AN INTERVIEW WITH THE GRAND SECRETARY
VW Bro Dr David Staples Grand Secretary FRCP joins us from his office in Freemasons Hall.
It s not a location he has visited regularly in the past few months, but he looks reassuringly comfortable to be back at his desk. Disappointingly, whilst our conversation is on Zoom and is interrupted by a couple of phone calls, none of them is from the Grand Master, therefore, sadly, we don t have any gossip to share. Bro David tells us that he does get to see the Grand Master once every six weeks to bring him up to date, but generally that s in person rather than via video conference.
Bro David’s initiation into Freemasonry came through Apollo University Lodge No 357 at Oxford. His proposer deliberately told him nothing about the ceremony, thus keeping it a surprise but a pleasant one. He found an organisation that appealed to him, an appeal that has endured. A graduate of Magdalen College, he was the first person to sit public examinations in two different degrees simultaneously in its five-hundred-year history. His introduction into London Masonry came from the current Grand Chancellor VW Bro Paul Engeham PGSwdB who took him as a guest to Middlesex Lodge No 143 and, as is the way with these things, produced the joining forms at the end of the meeting.
London masonry gave him the chance to be selected for a job with Metropolitan Grand Lodge as a Metropolitan Grand Steward. The job gave him an insight into the workings of Freemasonry beyond his Lodge. He believes that the formation of Metropolitan Grand Lodge has allowed a greater flow of masons who are interested in the broader aspects of Freemasonry. It provides a vehicle for things on a broader scale that you wouldn’t be able to do at an individual Lodge level, for example, community action or the Lord Mayor’s Parade or Young Masons clubs or the University Scheme or Military Lodges.
Being Grand Secretary
He describes his role as similar to the head of the civil service. There are matters of principle and governance which require consent through Quarterly Communications. This year things have been different, but the principles remain the same. Decisions rely on the agreement of the Rulers and the Board of General Purposes. His role is to make their decisions a reality across the organisation. He says if you are lucky the findings of the Rulers and the Board are the same if you are unlucky, they aren’t. Fortunately for him, during his tenure the Board and the Rulers have always agreed. Not always the case in the last 300 years!
This year s decisions have broadly followed the same tried and tested methods amended to ensure swift decision making and communication which has worked. Still, there are always complexities when you are dealing with things that require legislative or governance changes and the number of people that need to be consulted rises exponentially with the complexity of what you re trying to do. He says “We have always tried to work on two primary principles. First to obey the law, and the guidance put out by the government, secondly to give as much choice to the individual Lodges to do what they feel is right for them as they are allowed within the first rule.
The two problems that Grand Lodge is trying to avoid are to stop overenthusiastic personalities within a Lodge making decisions for the members irrespective of what individuals might want. For example, a Lodge Secretary decreeing that there will be no meetings until next year even if that Lodge has eight or nine younger brethren who would be happy to meet.
Those brethren have as much say as the Masters and Secretaries. But Grand Lodge does want to support and be seen to help those people who don’t feel it s the right time to come back to Freemasonry. We don’t want to disempower or disenfranchise them and wish to respect the decision they don’t want to go back yet and be sure that they are heard. They are under no pressure whatsoever to feel that they must come back. Those are the two principles in the two problems that we’ve been trying to avoid.”
It is human nature to jump to thinking that the issues arising from Covid-19 are evident and straightforward, but the reality is that it s not obvious and straightforward. There always seems to be a presumption of incompetence! Bro David is hugely confident that there is no incompetence here. Any organisation must wait to see the actual legislation, and it cannot respond to what the Daily Mail is saying the legislation might be. He feels pleased with how quickly his staff managed to turn the legislation into guidance once it was published even though Lodges that were meeting on the same day as the Bill were understandably concerned.
He has 98 staff, half of them are office staff and half involved in the running of Freemasons Hall on a day-to-day basis. Sadly, it has been necessary to make people redundant during the current crisis as the reality is UGLE is an organisation with high fixed costs and the significant overhead of Freemasons Hall. They have to keep a close eye on how they spend members’ money.
Before Bro David’s arrival, there were two roles, the Grand Secretary who dealt with the Masonic side, and the Chief Operating Officer who dealt with the building and commercial side. The Board decided that this was not the right way of operating and created the Chief Executive role and Bro David became the first person to fill it. He and his team are finalists for two Investors in People awards which is a significant badge of honour for the organisation.
Asked about the Enough is Enough campaign, he says it started with the Guardian article where he felt that they had done the usual thing of publishing something where they traditionally had felt that Freemasons would not respond. He genuinely thought that enough was enough. It was very much his idea, and having secured the agreement of the President of the Board, he just threw down his points and made it happen. He had 28 interviews on that first day, a baptism by fire as although he had media training before, it wasn’t anything to the standard which he now enjoys. His idea of drawing a line and moving on has undoubtedly paid dividends as relations with the media have improved.
Female Grand Lodge and Transgender people
One of the things that have changed in the last few years is much closer working with the two female Grand Lodges, the Order of Women Freemasons and HFAF, now known as Freemasonry for Women. For example, they have agreed on protocols for the recognition of ranks if a transgender person wishes to move between the organisations. Both sides accept that they want to remain single-sex. Still, there are many more occasions now where they work together – for instance at Fresher Fairs, County Shows, and the recent Open House in Freemason’s Hall which received excellent publicity for both the male and female Freemasons.
One of Bro David s agenda items is to talk to the 40% of people in the UK who don’t have a preconceived opinion of Freemasonry and encourage them to join. He relates that there has been a long-standing history of fairness in Freemasonry. Hence, it is not surprising that Grand Lodge and the two female Grand Lodges can work together and keep talking to make sure that people are at the heart of what they want to do. Several Provinces have used Facebook targeted marketing to increase interest in joining. He says that UGLE may not go as far as doing national campaigns on billboards, but they are looking to use targeted messaging to reach the people who may be interested but don t know how to join.
He tells us that he is Grand Secretary, subject to the Grand Master’s approval, until he is no longer needed (or cheeses someone off to use his words). The key is not to have your portrait painted before you are ready to go as that is the sure sign the Board is thinking about your replacement. On his appointment his predecessor gave him two small pebbles, one inscribed stay humble and the other seize the day. Bro David plans to pass on a Grand Secretary’s flak jacket with those two rocks, one in each pocket!
He would like to leave the post having achieved three things: Normalising Freemasonry as a hobby; (banging the last nail in the coffin of the conspiracy theories); modernising the HQ organisation by getting rid of the burden of paperwork and providing much more up to date information on the organisation as a whole (the introduction of Hermes as a current online membership tool is a big part of this); and stabilising the membership. He notes that the Districts overseas have been successful at growing membership, and he feels there is something to be learned from the way they naturally include families in their affairs.
Return to normality
He sees that starting up again may not be a big problem. He feels that people will be enthusiastic about returning to a more normal way of meeting. However, he hopes that the zoom meetings will continue as it has been a way of keeping in touch with brethren who haven t been seen regularly at the Lodge. He is pleased about the relationship with the female Lodges and the other Orders like Rose Croix and the Mark where his relationship with his fellow Grand Secretaries has been one of cooperation, and they have conducted communications in a coordinated manner for the first time.
His final words are that peculiarly, the pandemic has given Freemasonry a chance to shine a light on why we exist and why men and women choose to join, and we should embrace this opportunity with open arms.
Arena couldn’t agree more.
This article is part of the Arena Magazine, Issue 43 January 2021 edition.
Arena Magazine is the official magazine of the London Freemasons – Metropolitan Grand Lodge and Metropolitan Grand Chapter of London.
Read more articles in the Arena Issue 43.