PGM’s Address at the VO’s Mess 2014

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  1. Brethren, let me start by saying that I cannot over-emphasise the importance which I place on this Mess and its members for the future of our Province.
  2. You will all know that one of the first decisions which I made as PGM was to appoint non-Grand Officers as Visiting Officers.
  3. The role of the Visiting Officer was to change, and I needed committed and enthusiastic brethren with no pre-conceptions and a clear understanding of the modern world.  
  4. Let me start by saying that change does not in any way imply criticism of what went before.
  5. Forty years ago we were enjoying a period of great expansion in Freemasonry – one only has to look at the Year Book to see the number of Lodges which were created in the 1970s and 1980s.
  6. When I was Senior Warden of the Province in 1989 we worked 6 Consecrations during the year. Double ceremonies were the norm in many Lodges. The PGM did not have to worry about matters such as Recruitment, or Retention. Within reason, the Province, Freemasonry, was taking care of itself. Things were good.
  7. Grand Officers exclusively were appointed Visiting Officers to several Lodges; and enjoyed one Official Visit to such Lodges each year; but were required to keep their distance.
  8. The Visiting Grand Officers did not have a job to do because there was not a job to be done. Unquestionably, there is now.
  9. Regrettably some of our brethren are still living in that halcyon world.
  10. The world has moved on. Unfortunately, Freemasonry has not. We are now playing catch up in a world moving forward at an ever increasing pace. We catch up; or, as an organisation, we do not have a future. Such is very clear from the data being produced by Grand Lodge; is recognised at the highest level in the Craft; and has led to the formation of the Membership Focus Group within Grand Lodge and a number of related Committees reporting into the Board of General Purposes.
  11. However, recognition and acceptance at the highest level will achieve nothing whilst we have Lodges and brethren oblivious to the bigger picture – set in their ways regardless; and living in the past.  
  12. In the Province we decided to rely on our Visiting Officers to reach into such Lodges and because of the importance of the role, to ensure that each Visiting Officer had just one Lodge to look after – and I use those words advisedly.
  13. So what is the problem and how do I expect my Visiting Officers to help sort it?
  14. Let us start with numbers. In this Province four years ago, we were losing 400 members a year – or 1.6 per Lodge per year. That was clearly unacceptable.   Decisions had to be taken which would involve change which would be unpalatable to some, but my responsibility was to the Craft and to the Province.
  15. It’s been a slow and painstaking process. It has taken time to identify brethren suitable for the new roles which we were creating. We are getting there – we have I believe harnessed the enthusiasm of brethren who would otherwise be looking to occupy their time elsewhere possibly outside the Craft.
  16. We are now on the starting blocks. The new Areas are established but need to bed in which will itself take time.
  17. Meanwhile, we have had some success in reducing the attrition of members, which has been halved to less that 200 in the past year.
  18. Four years ago we were the 3rd largest Province in terms of numbers. We are now the 2nd largest Province. On current trends, we will soon be the largest Province.
  19. Is it all about numbers – Yes it is. The sole purpose of a Masonic Lodge is to make Masons. If our numbers are increasing it means that Lodges are Recruiting new members and Retaining members which is surely an indication that the brethren are enjoying their Freemasonry – otherwise they would not bring new men in; and we would see men leaving.
  20. So is enjoyment the key? Well it is certainly a major factor. We need to ensure that Freemasonry, as practised in all our Lodges, is enjoyable. How do we do that? How do I do that as PGM? How do I ensure that my Vision for enjoyable Freemasonry becomes reality in every Lodge in this Province. I can issue directives – a bit like King Canute. And “You will enjoy Freemasonry” is hardly likely to produce results.  
  21. In some respects, and in some Lodges, it is the culture which needs to change. And one doesn’t change a culture by demanding change.
  22. I have said so many times that we need to go back to basics – the whole ethos of Freemasonry is caring and support. If we all remembered that then we would not have the DC barking at junior brethren, old boys tutting in the East, high expectations of “the Lodge” regardless of the impact on the brethren, ritual sharing forbidden, time of tyling sacrosanct, an unbending requirement for busy working brethren to attend every rehearsal, every Lodge of Instruction (some once a week!).
  23. These are just examples of an apparent lack of caring which can result in brethren leaving the Craft. There are many others. In those Lodges where it exists, it must stop – but a directive from me saying this type of behaviour is unacceptable will achieve nothing – save perhaps upset the main offenders.
  24. Clearly to reach into such Lodges I needed managers – brethren who understand the message and can work to change the culture. This is part of the function of the Visiting Officer. Understanding the message and the reason for it is of course key.
  25. I fully acknowledge that one size does not fit all. I would prefer all Lodges to tyle at a time which I consider fits in with the responsibilities of the working man. So 1800 earliest; but 1830 preferable. There will be Lodges where brethren are untroubled by the time of tyling – which may be fine, provided the younger working members are happy and not under undue pressure, and the Lodge is thriving with new members being introduced and retained
  26. So a Visiting Officer will have an eye on the culture, and indeed behaviour, of members of the Lodge with a view to encouraging change, where such is appropriate, and based on the caring principle.  
  27. The Visiting Officer should also provide support and guidance to the Lodge and the Lodge Officers as necessary. Look after brethren who may have difficulty performing some of the administrative tasks, particular whilst the new Area Structure beds in. And see that decisions made by the Provincial Cabinet are understood and implemented in the Lodges.
