9 September 2009
A speech by the VW Grand Secretary Nigel Brown
Most Worshipful Pro Grand Master and Brethren. ‘Building Bridges – Freemasons’ Hall in the 21st Century’. You may think that this talk is about operative masonry and with some justification as we have recently successfully completed the building of four fire bridges at the east end of this fine Grand Temple. Built to the satisfaction of English Heritage and do have a look when you ever have a moment, at the way the bridges are appropriately adorned with squares and compasses. But the talk is not about that. Nor is it about the opening up of all the sealed entrances to the Connaught Rooms.
If you would allow some poetic licence, the building of bridges between us and what is from this day forth to be known as the Grand Connaught Rooms. As the President just announced the lease is being granted by the Board of General Purposes with definite benefits to the United Grand Lodge of England. The new people – the Principal Hayley Group - have, since the beginning of July, been completely refurbishing the Building to bring it back to its former glory – working literally day and night – at their expense – gutting the building, and for example, installing new kitchens, so the food will be cooked on site served by people who know what they are doing as well as new wiring, lifts and loos. They are spending over five million on the work. It is all exhilarating and inspiring. They have worked tirelessly to have the Grand Hall – now once again one of the most impressive banqueting rooms in London - ready for today’s lunch. All the rest of the major refurbishment works are to be completed by the end of September. So they ask for patience until that time. By the way, do look at the uncovered Masonic black and white marbled floor. The proof of the pudding will, quite literally, be in the eating. However if their rapidly growing order book is anything to go by, people are intending to return in droves. It is clear from our discussions that they are taking the trouble to understand our needs – and see us Masons as valued customers – unlike their predecessors.
However it is the speculative side of building bridges that this talk is all about. Building bridges from here, at Freemasons’ Hall, with both the non Masonic and Masonic community. First then, building bridges with non Masons. Having now seen all the Provincial Information Officers in a series of regional meetings – the one consistent request is for another Freemasonry in the community event. In fact, we all know that Freemasons should always be actively working in their communities. A great example is when Provinces have a stand at county shows – not only being manned by Freemasons of all ages but especially when wives and partners are part of the team. Grand Lodge has done its bit since the last Freemasonry in the community in 2002 – predominantly by allowing Freemasons’ Hall to be used more extensively than before – as a conscious implementation of strategy - and having a policy of open communications in all our dealings. That strategy has meant that we have moved to a position of respect within the local community. We liaise successfully with all the local residents’ associations as well as with Camden and Westminster Councils. Examples of building bridges are holding open days for locals – in fact on the 19 September it is ‘open house’ for all major buildings in London and on previous form we expect some two and a half thousand visitors on the day. Then we host the ‘In and around Covent Garden’ Annual General Meeting and on the 11th September Camden has invited us to participate in the opening of the new Piazza outside here in Great Queen Street. The opening ceremony will take place at the Tower Entrance. They also see us as the iconic building for the area. However that is all very well – what we actually want is for all members, wherever they are, to see the building as important to and representative of the whole English Constitution. The fact is that it is owned by all members, not just those from London. This wonderful building completed in 1933 as a peace memorial to all those Masons who died in the First World War is still, in the 21st century, one of the finest art deco buildings and is rated as a Grade II* building internally and externally. The actual shrine is a focal point and is situated at the West end of the Vestibule area showing the names of those who died, linked to Lodges throughout the Constitution. Brethren, let us also see this shrine as a continuing memorial to those Freemasons who have died, in the loyal service to their country, in all the wars since the First World War. In that context, it is heart warming to see the high level of support from Freemasons to families of those who have been killed or to very seriously injured soldiers themselves in Afghanistan, in the most ferocious fighting since the Second World War.
Our highly successful events go from strength to strength with thousands of people coming through our doors each year. This is in addition to all those who come on our regular tours of the Building and visit our centre of excellence, the Library and Museum. We are therefore talking about people who would otherwise never come in or know anything about Freemasonry. Freemasons’ Hall has been appointed a Unique Venue of London. The rigorous membership criteria means we are considered to be representative of London and an important building alongside, for example St Pauls or the Natural History Museum. Indeed, for the last three years we have been nominated by the events industry as one of the top locations for availability, accessibility and services offered to film makers. Freemasons’ Hall is our 21st Century brand name and we are highly respected within the events industry.
