looking at more and more, to find that relevance. One of the things I feel very strongly about is that Freemasonry has to fit in with your family life – we’ve got to keep an eye on that, to make sure that members don’t focus too much on their Freemasonry to the detriment of their family.
What’s being planned for 2017?
The tercentenary will increasingly take up our focus and we have a working party looking at key elements. We believe very strongly that this will be a time for our members to celebrate – as the premier Grand Lodge of the world we will involve the foreign Grand Lodges, but we won’t lose sight of the fact that it’s a celebration by our members, of our members.