Address of the Provincial Grand Master at the Provincial AGM 2018

The Address given by The Provincial Grand Master at The Provincial Grand Lodge of Cheshire Freemasons’ Annual Meeting on Wednesday 3rd October 2018 at The Floral Pavilion, New Brighton

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

Welcome once again, Brethren, to New Brighton. I’m always energised to sit here surrounded by my friends and colleagues from other Provinces and Other Orders, looking out at you sitting expectantly and in such large numbers. I really do feel that the Province of Cheshire is poised for lift-off. My first year was dominated by the end of our Festival; my second year by the Tercentenary. Indeed, the final event celebrating our 300 years, the spectacular event at the Royal Albert Hall followed by a fabulous dinner at Battersea Evolution attended by 100 Cheshire Brethren, took place within the last 12 months.

But now we have no distractions, however pleasurable they may have been, it’s all down to us and the organisational structure we put into place is starting to bear fruit. The APGMs and APGPs have collectively agreed a five-year plan to deliver an increase in members joining and a decrease in members leaving. A key component of that plan is the Members’ Pathway, a product of the IDG, which our Provincial Membership Officer WBro Tony Carss and WBro Ian Gordon Smith ProvGMent will start to roll out in November. It is basically a very simple 11 step guide and you can find it right now on the IDG website, known as bugle, at b.ugle.org.uk.

You’ve heard me talk about the three core changes that it recommends for lodges: plan for the future; tell potential candidates exactly what they are getting into; conduct a proper professional interview. There is a lot more and indeed it contains the whole Mentoring Programme. It also recommends talking about the Royal Arch from the earliest opportunity. But I have the benefit of having seen it in action in my mother Lodge, which was a pilot Lodge for the project, and I believe very strongly that if lodges apply the principles and use the helpful guides and training packages supplied they will increase the number of initiations and decrease the number of resignations, certainly those leaving within four years of joining.

Across the constitution, we know from surveys and exit interviews that a significant factor leading to people leaving within four years is what they perceive as harassing behaviour by senior members of their lodges. UGLE’s stance on behaviour and the use of social media is set out in the booklet “Information for Guidance of Members of the Craft” which is given to every Brother but let’s be honest is probably not often read.

Social Media Policy and Guide

Information for Guidance of Members of the Craft

Unfortunately, despite this guidance, the Province finds itself dealing with several cases of alleged bad behaviour leading to my letter to all brethren in May of this year on that subject and the misuse of social media.

However, on the positive side, there are some very good ideas coming forward from the membership as a whole. WBro Mike Steggles is a member of the University Lodge of Chester 4477 and is also a student at the Open University. He wondered why there was no Universities Scheme Lodge for the Open University and talked it over with WBro Paul Crudge who is our Universities Scheme Liaison Officer. The main problem as Mike saw it was that the OU is nationwide and indeed worldwide, so it would be difficult to have all the meetings in Cheshire – or anywhere else for that matter. Paul, who was aware of Internet Lodge no 9659 and, because he can’t say no, is a member of David Kenneth Williamson Lodge no 9938, pointed out that that was not necessarily a problem as both those lodges only hold their installation meetings in their home province and for their other two meetings travel around the Constitution. A plan started to form and towards the end of August we held a meeting in London with a senior person within the Open University who happens to be a very keen Freemason and a Past Master.

At the beginning of August, Marilyn, myself and many of the Leadership Team and their wives or partners attended the Chamboree, a magnificent event for several thousand Scouts of all ages held at the Cheshire showground near Tabley. There we were approached by one of Scouting’s County Commissioners who it turns out is a Cheshire Freemason. He wanted to come in and tell us why we were failing to attract scouts to our organisation and he did precisely that later in August. That has certainly given us some very powerful ideas, but we want to check out both plans, the OU and the Scouts, with our members and have written to all of you asking those of you with any connection with either organisation please to register so that we can contact you in the first instance by email.

Finally, in the middle of August (August is the close season, you will recall!), our New and Young Masons Club, the MMF, held a spectacular event at Freemasons Hall, Great Queen Street. Freemasons and their partners listened to a very entertaining talk by WBro Tony Harvey PAGDC in Lodge room number 10 about scouting and freemasonry. Non-masons were then treated to a specially arranged tour of the whole fantastic building while members of the MMF conducted a real 2°ceremony in Lodge room number 10, complete with Tracing Board. The work was seamlessly shared out and flawlessly conducted. Marilyn and I had a thoroughly memorable day and I must say it was an extraordinary experience to enter Great Queen Street, a building with which I am very familiar, but find it occupied entirely – well pretty much – by Cheshire Freemasons.  Over 200 Masons and non-masons in total attended, from 16 provinces plus MetGL and the District of South Africa (Western division). More details and photos available on our website as well as Freemasonry Today on-line, Brethren.

Talking about websites, both our sites, the public and private are being rebuilt from the ground up and will be relaunched in January next year.  However, before that you will be able to see a video of me being interviewed by WBro Simon Richardson APGM about the topics I have spoken about today – topic by topic if you wish – where I have gone into a little more detail than time permits today.

