As I have remarked on many previous occasions, this honour is not just a recognition of past services to Freemasonry but an earnest of the work we expect you to undertake in the future.
It is a sign of the trust we are placing in you, and I know that you will repay this by your continuing commitment to Freemasonry. In a slight departure from what has become customary on these occasions, I intend today to concentrate on one main topic – the health of Freemasonry.
It was at a previous Annual Investiture more than 30 years ago that I said that Grand Officers “must not neglect training the next generation … it is still the most important task for Grand Officers in their various Lodges.”
This statement is just as relevant today as it was in 1971, and I want to stress to you how vital it is that you pass on your knowledge and your wisdom to the younger members of your Lodges.
We need to remember that there are more calls now than ever before on a man’s time, and by making more effort and spending more time with the less experienced members than was traditional for senior brethren, you can make all the difference in their perception of what Masonry has to offer them, and ensure that they do not drift away from active involvement because they do not feel sufficiently valued.
This is particularly important in the case of those who are very new to our society. I have mentioned retention of our newly initiated brethren several times in recent years, and it is heartening to know how many Provinces and Districts overseas have adopted or are adopting policies designed to improve our retention of new brothers and reduce the rate at which brethren leave Freemasonry.
In this context I wish to highlight the concept of mentoring and its importance in retaining our newer members. Grand Officers can play an important part in this process by, for example, withdrawing from the Lodge with a brother who retires whilst the Lodge is opened in a higher degree for which he is not yet qualified.
As experienced Masons, you may thus encourage him to learn, perhaps answer his questions, and help with the ritual. Sometimes you yourselves will benefit too, because if you are asked a question to which you do not know the answer, you will make your own “daily advancement in Masonic knowledge” by ensuring that you find it out and pass it on. And, of course, you will become a friend to the new brother and make his introduction to the Lodge more comfortable and less daunting.
The health of Freemasonry cannot be measured purely in terms of the number of Lodges opened or new members accepted into the Craft. We are by far the biggest Grand Lodge in the world, but we are really not in the numbers game. What is absolutely critical is that we attract members of the highest quality and, once they have been initiated, heighten and retain their interest.
Of course, new recruits must be encouraged to learn and to develop their knowledge, but we should take care that the learning curve is neither too steep nor too intimidating, and Grand Officers have an important part to play in achieving this objective.
I hope you will encourage more sharing of the ritual in our degree ceremonies, and when a Lodge finds itself without a ceremony to work, will try to ensure that good alternative programmes are developed for the interest and enlightenment of the brethren.
It is not enough just to conduct the administrative business of the Lodge, and then close it; such a thoughtless approach must be a major contributory factor in diminishing enthusiasm and driving new members away.
An efficient Lodge is generally a happy Lodge. The succession of office-holders should be well planned: principal Officers should not usually hold office for a period of more than five to eight years, so that there is plenty of variety and good prospects for all the members to look forward to.
The Lodge should circulate the minutes of its proceedings, and a précis of its administrative business, to all of its members, so that even those who cannot attend regularly can feel involved in what is going on, and are more likely to keep up their membership.
Grand Lodge is now able to collect statistical data more quickly and accurately than used to be the case, and this suggests that in some places the number of initiations is once again beginning to rise.
Although the loss of members is also still rising, partly because the big increase in membership immediately after the end of the Second World War continues to unwind, the good news is that this is happening at a slower rate than in recent years.
We therefore have the opportunity, if we pay closer attention to the needs of our younger members, who are busier than ever before, to halt, and even reverse, the decline of the last thirty years or so.
I therefore believe that we have grounds to be optimistic about the future of Freemasonry. Our policy of openness has increased interest in the Craft and dispelled many of the myths with which we have been associated in the past. But this will be of no avail if we continue to lose members at the rate we have been doing, so let us ensure that we continue to attract men of the highest integrity into the Order, and once they are members, let us make every effort to maintain and increase their initial interest.
Brethren, before closing I would like to express my thanks to the Grand Director of Ceremonies and his Deputies for their customary efficiency in the conduct of our proceedings today. I would also like to thank the Grand Secretary and his staff for all the hard work they put in behind the scenes to ensure that the rest of us enjoy our Masonry.
Finally I thank you all for attending in such large numbers today.