12 December 2018
A presentation by VW Bro Dr David Staples, Grand Secretary
Brethren, good morning. It is my great pleasure to be speaking to you here today.
As many of you will know, I used to work as a doctor. My clinical job was to work out why people were horizontal and try to get them vertical again. I shall try my hardest over the next 15 minutes or so not to reverse that process.
I left Derby Hospital four years ago to become Clinical Director for Medicine at Peterborough where I managed a whole host of awkward people and there, to my astonishment, I discovered that I rather enjoyed this thing called ‘management’. In fact, I found that I enjoyed it much more than medicine.
People were usually pleased to see me which made a change, and as someone who had always enjoyed solving problems I found that I was deluged with problems. It was not a great leap for me to move into another organisation with problems to solve.
I still practice medicine for half a day a week – it seemed foolish to burn all my clinical bridges in this particular role. The Board and Rulers hired me as Chief Executive with two main outcomes in mind. First, I was to bring the Corporate and Masonic sides of Freemasons’ Hall together – to meld 60 Great Queen Street into a purpose and values driven organisation which services the needs of the United Grand Lodge of England, Supreme Grand Chapter and of course you, our members.
Secondly, I was tasked with helping to formulate, coordinate and ensure the delivery of the United Grand Lodge of England’s strategies for the future as defined by the Rulers and the Board.
To my mind, the most important of these is rapidly becoming to ‘Normalise the perception of Freemasonry in the public consciousness’ – to make it as acceptable to say that one is going to a lodge meeting as it would be to say that one is going shopping, out for a meal, or to the golf course; and to make it a genuine choice for all of our members as to whether they wish to disclose their membership or not – rather than one mandated by the attitudes and prejudices of their colleagues.
Today I would like to try to give you a flavour for some of the challenges UGLE faces along that journey, and some of the things that we are doing to meet them. We are always, however, mindful of the need to respect the independence of individual lodges and Provinces, and only to mandate those things which are absolutely essential to the future of the Craft.
Things are not all rosy. In 1920, Grand Lodge issued around 30,000 Grand Lodge certificates each year. By 2015 this had dropped to 7,000 which equates to less than one new member per lodge per year. 20% of our members resign or never come back prior to receiving their Grand Lodge certificate. 60% of our membership is over 60 years of age. Membership remains one of our greatest challenges.
As an organisation, we are shrinking by 1% a year, although interestingly our districts are growing at 10% per year on average.
Attracting new members and engaging our membership so that they remain members is therefore of paramount importance, but the pool of candidates eligible to join Freemasonry is a fraction of what it was 50 years ago.
We can do little to change whether a person believes in a Supreme Being, or whether they have a criminal record, but UGLE has done a great deal to try to influence the opportunity that eligible members have to join us successfully; this has occurred most visibly through the Membership Pathway which was launched earlier this year – an initiative that seeks to ensure that potential members know what to expect, and to minimise the chances of them leaving.
What used to be ‘invitation only’ is now much more open. Lodges regularly exhibit at universities Freshers’ Fairs and all Provincial websites and the United Grand Lodge of England welcome online membership enquiries. We also seek to influence what is ‘findable’ on Google by engaging with the media. By having sensible stories which reflect what WE want about Freemasonry on the top three pages of a Google search, we are able to significantly alter our public footprint.
Before the Second World War, Freemasons would have been openly known and respected in their communities. Public parades of masons were common place. Masons were often asked to perform ceremonies around the laying of foundation stones for public buildings.
Then, Hitler murdered 200,000 Freemasons on the continent and looked as though he were poised to invade England. Suddenly, it didn’t seem quite such a good idea to be so open about our membership and we collectively retreated into a position of privacy that we have only just, with the Tercentenary celebrations last year, started to retreat from in a coordinated fashion.
The third factor which influences whether we attract new members is the environment – by which I primarily mean the court of public opinion. What do the public think of us? How likely is it that our members are happy to ‘come out’ as Freemasons? How likely or acceptable is it that an organisation or employer decides to discriminate against Freemasons? What is the political climate? What is the religious climate? – All of these issues form the environment from which our members are drawn.
The national press is obsessed with handshakes, trouser legs, nepotism, corruption and with events that may have happened 50 years ago in a then corrupt police force. Not a media interview has gone by over the last year when I have not been asked about one of these issues – yet only 4% of young people under 25 ever read the national press, and only 9% get their news from television. By far the predominant source for news in the under 30s is the internet. We need to ensure our media presence reflects this.
In centuries past, however, Freemasons and Freemasonry was enormously respected. Before the times of professional organisations and trade bodies such as the British Medical Associate, the Bar Association, The Law Society etc., if you wanted to employ the services of someone who wasn’t going to rip you off, a Freemason represented someone who openly ‘met people on the level’ and ‘treated them squarely’. It was the closest one could get at the time to a kite mark of decent and moral professional behaviour, and, for tradesmen, membership was a likely to result in both increased respect and increased business.
Unfortunately, how Freemasonry is explained to us as Entered Apprentices is not necessarily an easy and straightforward concept to grasp. We are told that Freemasonry is a ‘peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols’ . That its system of morality forms of a set of values and principles of conduct. Freemasons are the custodians of a way of behaving which takes good people and makes them better, doing so by acting out ancient myths and encouraging a study of the deeper meaning of symbols, so it is both a philosophical and philanthropic society. One can see how it might prove very difficult for us to explain what Freemasonry is to those who might be curious. And, of course, Freemasonry means many different things to different members.
If we talk about charity, we are no different to hundreds of other organisations who fight for space in a very crowded sector. If we talk about friendship or camaraderie then similarly we do not capture the unique aspects of Freemasonry which set us aside from a club or society.
