My final thoughts as Chair of Universities Scheme: Freemasonry needs to ditch 1950s attitudes

CEL in Junior Grand Warden's Chair
In the Junior Grand Warden’s chair of the Grand Temple at Freemasons’ Hall, London. Universities Scheme Conference 2017.

Today’s Universities Scheme conference at Freemasons’ Hall in London saw the end of my eight year tenure as Chairman of the Scheme, and provided an opportunity to reflect on the Craft and its future. In my valedictory address, I set out some thoughts about Freemasonry and the ongoing need for change, to better reflect modern day society. In particular, I focused on the need to move away from the ‘1950s attitudes’ about relationships, gender, and sexuality, that exist in some lodges and to tackle the hidden bullying that sometimes occurs in masonic units. 

“Chairing the Scheme, travelling around the country to visit you, has brought me an almost unrivalled ability to see how Freemasonry works throughout England and Wales, and our Districts overseas.

What I have found is a wonderful, vibrant, and in many ways diverse organisation that continues to attract men of talent into our membership.

However, it strikes me that as society has changed around us in very distinct ways, Freemasonry sometimes has not.

If we are to attract young people, particularly students, into this magnificent institution, and provide Freemasonry with its future life blood, we must ensure that it is relevant to them and reflective of the way they identify, and the way they see the world in which they live.

Of course, our core tenets of brotherly love, relief, and truth – or more fashionably integrity, kindness, honesty, fairness, and tolerance – remain central to our aim of helping good men learn how to treat their fellow human beings better.

But what we can, and indeed must, change is some of the ways we work, the ways we behave, and how we speak.

To an extent, we have begun to do this, often setting an example in Scheme Lodges, of doing things smarter and quicker, starting meetings later and finishing earlier to fit in with the schedules of busy members.

But culturally we have not always moved with the times.

For a start, there seems to be a common assumption in the Craft that every brother has a wife, fiancée, or girlfriend, and that they are the homemakers, whilst the men are the breadwinners.

To me, this seems like a fanciful throwback to the 1950s.

But, gentlemen, we live in 2017, not 1957.

Most women now work, many of them have eminent careers, and some of our partners are much more distinguished than ourselves.

And many of our members do not have partners at all, or if they do, it may well be that they are not women, and that is absolutely fine.

Yet because of our focus on ‘the ladies’ with our ‘ladies nights’ or the care we provide for ‘lodge widows’, those single men, or those with same gender partners, sometimes can feel isolated or that they are less worthy masons. And that puts us at risk of driving those brethren away.

For example, one Provincial Grand Master told me that he and his wife interview prospective APGM’s and their wives, as, in his view, the ladies form an essential part of the leadership team in his area. Now, what does that say to the brother who has never married, or is divorced or widowed, or has had the same male partner for twenty years? Are they never to be permitted to progress to a leadership role in that Province?

This is one clear example of where we must change our attitudes, and our language – ‘partners and friends’ rather than ‘wives and girlfriends’ – to reflect society the way it is now, not how it was in a bygone era.

Speaking of which, I wonder if now is the time to also more publicly acknowledge that women can be freemasons?

And perhaps it is time not just to acknowledge that fact, but also to welcome it, and for Grand Lodge to now formally recognise the legitimacy and regularity of the Women’s Masonic Orders.

Those University Scheme lodges that work locally with women freemasons and share space at Freshers’ Fairs and on other occasions know the benefit this can have in terms of recruitment and retention.

This is also recognised by a number of provinces who invite women masons to join them on their stands at county shows and the like.

It was wonderful to see that we invited the Women’s Grand Masters to the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday, but it would be better still if the United Grand Lodge of England were to recognise them as Freemasons within their Orders, just as we all here are Freemasons within UGLE.

That would be a great visible statement about the way we are changing.

I also want to reflect for a moment on a darker side to our movement, and that is how we deal – or often don’t deal – with bullying.

In most lodges, and in provinces and districts, the culture is welcoming and nurturing, encouraging new members to join in and participate in whatever way they can best do so.

But there are still corners, often regrettably in ‘the East’, where the welcome is not so friendly. Where rank, status, and time served matter more than enthusiasm and desire to contribute. Where junior brethren are ‘put in their place’ or made to feel that their contributions are unwelcome. This is wrong and really must not happen.

Grand Officers, Provincial Officers, and senior lodge members must earn the respect of their brethren, by being supportive mentors, rather than relying on the size and colour of their apron or what motif it bears.

All members should be encouraged to contribute to their lodges, areas, provinces, and districts to the extent they can, whether they joined thirty minutes ago or thirty years ago.

And with that in mind, we must recognise that men who join masonry bring different talents to the Craft, and not everyone is going to make the best ritualist, and that, to be frank, includes me.