Overall my team remains reasonably happy with how things are going. Controllable Losses continue to decline but initiations, which had been on an upward trend, fell in 2017. However, numbers of initiates in the first half of this year are 20% higher than the same period last year, which we suspect will be the result of the Tercentenary and in particular the Sky documentary.

Everything that’s taken place has been the result of a huge effort by a large number of people within the Province, particularly my leadership team supported by the collared and non-collared officers whose names you will find in the booklet on-line. Change is continuous, which is only correct, and in addition to the changes in the chained offices referred to earlier, WBro Basil Keys stepped down today after 2 years as ProvAGChap and his place will be taken by WBro Chris Jones, Cathedral Operations Manager, Chester Cathedral.

Today is also the day that I pay tribute to an institution within this Province. At the end of last season, the brother who had been our Provincial Communication Officer for 10 years, stepped down. Worshipful Brother Derek Brook PAGStdB created that role, invented how it should be done and, in the course of doing it, crisscrossed the Province multiple times appearing at photo sessions almost everywhere that they took place. WBro Nigel Argyle has the difficult job of taking over from Derek and we wish him well. Grateful thanks to you, Derek, from the Province for everything that you have done.

WBro Mike Coles PAGStdB has been chairman of the Masters’ and Masons’ Forum for five years and we both felt that was a long enough stint which culminated of course in the event at Great Queen Street that I referred to earlier. The new Chairman will be announced in a couple of weeks time

Our Universities Scheme Lodge is becoming the victim of its own success.  We need more Past Masters to help get our students through the ceremonies. We have written to all the Acting Provincial Officers who are standing down today to ask whether any of them would be prepared to give, say, three years – or more of course – to this Lodge. Those of you appointed today will get a similar letter near the end of your term. Of course, this request is not restricted just to Acting Officers; the Province would be extremely grateful to any Past Master offering his services.

Nothing would get done at all in the Province without the hard work and dedication of Mike Leese and his volunteers including Mike Jarvis, Colin Lewis and, returning by popular request, Brian Mayoh.  They in turn would be the first to acknowledge that they could achieve little without the dedication of Liz, Karen, Jo, who we were sorry to see leave, and Ann Morgan.  We are also able to rely upon our excellent DCs team, very ably led by WBro Royston Jones PAGDC.  Great to see our senior Deputy Paul Sandiford, who has the Acting rank of GStdB in the Royal Arch, on active duty at the Installation of EComp Bill Bewley as Grand Superintendent in and over Cumberland and Westmorland, parading alongside the Grand DC and being name checked at the lunch by the Past 2GP, EComp Jonathan Spence.

When people make excuses about why they are not donating to Cheshire Freemasons Charity – CFC – or a festival – which they do – one of the most popular ones is “it all goes down to London and we never see it again”. Brethren, you dosee it again. In the last financial year our MCF subscription from Cheshire Brethren amounted to £82,000. A very small number of brethren also made voluntary donations to the CFC. Of course, the Province of Cheshire sent over £3 million to the Masonic Samaritan Foundation, now part of the MCF, in 2016. But last year alone MCF and CFC gave £708,000 – yes you heard me, £708,000 – to over 240 Cheshire masons or their dependents and grants to the wider community. And that happens every year so our £3,082,000 isn’t going to last very long!

I mentioned ideas brought forward by other brethren and I’m going to finish with some really great ones relating to Charity. These days, brethren, you will have noticed a multiplicity of choices for everything that is on offer. Just try ordering a cup of coffee or a sandwich and you’ll see what I mean. Brethren also have a choice as to what they do about their charitable giving and your charity, CFC, is aware of that, as indeed am I. CFC chairman Peter Carroll and his trustees have been working hard together with my Provincial Grand Charity Steward Harry Wright and the brother who I appointed to head the Strategy Group for the CFC, WBro Andy Bailey, Provincial Junior Grand Warden sitting there in the South. They’re offering a new deal to you, brethren, and your lodges and chapters.

If your Lodge wishes to make a donation to a charity such as – but not limited to – a local hospice or Scout troop, by making that donation via CFC they will consider enhancing it while still leaving the presentation and honour as it were to your lodge. It is also likely CFC know what any particular charity in the province actually requires because sometimes money is not really what they need.

Every 11 years a festival comes along, the Province makes a big effort and then sighs with relief once it has gone. CFC suffers in the interim; so, they have come up with a scheme which will enable brethren to be double winners – just like United!  From now on when a brother signs up to give a regular amount, half of that donation will be credited to him for the next festival.

Those are the headlines brethren: enhanced giving if your lodge donation goes via CFC; 50% of your personal regular donation ringfenced for the next festival. More details will be given via the Area committees, but the admin will be as simple and straightforward as possible for you, for the Province and for CFC. I should also say that the MCF has been incredibly helpful and wonderfully flexible in helping us set up these arrangements.

So, there you have it Brethren; a packed schedule but one that I’m confident will get us on the right path, so that I will be able to stand up here in the not too distant future and say that we have increased our membership since last year.  You and your lodges have the biggest part to play in achieving that goal, so I hope that while you were listening, you were thinking about just how youwill go about it.

Many thanks for your attention.

Stephen M Blank
Provincial Grand Master