Address of the Provincial Grand Master at the Provincial AGM 2016

The Address given by The Provincial Grand Master at The Provincial Grand Lodge of Cheshire Freemasons’ Annual Meeting on Wednesday 5th October 2016 at The Floral Pavilion, New Brighton

RWBro Stephen Martin Blank Provincial Grand Master
RWBro Stephen Martin Blank Provincial Grand Master

Good morning, Brethren, and welcome once again to New Brighton.

I find it hard to believe that a year has passed since we were last together in this hall. They say time flies when you’re enjoying yourself – and I have no hesitation in saying that I have been enjoying myself since my investiture in July 2015. If you enjoy Freemasonry, then this is a really wonderful job – and if you don’t it’s unlikely that you’ll get it!

Who wouldn’t have enjoyed the marvellous occasions that have taken place over the last year? Picking out only the highlights, we have had the Passing of the Veils; the Consecration of Hoose Lodge no 9920; the Festival Banquet and, only last week, the wonderful demonstration of the John Tunnah manuscript in the presence of the Most Excellent 2nd Grand Principal.

I’m also very fortunate because I think this is a great time to be a Freemason. Firstly, it’s our Tercentenary and how many organisations can celebrate 300 years of continuous working? One of my own lodges will itself be 300 years old in 2021 so we are already collecting money for our own celebration and our own charitable gift – so it’s not all good news!

But although the Tercentenary and the various events will be great fun I’m glad that we’re not just dwelling on the past, we are thinking very hard about the future. Some of you will recall receiving this trifold leaflet with your December 2015 copy of Freemasonry Today. Some of you will even have read it! It was produced by the Membership Focus Group under the leadership of RWBro Ray Reed and sets out 3 deceptively simple objectives we need to achieve in order to get our organisation growing again. These are: Effective Governance at all levels; Improved Recruitment and retention; Financial sustainability of Masonic Halls.

I’m pleased to say that UGLE has decided that the organisation and its provinces should not just be given this leaflet and left to it.  A new body, called the IDG – I’m not even going to tell you what that stands for – has been set up to replace the MFG; its chairman is the Right Worshipful Assistant Grand Master, its deputy chairman is the ME 3rd Grand Principal and I have been invited to join it for the next 3 years.  Every region of England and Wales is represented.  So I will be in a very good position to work on your behalf, not only to ensure that matters considered important by the Province of Cheshire will be brought to the attention of our Ruling Body but also to ensure that the benefits of its deliberations are seen here first.

If I was sitting out there, I would be listening to this with, I hope, some interest but also with some scepticism. I would be thinking “yes but what are we actually going to do?”. The answer to that is, I’m pleased to say, quite a lot. Firstly, assisted by Rex Garratt and Derek Brook, our Prov PR Officer and ProvCO respectively, I have started a charm offensive to try and get Freemasonry some good press. Articles have already started to appear in the local papers.  Tomorrow I’m being interviewed by Canalside Radio near Macclesfield, Wirral Radio will follow.  And as part of that I’m going to meet as many civic leaders and religious leaders as I can around the Province. We have already made a good start with the Lord Lieutenant and indeed his wife at the Festival Banquet and I hope they will also be present at our main tercentenary event at Chester Cathedral.

We have created a small group of tech savvy young masons who will help old fogeys such as myself but also Areas and Lodges make much better use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter. They will also advise those responsible for our website how it can be made more attractive for younger masons and non-Masons.  The brand new Province of Cheshire ‘members only secure web site’, launched just prior to this event provides a wide range of data and information for the benefit of all Brethren and I recommend it to you for regular review. It replaces our traditional hard copy Year Book and other previously printed documentation.

The documentary “Inside the Freemasons”, filmed by Emporium Television, will probably appear on Sky TV later in January 2017.  This will really access all areas.  There won’t be very much about the PoC – indeed I hope I don’t feature because when they were filming at Gt Queen Street I came into shot as the idiot who had forgotten his collarette.  So we’re filming our own.  A professional TV production company owned by a Cheshire Freemason, in consultation with Rex Garratt our Prov PR Officer, will produce a video which will be available both as a whole and in manageable chunks on our web site and via YouTube.

