The South Fylde Group Dinner can always be relied upon for a lively and enlightening debate on current issues affecting Freemasonry and this year’s event at The Palace, St Anne’s was no exception. The group dinner is a biennial event which gives masters of lodges, first principals of chapters, brethren and companions of all ranks an opportunity to air their views on a range of subjects and gives senior Provincial and group officers the opportunity to listen and comment on the issues raised.
The principal guest this year was Deputy Grand Superintendent Danny Jones. He was supported on this occasion by Assistant Provincial Grand Master David Winder, Assistant to the Provincial Grand Principals David Randerson and Provincial Grand Secretary Peter Taylor. Also in attendance were the Second Provincial Grand Principal Peter Elmore, Provincial Grand Scribe Nehemiah Stewart Blagg and Past Deputy Grand Superintendent Steven Reid, along with several Provincial and group officers, including South Fylde Group Chairman Ian Ward.The first questioner was from Juan Topping who asked: “As people are living longer, were there any plans to build any new Masonic care homes to accommodate elderly members and their wives.” Juan developed the discussion by relating the problems he had experienced in procuring respite care for his mother-in-law, which had taken over two years due to a long waiting list, partly caused by Masonic homes being run as businesses and taking in non-Masons, which prevented Masons from getting a place therein. The Provincial team recognised that although the number of care homes had been reduced, no new homes were planned. It was felt that it was more cost effective to support members residing in existing local care homes.
Following this, several questions regarding recruitment and retention were initiated by Dave McKee and Ian Ward. Dave asked where the team saw the Province in the next five to 10 years and Peter Taylor gave some interesting statistics. He advised the members that the membership in the Province stood at about 9,600 at the moment and was predicted to drop to as low as 8,500 in the next five to 10 years. However, an upturn is also predicted with retention policies beginning to take effect and 300 men waiting to join our lodges. Replying to a later question by Roger Perry, Peter stated that the existing membership of the Royal Arch was running at approximately 4,000, which was about 1% above the national average. Danny Jones added that initiatives such as ‘Talking Heads’ and the enhanced exaltation ceremony were being pursued in an attempt to encourage brethren to join a chapter.John Lee spoke of the need to have a retrieval protocol to cover situations where members hit hard times, as some people drift away due to financial problems that they are too proud to seek assistance with. David Thomas spoke of the need for lodge mentors and almoners to work closely together to identify cases of hardship. In response both Danny Jones and David Winder emphasised the need for everyone to be an almoner, particularly proposers and seconders of candidates who needed to guide their candidate through his early years of membership, dealing with any issues as they arose. John added that value may be achieved by asking an independent brother from another lodge or chapter to identify where a brother in need was too embarrassed to discuss things with his own lodge hierarchy.
Several other brethren, including Mike Goodwin and Brian Horrocks raised questions about recruitment and retention with anecdotal evidence for consideration. In winding up this particular issue Danny assured the members that this whole area of administration was being reviewed and discussed at Provincial meetings and that Assistant Provincial Grand Master Philip Gunning had been looking at how other Provinces are dealing with these issues. He has paid particular attention to initiatives being followed by the Province of Cheshire and Metropolitan Grand Lodge, which are proving quite successful.
Geoff Fogden raised an interesting issue when he asked for clarity about brethren who have resigned from Craft Masonry but were still active in the Royal Arch and other side degrees. He also mentioned the practice of remaining in past masters’ lodges, which had lower fees and fewer meetings. Peter Taylor, whilst unable to speak for other side degrees, stated that it was possible to remain in chapter having relinquished membership of one’s Craft lodge but one of the major drawbacks is that, without Craft membership, chapter honours would not be awarded. He did feel that it was morally correct that Craft membership should be maintained if one was to continue in chapter but to make this compulsory would prove too difficult to police. He reminded brethren that members who were not a member of a lodge were only allowed to visit every lodge in the constitution once while remaining unattached. If they were unattached and refused a clearance certificate for any reason, they were not allowed to visit any other lodges at all, nor belong to a chapter.
During previous discussions the subject of lodges amalgamating to form one stronger lodge, or of two lodges remaining separate but each meeting alternately four times per year within the same sequence, every first Monday for example. Peter Taylor explained that before an amalgamation could take place, an in depth discussion had to take place, first between the lodges concerned, then with the group chairman and Assistant Provincial Grand Master. If all parties were still agreed on amalgamation, it then had to be presented to him for discussion with the Provincial Grand Master Tony Harrison. Peter stated that in his experience amalgamations were often not particularly successful but did sometimes work. David Winder said that in all cases where amalgamation was being considered, a high level of flexibility was required of both sides as so many lodges had their own peculiar workings.
Creag Williams was the final questioner. He wanted to know if the effect of falling numbers on Masonic halls was being monitored and discussed by senior officers. David Winder gave assurances that senior officers were actively involved in meetings with Masonic halls, encouraging them to consider other forms of revenue creation, such as hiring out rooms for functions and to local non-Masonic clubs for their meetings. These ideas had been taken up by some halls but not by all. Ultimately, the hall management committees were autonomous bodies who were free to make their own decisions. David Randerson had earlier urged brethren to look into the full potential of their hall, citing the example of the Palace, St Anne’s, who were actively approaching the local community and encouraging a wider use of the hall. This had also given those brethren the opportunity to speak with non-Masons about what we do.
After concluding the discussion the brethren retired to the new bar at The Palace, constructed by David Atkinson of Fairhaven Lodge No 5076, then to a homely repast of hotpot and trifle.
After dinner, first principal of Semper Fideles Chapter No 4428 Steven Carr proposed the toast to principal guest Danny Jones. He related the details of Danny’s home life, also of his successful business and Masonic career, using the term ‘the man himself the gold’ as his theme. In his response Danny congratulated the group on a number of achievements, including raising £36,000 for various charities and the opening of St Anne’s Palace to the community. He further congratulated members of the group for their imminent appointments and promotions at Provincial Grand Lodge and Provincial Grand Chapter, particularly Godfrey Hirst the Provincial Grand Chaplain designate. He also gave praise to the Provincial Deputy Grand Director of Ceremonies Robert Wright, not only for his efficient running of the evening’s proceedings but also for his own imminent promotions.
Proposing the toast to the group, Stewart Blagg praised the members for the high quality of debate. He was particularly impressed that it had been completed without any reference to fees and dues! He also commented on the group members’ record of attending Provincial events. He concluded by encouraging group representatives to attend their representative meetings to continue the flow of Masonic knowledge.
Responding to this toast, Ian Ward thanked Danny for his attendance despite a busy schedule. He named and thanked the group officers for the hard work they do, particularly Dave Barr the group secretary. He urged brethren to use their Masonic halls to the full with the admonition ‘use them or lose them’ and concluded by listing the imminent charity fund raising events, which he urged everyone to support. Proceedings were ably concluded by Terry Stevens-Lewing who delivered the tyler’s toast in fine style.