  28. In that connection, the Cabinet recently considered in some depth Exclusions and Resignations. In many cases they are related – the brother has turned his back on the Craft, or on his Lodge, and decided to call it a day. If he makes that decision and has not paid his Subs – so what? He will be excluded. So towards the end of the year, we have a number of exclusions and resignations. Could these be prevented? Could any of them be prevented? How does the Lodge, or the Lodge Treasurer handle these cases?
  29. Back to the caring principle – if subs are not paid, does the Lodge contact the brother concerned in a caring way. Or does the brother receive a letter warning that he will be excluded if payment is not made within a certain period or by a certain day. Is the Almoner involved? Is the brother given an opportunity to pay by instalments? Or is he treated like a debtor? Technically he is of course, and the Treasurer’s primary concern is to collect the money; or ensure a brother is excluded before further fees are due to Grand Lodge. But this is Freemasonry. If a brother who has not attended his Lodge for a few meetings receives what might be regarded as a debtor’s letter, he is fully justified in my view, in turning his back on the organisation. That does not make him a bad Freemason.
  30. We can focus on Recruitment, but at the end of the day, Recruitment is useless if brethren are not enjoying their Freemasonry such that we do not retain what we have. Over the past four years, we have lost 569 brethren, or 142 per year, within 5 years of their joining the Craft. We have lost 47 brethren within a year of their initiation; over 100 within two years of their initiation.
  31. We have to reverse this attrition of men who have joined us; and have turned their backs on us within such a short period. There may be as many reasons for this situation as we have Lodges. I can’t sort it. You can, on my behalf, by getting an understanding of the reason and working with the Lodge to rectify the problem. If a brother is enjoying his Freemasonry he won’t leave.
  32. What is the position with regard to Resignations and Exclusions in your Lodge? Are you dealing with it in accordance with Provincial policy.
  33. And there is Recruitment. We have so many initiatives to aid Recruitment running across the Province and replicated in every Area. You need to know what is going on in your Area so that you can ensure that your Lodge knows; and takes advantage as appropriate.
  34. We have Lodges with an embarrassment of riches in terms of Candidates; and others struggling without a Candidate over two sometimes three years. These Lodges need help and guidance and support. The Visiting Officer is there to provide it, liaising with the Area Officers and Committees as necessary.
  35. Every Lodge should have a 5 year rolling plan. This is not rocket science. It applies to Lodges which are thriving as much as it does to Lodges which are struggling. If any organisation wants a future, it must know where it wants to go; and plan how to get there. The Province has drafted a Template to assist Lodges (and their Visiting Officers) in drafting a plan. Encourage Lodges to think about their future in terms of planning. Take a lead if necessary, whilst ensuring you act diplomatically and sensitively and are not overbearing.    
  36. The effect of the decision to appoint Provincial Officers as Visiting Officers, one per Lodge, was to involve numerous brethren in the management of the Province, brethren who hitherto would have had no such opportunity. That applies to many of you here.    
  37. The effect of the decision to re-structure the Province into 6 distinct Areas, each mirroring to some extent the smaller Provinces, was likewise to create great opportunities for brethren to play a part in the management of the Province, and the future of the Craft.  
  38. One only has to look at the Year Book to see the number of appointments which have been made, literally hundreds of brethren now actively involved in the Province.
  39. So there are additional benefits which are healthy for the Province giving brethren across the Province an opportunity to contribute
  40. In my Address at our Annual Meeting I said that we have increased the profile of our Visiting Officers because they are key to the future of the Province. I referred to our establishing a Visiting Officers Mess, and to our introducing a Visiting Officers tie so that our Visiting Officers are recognised across the Province; and not just within the Lodge to which they are appointed.
  41. I repeat this now because it is so important that all our Visiting Officers appreciate and understand the importance of the role which they have been appointed to perform; and that all brethren easily identify and respect our Visiting Officers.
  42. It should go without saying that if you are to succeed in your role, you need an intimate knowledge of your Lodge. You will obtain this from the Area Committee, your predecessor if you are a new appointment, and the Lodge Officers. You cannot perform your job without it. Which is why the recent Survey in respect of Lodges was sent to VOs for completion. And why it is vital that every VO completes the Survey.
  43. The Province relies heavily on each of you performing to the best of your ability. Inevitably, some of you will have a more difficult job than others. But your individual appointments have taken account of the needs of the Lodge to which you are appointed. You have been carefully selected by the Area APGMs over a period of time and expectations are high.
  44. It’s a great credit to each of you that you have been recommended as Visiting Officers. I wish you every success in the task ahead.
  45. I have mentioned Enjoyment as being key to the success of our Lodges. It is equally important that you, as VOs, enjoy all that you do for the Province. This Mess has enabled you to network which I hope will add to your enjoyment.
  46. Spread the load as necessary. There are Area Officers and Area Committees available to provide you with whatever support you need. They know and appreciate the importance of the task which you have and will do all they can to assist you as necessary.
  47. I thank you for your attendance; and your attention. There’s plenty of time to network further – the evening remains young.


R W Bro Mike Wilks

Provincial Grand Master