The DPGM has set out in the Annual Report how we expect our new Provincial organisation will work. WBro Adrian Davies, Warden for the crucial area of Membership supported by Chris Renshaw as Provincial Membership Officer are looking for practical ways to help Lodges. Adrian had already surveyed the members of his own Area and this survey will be rolled out to the Province as a whole. Changes to the Lodge interview procedure suggested by the IDG are being piloted now by certain Provinces including two not far from here.  Chris and Adrian presented to the Steering Group their views as to how these changes should be adopted in Cheshire and received our full support.  The pilots need to complete and the Craft Cabinet will then decide when the rollout should take place. I hope you can see that the leaders of Freemasonry, myself included, will be doing their bit to raise the profile of Freemasonry so I think it’s time all of our brethren did their bit and, by acting as ambassadors for Freemasonry, set about attracting the new members that we need.

On that front brethren, there is already some good news in this Province. Initiations in 2015 were substantially higher than in 2014 and resignations are on a three-year decline. Membership has shown a small uptick – that’s membership not unique members but still a pleasant stat.  There’s still a way to go before our numbers start growing but I believe we’re on the right track.

Speaking of resignations, I believe that this province hit on a very important way to tackle this issue when it introduced the Companions Forum. This is essentially an anonymous bulletin board on which companions can post their comments including complaints. The Steering Group intends to expand that to cover the craft as well. We all know that brethren who are considering resigning rarely give an accurate reason which of course makes it difficult to address any problems. What the IDG discovered is that many brethren who resign in the first few years do so because they perceive the approach of senior brethren in some cases as harassment, sometimes bordering on bullying.

I’m quite sure that no senior member intends to adopt such an approach, sometimes we get carried away just because the Lodge has a younger member and we want him to do everything as quickly as possible. But we have to see it from the point of view of a younger member. The benefit of anonymous forums is that complaints about such an approach can be aired and hopefully addressed before it is too late.  The other action we are taking will be to extend the ‘Adopt a GO’ or ‘Visiting GOs’ scheme around the Province; some APGMs use it but we will extend it to every Area; our thanks to the GOs who are taking part and who will take part in future.

One of the key roles in the Province is the Chairman of Trustees of Cheshire Freemasons Charity, the CFC, so we were saddened when WBro Kevin Dickens stood down. I am required by UGLE to satisfy myself with the management of Provincial Charitable Funds. But I also understand the importance of keeping the CFC independent of the Provincial organisation. I am therefore delighted that such a senior Mason as WBro Peter Carroll PJGD was invited to take on the role of chairman by the trustees and most especially that he was prepared to accept. He has of course served as Secretary of the CFC which will enable him to hit the ground running and carry on Kevin Dickens’ good work.

This next year’s a very important one for the CFC. Firstly, we need to replenish its funds following the fantastic support that you all gave the Festival by introducing Regular Giving.  We hope that from now on donations will flow straight through and on to our next Festival, avoiding the “boom and bust” that CFC presently has to endure. WBro Ivor Henry PAGDC will chair the Regular Giving committee for the Province and he will no doubt be reminding you that, as those who went before provided funds for us, it’s now our responsibility to provide for the future.

In addition to the £200,000 or £300,000 CFC gives each year to support Cheshire Masons and their families as well as local Charities, in this tercentenary year we are doubling that amount bringing our charitable giving in this next season to around half a million pounds. This will only be given to charities and other causes that are prepared openly to acknowledge Cheshire Freemasons as the source of funding. In addition to that, 6 Cheshire Charities will receive between £4,000 and £25,000, up to £60,000 in total, from the Masonic Charitable Foundation as part of a special Community Awards scheme for 2017.  The final beneficiaries will be chosen by the public – i.e. non-masons – from a list that we submit.

Brethren, I said earlier that I was grateful for the unstinting help and support of countless people across the Province, far too many to mention.  I have already thanked my DPGM and APGMs by re-appointing them!  But the people who have to be mentioned for the tireless work they do – much of which is unseen and sometimes not always appreciated – are Mike Leese and Mike Jarvis and his fabulous team, Liz Wright, Karen, Jo and Anne.  Brian Mayoh retires today after 10 years’ stalwart service as ProvAGSec and he goes with grateful thanks from me, from Mike and indeed the whole Province.  The other team I could not have done without during the year or today are the DC’s team, very ably led by Royston Jones.

Brethren with your help and support this is going to be a great year. Why don’t you go out and find some friends or relatives to join us?

Stephen M Blank
Provincial Grand Master