Standing on ceremony
As Grand Director of Ceremonies, Oliver Lodge bows out of the position he’s cherished for 10 years. He tells Peter Watts why the last decade has been an honour and a pleasure
Given his surname, it was perhaps inevitable that Oliver Lodge would one day go into Freemasonry. However, it’s a family connection rather than nominative determinism that first got him into the Craft. Having joined his father in the Lodge of Antiquity in 1988, he embraced Freemasonry to such an extent that he has just completed a decade as Grand Director of Ceremonies (GDC) – a longer period in the job than anybody else alive.
‘It’s the best job in Freemasonry,’ he says of the role he relinquished in April. ‘It’s a kind of focal point because the job is to make sure the ceremonies work. You are hugely privileged in that you spend time with the longest serving Grand Master (GM) in the world, and also get the pleasure of having a role in which you know you can really make a difference.’
During his 10 years as GDC, Oliver organised more than 50 Provincial and District installations, and attended numerous meetings of Grand Lodge, Supreme Grand Chapter and Rulers’ visits to lodges and chapters around the world. He was also responsible for the smooth running of the Tercentenary celebrations at the Royal Albert Hall in October 2017, an event that had no precedent in the history of Freemasonry and required a mixture of logistical acumen and creative originality.
Parades and pageantry
There’s an element of the theatre director in this work. The GDC must make sure that everybody knows their lines, where to stand and when to arrive, while the ceremonies themselves have a carefully choreographed theatricality. But Oliver laughs at the idea that the role allowed his latent showmanship to blossom.
‘I don’t think I’m a frustrated theatre director, but it’s a nice contrast to my day job and it’s a pleasure to do something that’s completely different,’ he says. ‘Ceremonies are only theatrical in the sense that they endeavour to be impressive. You want to leave an impression, for it to have been a real event for those attending.’
Like most GDCs, Oliver spent three years as a Deputy, allowing him to observe the position up close and occasionally step up and stand in for the GDC. It was another three years after his stint as Deputy had ended that he was invited to take the main job. Although it required a great deal of commitment, it wasn’t something he was inclined to turn down. Over the next decade, Oliver strove to fine-tune rather than change installation ceremonies; instead, tweaking those elements that weren’t quite succeeding to ensure the experience was enhanced for all those attending and participating.
The role also meant travelling around the Commonwealth for installations, and Oliver has visited lodges as far afield as the Caribbean, Africa and Far East. ‘That’s been a fantastic part of the job, seeing the variety across the Districts,’ he says. ‘The ceremonies themselves are virtually identical, but there are some very striking cultural differences, including attitudes to punctuality! In England, we tend to take that quite seriously, but in other countries it’s perfectly acceptable to be an hour late. That’s not in any sense a criticism, it’s just a fact. But it’s one that doesn’t sit comfortably with having a very busy day and a tight time-frame!'
One aspect of the role that Oliver was happy to take very seriously was his responsibility in ensuring that each person being installed could enjoy a momentous occasion in their Freemason’s life. ‘It’s a very significant time for them; they want to remember it with pleasure and for their brothers to feel like they’ve seen a splendid spectacle,’ he says. ‘Little things do go wrong, but the aim is to ensure that it doesn’t disrupt the flow of the ceremony and is skilfully covered up so it doesn’t spoil the impact. The only way to do that is in a way that means most people will come away thinking, “I don’t know why they did it that way, but it was fantastic anyway.”’
The Tercentenary celebration required an even greater attention to detail as the eyes of the entire world of Freemasonry were on the Royal Albert Hall. Oliver remembers this as a ‘wonderful challenge’ that went off (almost) without a hitch. Eradication of risk was an important consideration in the planning, as he had to imagine every- and anything that might go wrong. This meant making strategic decisions on such things as the entrance parade, sometimes favouring safety over drama. ‘In any procession, the instruction should never be more complicated than “Follow the person in front,”’ he says.
‘There’s a significant responsibility and I’ve always taken that very seriously. Little things do go wrong, but the aim is to ensure that it doesn’t disrupt the flow of the ceremony and spoil the impact’
The best job ever
More problematic was the Grand Master’s Reception which took place the previous evening, at which 135 GMs from around the world were due to meet HRH The Duke of Kent. Second-guessing that many of them would bring gifts for the Grand Master of UGLE, Oliver asked the Grand Lodge Museum team to curate an exhibition of the gifts that would take place immediately after the ceremony. This was quite an undertaking for the curatorial team who had to obtain the gifts from attendees, research the items’ history and then exhibit them with a printed label – all during the short time of the reception. A tough job got even tougher when the ceremony began some 10 minutes earlier than scheduled.
‘Everything was going smoothly when, after the tour of the exhibition, the curator turned to me and said, “Thank you so much for starting early.” I’d completely forgotten to warn her! Luckily, she did an absolutely amazing job.’
We have the Tercentenary to thank that Oliver made it to the 10-year mark as GDC – there was no way he could relinquish his position months before it started, and he then had to deal with a backlog of Provincial and District ceremonies in 2018. His time in ‘the best job in Freemasonry’ may now be over, but Oliver hopes to continue to support the organisation for years to come.
‘My only ambition now is to help Freemasonry flourish and I will happily do whatever I can to achieve that,’ he says. ‘One significant reason for delivering impressive ceremonies is precisely that – it helps members enjoy their Freemasonry. If you attend a ceremony, it should be a real pleasure, and that has always been my motivation.’