Masonry would seem to be the only institution where ‘good men and true’, irrespective of rank, creed or colour can meet anywhere in the world on common ground. This is part of our ethos – and will always remain so. And yes Brethren, this ethos should be important to every member – whether they are one of the eighty five per cent who belong to one Lodge in England or Wales or to any member throughout their Masonic lifetime.
In the English Constitution our 33 Districts – spanning Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas and Oceania – plus our 4 groups of Lodges under Grand Inspectors as well as individual Lodges who report direct to the Grand Master through the Grand Secretary, are testament to the universality of Freemasonry particularly the United Grand Lodge of England. For your interest the earliest record of a Provincial Grand Master ‘beyond sea’ – now referred to as a District Grand Master – was in 1729 in East India.
It would be fair to say that the formation of Freemasonry overseas was neither because of a conscious direction of our early leaders, nor by an urge of Masons generally to go into the world and spread Freemasonry. It was simply the result of men going about the world on business who, being Masons, met others – more or less accidently – who had also been initiated into Masonry in their Mother countries. If sufficient numbers were available – they formed themselves into a Lodge. The arrival of a British Regiment, bringing with it a ‘travelling Lodge’ whose members were happy to receive civilians, played a major part in spreading Masonry throughout the globe.
It is worth pointing out that today, with the speed of modern communications, there is very little difference between a Province and District, although some District Grand Masters have to travel great distances over difficult terrain to visit all of their charges!
So over the last three years when Rulers have visited our Districts and Lodges overseas they have in their formal speeches made two points which are fundamental to our relationship with the Districts – and indeed with Lodges under Grand Inspectors and those administered directly under the Grand Master. Although we may be separated from them by great geographical distances our Lodges overseas are as integral and important part of Freemasonry under this Grand Lodge as Lodges at home under Metropolitan and Provincial Grand Masters. We are very conscious that those overseas Lodges have made a considered decision to remain under the United Grand Lodge of England rather than form their own Grand Lodges or to join new Grand Lodges when they are formed within their countries. I can only repeat what the Rulers have said: we will honour those decisions and support and defend the rights of those Lodges for so long as they wish to remain under our care.
We are keen that this message of support is understood by every member of the English Constitution. But, Brethren, words are free – what actions have been taken to support these assurances? There are many and, for illustrative purposes, I have selected a sample of actions to give you a flavour.
First, you are now all well acquainted with the decision to appoint a Grand Chancellor to liaise with the other Grand Lodges around the world. One of the key benefits of this to the Districts has been to allow the Grand Secretary to concentrate on them as well as the Provinces. As we have the pleasure of having the District Grand Master of Cyprus with us here today I will use his District as an example of the Grand Chancellor and me working closely together. The Grand Secretary deals with all matters, on behalf of the Board of General Purposes, to do with his District. The District Grand Master’s inevitable dealings with the Grand Lodges of Cyprus, of Turkey and Greece are supported by the Grand Chancellor.
This ability to concentrate on the Districts has meant that the Grand Secretary during the last three years has met all the District Grand Masters and, in most cases, their executive teams. How has this been possible? Clearly meetings take place here, at Great Queen Street, and the majority of these visits would be to the Annual Investiture when the District Grand Master will come to support his Brethren who are being appointed to Grand Rank or promoted. During the past fifteen years we have received some 280 visits to Grand Lodge – or to put it another way – nearly twenty visits a year, which means that two thirds of our Districts come to one meeting or other every year. The main way to meet, however, has been to run business meetings throughout the regions. Ideally, and it has proved extremely successful, these business meetings are run concurrently with the installation of a new District Grand Master. Interestingly, also during the last fifteen years, we have made sixty visits to our Districts. Four a year. This has included the celebration of a District Anniversary. By way of example of anniversaries I have in mind the 75th Anniversary of the District of Ghana; the 150th Anniversaries of Eastern Archipelago and more recently of the South Island New Zealand. The business meetings are chaired by the Grand Secretary hosted by the local District Grand Master. All visiting District Grand Masters, plus their top executive attend. I have run – to date - eleven of these meetings throughout our Constitution and we deal with all issues that specifically concern them. In the immediate future the next business meeting is in mid April in Johannesburg for all the Central and Southern Africa District Grand Masters when I accompany the Pro Grand Master for the Installation of the new District Grand Master for South Africa, North.
Currently the only regional meeting that runs annually is the Caribbean District Grand Masters Conference. This event is organised by them and attended by the Pro Grand Master accompanied by the Grand Secretary. As a result the District Grand Masters from that Region have developed a tremendous rapport.
It should be remembered that in many of our Districts we have agreements with the other two Home Grand Lodges – of Ireland and Scotland – which enables the three Constitutions to work harmoniously together. We believe that this is most important for the good of Freemasonry as a whole in those Districts. The Pro Grand Master, accompanied by the Grand Secretary and the Grand Chancellor meet their opposite numbers - in the Grand Lodges of Ireland and Scotland – at a Tripartite meeting every year when the mutual affairs of the Districts are high on the agenda.
We – that is all the members in England and Wales – never want to lose any of our Districts as we are proud of them and greatly appreciate what they bring to Freemasonry. In return, we believe that they benefit enormously from the respect they gain from being members of the premier Grand Lodge.
So Brethren, how tremendous then, that all of us in the English Constitution do truly meet in love and harmony, irrespective of rank, creed or colour.