Around 50 brethren including Assistant Provincial Grand Master Andrew Whittle and other distinguished guests gathered at Widnes Masonic Hall to witness Goodwill Lodge No 3896 perform ‘The Empty Chair Ceremony’ in honour of members of our fraternity who fell during times of war.
This ceremony dates back to 1875, a decade after the close of the American Civil War when it was used in Masonic lodges in America to pay tribute to those who did not return from the war. Having gained providence in England, it has started to be used by many lodges around Remembrance Day to pay homage to those brother Masons who fell during WWI, WWII and other wars.
As Goodwill Lodge was meeting so close to Remembrance Day and with a high number of brethren who had military connections, they wanted to honour this tradition fittingly and Bob Williams was tasked with putting together a suitable ceremony.
Following the opening of the lodge, the WM James Ross asked that a ceremonial procession of brethren who had served their country retire from the lodge in preparation for the admittance of the ‘Empty Chair’. In due course, the procession returned with the empty chair which signified the spiritual presence of the memory of departed brethren and it was paraded around the lodge before it was placed in front of the WM facing west.
The WM then asked that the lodge’s senior warden Bill Linford, who had served his country in uniform, place the apron of an entered apprentice on the chair as it would be where our brothers be present in body as well as spirit and signify solidarity with a suitable reading. The WM who himself was and is still heavily involved in the Irish Guards then placed medals of honour as decorations to their Masonic apron; but as the world sees, those honours do not decorate a brother’s Masonry, but rather highlight the spirit, which made him both a Mason and a man of service.
Lodge Chaplain Smith then placed a wreath of poppies on the apron, a symbol of the immortality of their souls before the brethren came to order in solemn prayer, followed by the chaplains’ recital of the 23rd Psalm; The Lord is my Shepherd.
At this time of year, it is traditional to wear the poppy as a symbol of remembrance, a tradition that began as a result of the poem entitled: In Flanders Fields by John McCrae and it was David Redhead who solemnly recited this poem.
While it is traditional to read that classic poem at this time of year, the lodge wanted to include an additional poem written by Miss Moina Michael. Miss Michael was an American lady who was so moved by John McCrae’s poem, that she went out and bought 25 red poppies. She wore one herself and sold the other 24 thus starting the poppy fund as we know it today. She also wrote a poem of her own in response to ‘In Flanders Fields’, called ‘We shall keep the Faith’ which was read by David Merrill. Following the readings, the lodge deacons distributed a poppy to each brother present before the lodge fell silent in respect of all brethren who fell during foreign wars.
This was followed by Stuart Mullens, an entered apprentice in only his second meeting who played the ‘Last Post and Reveille’ a poignant ending to a wonderful ceremony. After the lodge had closed, a few of the brethren who were ex-servicemen removed their Masonic regalia to have a photo with the ‘Empty Chair’ displaying their medals.
Retiring downstairs to the festive board where we raised several toasts to our fallen brethren. After the meal, the WM James Ross told the story of the Unknown Soldier, to which he received a standing ovation. This was a fitting end to a wonderful evening.
For those who don’t know the story of how this came about, the following is a short description.
At the west end of the Nave of Westminster Abbey is the grave of the Unknown Warrior, whose body was brought from France to be buried here on 11 November 1920. The grave, which contains soil from France, is covered by a slab of black Belgian marble from a quarry near Namur. On it is the following inscription, composed by Herbert Ryle, Dean of Westminster:
‘BENEATH THIS STONE RESTS THE BODY
OF A BRITISH WARRIOR
UNKNOWN BY NAME OR RANK
BROUGHT FROM FRANCE TO LIE AMONG
THE MOST ILLUSTRIOUS OF THE LAND
AND BURIED HERE ON ARMISTICE DAY
11 NOV: 1920, IN THE PRESENCE OF
HIS MAJESTY KING GEORGE V
HIS MINISTERS OF STATE
THE CHIEFS OF HIS FORCES
AND A VAST CONCOURSE OF THE NATION
THUS ARE COMMEMORATED THE MANY
MULTITUDES WHO DURING THE GREAT
WAR OF 1914-1918 GAVE THE MOST THAT
MAN CAN GIVE LIFE ITSELF
FOR KING AND COUNTRY
FOR LOVED ONES HOME AND EMPIRE
FOR THE SACRED CAUSE OF JUSTICE AND
THE FREEDOM OF THE WORLD
THEY BURIED HIM AMONG THE KINGS BECAUSE HE
HAD DONE GOOD TOWARD GOD AND TOWARD
Story and pictures by Bob Williams and Neil Thomas.