We will never be able to, nor should we, reinvent ourselves to please the public, but we do need to nuance our message so that it can have the greatest effect on those who we might be able to influence, and what you will see over the next 18 months or so is a coordinated media and communications strategy that starts to deploy these messages. We started this year with ‘Enough is Enough’ and there is a great deal more to come.
We need to find something that communicates the unique nature of Freemasonry in a friendly, accessible fashion, and in a way which makes us an attractive use of our potential members’ precious time. So how do we achieve, in the minds of the public, a favourable opinion preconceived of the institution? We must define ourselves clearly and positively to the outside world. We must regain control of our own narrative, we need to promulgate the timeless principles of brotherly love and self-improvement. We need to inspire people to lead better lives and be a values driven, professional organisation.
So Communications and Membership are two of my top priorities as mandated by the Board, the Rulers and the various committees and groups that have a care for Freemasonry.
These priorities are clearly reflected in the restructuring of the United Grand Lodge of England communications apparatus, and by the creation of a new Membership Services Department, which will encompass a new department for the Districts which, in the past, have not perhaps received the attention that they deserve; the Chancellery which manages foreign masonic affairs and also all of your enquiries should you want to visit a lodge abroad as well as the membership and registration functions.
When I came to UGLE, the headquarters had been split along masonic and non-masonic lines, and it was fair to say that there was a degree of civil war existing between the two. What I found was a headquarters crying out for modernisation. I am pleased to say that following considerable effort by all the staff over the last year, UGLE has just been awarded Investors in People Accreditation – something that will help dispel our reputation as operating from a secret volcano base somewhere off the West Coast of Sumatra.
Bringing about change within UGLE is not a simple task. I have entitled my talk 'Risk Takers, Caretakers and Undertakers' which broadly explains the mindsets which govern all of us here today in some part. Some aspects of the organisation need curating – they are precious to us and to our members and should be preserved as part of our responsibility as the de facto caretakers of a three-hundred-year-old institution, other parts need to be allowed to run their course and die, for an organisation which never renews itself is unlikely to survive. We see this often in the lives of individual lodges, which come together to serve a need for their members, but as times change, or that need changes, some lodges pass away whilst others invigorate themselves and thrive. In order to thrive, we need to be prepared perhaps to take risks and to change in order to remain, or perhaps regain a relevance in the modern world. If we aren’t prepared to do this, we become undertakers and bury something enormously precious to us all.
Another key priority for us at UGLE is to modernise the processes by which the organisation is administered. This year, we will have performed 24 Installations of Provincial and District Rulers all of those, coordinated from this building. We are recognised the world over for our pre-eminent ceremonial. It is my intention to ensure that this excellence shows itself in all that we do. We have moved the Masonic Year Book and the Directory of Lodges and Chapters to living online documents, and now have a thriving members’ area on our website. For the first time, some of you will have booked your place here today online and made payment for the lunch that follows electronically – something you will no doubt have been doing in other areas of life for well over a decade.
Astonishingly this change will save over 1,800 man hours of work each year. Those of you who are Secretaries will be pleased to hear that we are aiming to ensure that Installation Returns are pre-printed, meaning that you will never again have to write out the names and numbers of all your past masters – something which has been done and remained unchanged for over 175 years.
But that is just the start. The Book of Constitutions lays out guidance on how a modern membership organisation should be run, but the problem is that its current iteration was written in the nineteenth century.
Imagine now an organisation where the Lodge Secretary could access the central database of their members’ information and keep it updated. Why should secretaries have to write clearance certificates when we already know who is paid up and who is in arrears? Why not just run a real time Masonic credit check when you want to join a new lodge? Why are forms needed in order to get a Grand Lodge certificate, when we already know all the information on those forms?
To start to modernise these internal processes is an enormous piece of work, but I know it will bring real benefits to our members and those who administer lodges and Provinces.
And these changes will alter the experiences of the everyday mason too. Can you imagine a system that sends links to articles that explains the ceremony of initiation to an initiate the day after he is brought in? Or a system that sends information about the Royal Arch to a newly made Master Mason? What about a system that flags to the Lodge Almoner when a member has missed three meetings in a row – a strongly correlated marker for poor engagement and retention. In this way we can start to influence how we engage our membership at a whole new level with that peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.
The Craft has an old, established teaching system, which uses role-playing, memory work and public speaking to enshrine its principles in the hearts of Masons. These techniques have evolved over many centuries and even more generations of Brethren, to pass on our traditions to benefit our members by making them better people, at peace with themselves and with the society in which they live.
We have recently launched ‘SOLOMON’, an online learning resource covering the three degrees and the Royal Arch which you are able to register for, access and read as you progress through your masonic journey. It has over 350 articles, graded for the correct degree which augment these established teaching methods within the Craft and make each candidate’s journey through Masonry a much more fulfilling experience.
So, Brethren, there is a huge amount going on in your organisation, and that is not counting the numerous happenings at Provincial and individual lodge level. UGLE is building an efficient and effective organisation. An organisation which provides a structure able to support and engage our members, attract new people to the Craft and Royal Arch, normalize Freemasonry in the public consciousness and stand up for our members whenever they are unfairly discriminated against or collectively attacked.
The United Grand Lodge of England is here to act as a custodian of the values and traditions of Freemasonry which inspire people to Lead Better Lives for the benefit of society, valuing Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth. We should be a straightforward organisation that is supportive, self-confident, welcoming, member focused, friendly and fun because that is an organisation that good men will want to join and even better men will want to remain members of. It is the duty of all of us to make this an organisation we are proud to be a part of.