For film makers, this is a designers’ paradise. Both for television series and Hollywood blockbusters. Then there are the award ceremonies and the list is long. We highlight the Gala Dinner for the London Philharmonic Orchestra – the Grand Master being their patron. A pre dinner recital in the Grand Temple was breathtaking and the Artistic Director remarked that the acoustics in here were ‘perfect’. By letting them have the Hall free for the evening we are shown as sponsors for the whole year on their promotional material. As an aside, they raised seventy three thousand pounds for their own charity that evening. This charity allows under privileged children from all over the Country the opportunity to come and listen to live orchestras. We are very careful about whom we let hire the venue and indeed are keen never to interrupt Masonic activities. However I will mention amusingly that Tesco’s recently came to display the items that are going to appear in their shops at Christmas. Although rather surreal at this time of the year, the marvellous thing was that we had five hundred journalists in over two days – none of whom thought they were allowed in and all of whom were wowed by the fantastic building. Clearly the revenue stream is important – we have raised a great deal of money to maintain the fabric of the building – and another real benefit is the soft PR for the Craft as a whole.
Then we have built bridges with the four Masonic Charities all of whom, as you know, have moved into the building and it is a great delight to see how they are now working together and with us, again to the benefit of the Craft. We are also delighted that over this very summer the Metropolitan Grand Lodge has also moved into the building and into the space previously occupied by the Grand Charity.
Secondly, as part of building bridges with our membership it is important that we stay very close to Metropolitan, the Provinces and Districts. These relationships are very important to us and they grow stronger each day. Apart from the reality of geographical spread in England, Wales and abroad, everyone here considers you all of equal importance. It is also important that all our members throughout this geographical spread appreciate the vital role that this iconic building, the Mother Lodge of the World and the Headquarters of the English Constitution, plays to Freemasonry in general and to them specifically. Indeed, Brethren from our Districts and from all over the world view a visit to this building as a highlight to their stay in London. First and foremost, this is a working building, from where a vast membership organisation is run on 21st century business lines. Apart from the running of the business of Freemasons’ Hall we link to Metropolitan Grand Lodge, to 47 Provinces in England and Wales, to 33 District Grand Lodges around the world, to 5 groups under Grand Inspectors as well as to lodges abroad not under Districts or Grand Inspectors. That is well over 8,300 Lodges and now couple this with the Royal Arch which is also run from here, gives us a total of over 11,600 Lodges and Chapters. Or, to put it another way, over a quarter of a million members.
As you can imagine there is a huge volume of correspondence and of course, in this day and age, an increasing amount of electronic mail. Hundreds a day, many requiring considered advice and guidance on a vast range of technical Masonic issues. Some say ‘why don’t you have standard responses?’ Well, Freemasons can be ingenious – they think of ninety ways to ask the same question – all with a twist!
Then there are, just by way of a snapshot, the Board of General Purposes and Committee of General Purposes meetings covering for example strategic and investment decisions; conferences; the Rulers’ Forum with representatives from all the Provinces; the provision to all the Provinces - and increasingly to the Districts – of a standardised and integrated system for maintaining membership data called Provincial ADelphi; the writing, production and distribution of Freemasonry Today; initiatives such as mentoring, orator schemes and new websites, monitoring national and all local newspapers and dealing with the press and giving advice on media issues. Brethren, on that subject, our relations with the media have improved dramatically through the efforts of the Provincial Information Officers and from here. We will take no nonsense from any detractor. Interestingly, this considered approach has earned Freemasonry considerable respect and us – many new friends. That snapshot, that flavour of a few of the things we do, is for the good of all members. Things like today’s Quarterly Communication, or Supreme Grand Chapter and Investitures do not just happen. They all have to be organised and staffed. Just think what it is like for a Lodge Secretary to run one meeting and then compare, no, we need say no more – you have got the picture! Don’t forget we also work closely with Provinces and Districts with their activities including the installation of Provincial or District Grand Masters, bi-centenaries, centenaries and business meetings throughout the Constitution.
The Centre here is in many ways a clearing house, giving advice and guidance when asked for. Having said that, we do initiate change and our great strength is adaptability. Whether from 1717 or 1813 it has been our ability to adapt to the society in which we are living without changing the basic principles and tenets.
At the same time we will continue to keep the building up-to-date and in good order. This means that the building remains a prestige venue and commercially viable.
So, Brethren, with the leadership of our Rulers and the direction of the Board we will together continue to build and strengthen those bridges as we move happily forward from a strong base towards our three hundredth anniversary in 2017 and beyond. We commend to every single member, wherever you are, the true value of Freemasons’ Hall and all it stands for in the 21st Century.