I never want to go again to a meeting where the DC or those sitting near me spend their time grumbling or criticising or worse still intervening angrily because someone misses a word or gets it in the wrong order. That is deeply unfraternal brethren and it has to stop.

So please brethren, let us not humiliate the man who struggles with his words, let us instead help and support him to pass through the Chair, even if he doesn’t conduct a single ceremony in his year, so he can go on and be the wonderful Secretary, Treasurer, Charity Steward, Almoner, Masonic Hall Rep, Dining Steward, or even Universities Scheme Chairman that he was destined to be.

And with that, it is now time for me to hand over the baton to my successor, and, indeed, much better ritualist, and to return to the back benches, from where, after this speech, I shall probably never be seen again!

Brethren, it has been an honour and privilege to be your Chairman, and to have contributed just a little to your success. I wish you all well for the future.”

Edward Lord OBE JP is a Past Junior Grand Deacon of the United Grand Lodge of England and was Chairman of its Universities Scheme, which seeks to provide students with the opportunity to explore and enjoy Freemasonry, from 2009 to 2017. Edward was initiated into Kingswood School Lodge No. 4197 in March 1992. He is a Past Master of Farringdon Without Lodge No. 1745 and Corium Lodge No. 4041, Senior Warden and Master Elect of Duke of Fife Lodge No. 2345, and Senior Warden of David Kenneth Williamson Lodge No. 9938. 

Some facts about Freemasonry

Freemasonry is one of the world’s oldest and largest non-religious, non-political, fraternal and charitable organisations. The first Grand Lodge was established in England in 1717.

Freemasonry aims to teach self-knowledge through participation in a progression of ceremonies. Members are expected to be of high moral standing and are encouraged to speak openly about Freemasonry.

The United Grand Lodge of England (www.ugle.org), which also includes Wales, the Channel Islands and Isle of Man, as well as certain overseas territories, currently has over two hundred and fifty thousand members meeting in 6,800 Lodges.

There are Grand Lodges in Ireland, which covers both Northern Ireland and Eire, and Scotland which have a combined total of approximately 150,000 members.

Worldwide, there are approximately six million Freemasons.

In the United Kingdom there are two women’s Grand Lodges, the Order of Women Freemasons (www.owf.org.uk) and the Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons (www.hfaf.org).

The Masonic Charitable Foundation (www.mcf.org.uk) awards grants to registered charities that provide support in a number of areas:

  • Financial hardship
  • Health and disability
  • Education and employability
  • Social exclusion and disadvantage
  • Advance medical research

In the last 35 years, grants from the national masonic charities have amounted to over £130 million. Regional and local masonic charities have contributed many millions more including purchasing new Air Ambulances and the CyberKnife at Bart’s Hospital.

7 thoughts on “My final thoughts as Chair of Universities Scheme: Freemasonry needs to ditch 1950s attitudes

  1. I am a freemason of twenty eight years and have been extremely fortunate to become a Grand Officer and a Provincial Grand Mentor. The world has changed and we as an organisation need to embrace and move forward into the 21st century. Those who join should be valued and treated with respect .
    Our fraternity has survived for over three hundred years now is the time to respect our past value our present and plan our future. I believe we should embrace our ladies masonry by acknowledging their existence and the wonderful example they set in society. Ritual plays a part in our order but we should not neglect a brother who struggles with this
    role. Masonry is about the man the knowledge of himself and each brother brings his own individual character to the lodge and to our order. If we are to survive as an organisation we need to encourage good men to join regardless of their race colour faith or even if they have the same gender partner .
    I believe Masonry starts as a hobby and eventually becomes away of life
    We owe so much to those who came before us let’s build our fraternity so we can shout from the rooftops what a great and pleasant thing is is to be a Brother..

  2. My thoughts exactly. However over the last forty years that I have been a member, there has been a lot of change in this direction but underlying forces are still prevalent. A lack of reflective thought and action to move forward is not always in the direction this essay recommends, with outdated references to our families not always reflecting what is going on in society in general. We are still viewed as a fuddy duddy organisation by many young people. However we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water, just some simple adjustments to attitudes towards people rather than just men. Maybe changing ‘ladies nights’ to more inclusive Lodge Festivals would be a start.

  3. I find it difficult to find anything disagreeable in Edward Lord’s address. The time has come to be more open, this is, of course, happening slowly. As our “Secret society” is no longer so secret, I would like to go further. Why not have a float in local carnivals, or walk in processions in full regalia. We are all proud to be Freemasons, let us show the public that this is so.

  4. Certainly agree wholeheartedly with all that has been said; especially about comments from the East.
    We are all volunteers and enjoy The Craft for what it is; a way of life, cementing friendships over the years.
    Though I am now a recipient of 50 year jewels, I still recall the tut-tuts if I made a mistake in the ritual.
    We meet on the level and part on the square and ALL are equal when the regalia comes off.

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