It is great to see this room so full and I am delighted to welcome you all to our annual meeting, especially our honoured guests from other Provinces whose generous hospitality we have enjoyed over the past year. I am very appreciative of the fact that some of our Provincial guests have made long journeys to be with us today and I trust they will find our friendship and hospitality a suitable reward.
I am particularly pleased to see so many Berkshire Brethren here today who have contributed to the success of this Province over many years. It has given me great pleasure to be able to recognise those contributions with a First Appointment or a Promotion and I am pleased that some of the recipients have benefitted from the greater flexibility I have introduced to reward outstanding contributions earlier than has hitherto been the case. To all of you I would say a big thank you, not just for what you have done in the past but also for what you will do for your Lodges and the Province in the future
The new team of Acting Provincial Officers should expect a busy but rewarding year and I look forward to sharing many memorable occasions with them. I know that the outgoing team have had a thoroughly enjoyable year and I do thank them for their outstanding support and friendly company during the past twelve months. I must mention four individuals in particular. WBro Philip Wharton was appointed Provincial Grand Organist in 1999 and over the past sixteen years he has added immeasurable to our meetings of Provincial Grand Lodge, Consecrations, Centenaries, Banner Dedications and other grand occasions with his musical contribution. W Bro John Avery has held the office of Provincial Grand Orator since that office was introduced in 2008 and over the past seven years he has entertained many lodges with his orations and his knowledge. W Bro Tim Lee steps down after five years as Provincial Grand Treasurer, during which time he has managed our Provincial finances superbly and has examined hundreds of Lodge Accounts and helped many lodges resolve financial problems. Finally, I must make special mention of W Bro Gerry Hann. As Provincial Grand Charity Steward W Bro Gerry Hann played a leading role in ensuring our 2011 RMBI Festival was the most successful Festival ever held for the RMBI in terms of money raised per capita. He has made an equally outstanding contribution since being appointed an Assistant Provincial Grand Master four years ago; not just with his input to our planning process and committee discussions but also with his appetite for work and the manner in which he has executed the many tasks assigned to him. Gerry, it has been a delight to work with you and I thank you for contributing so much to our progress. On behalf of Berkshire Freemasons I know I can say we are enormously grateful to all these four Brethren for their contributions to Berkshire Freemasonry and I would ask those four Brethren to stand so that we may show our appreciation.
As a result of the efforts made in all our lodges over the past year, our Province has enjoyed another year of progress, the highlights of which have included the Consecration of the new Combined Services Lodge on Armistice day; the presence of the Most Worshipful Pro Grand Master when over 350 attended that superb 25th Anniversary Installation Meeting of the Berkshire Provincial Grand Stewards’ Lodge – which was, incidentally, the largest attendance at a regular lodge meeting ever held in Berkshire in living memory – and the first visit by the Light Blues Club to Quarterly Communications two weeks ago, when 65 of us enjoyed a convivial lunch afterwards.
What lies before us in the year ahead? We move into the fifth year of our strategic plan to ensure that the Brethren of Berkshire enjoy their Freemasonry so that we grow our organisation and increase our contribution to the community. We have come a long way in four years and many new initiatives are already producing good results, the Light Blues Club being just one of them. But the most impressive example has been the success of the appeal I launched in 2011 to raise £500,000 in five years for our Berkshire Masonic Charity which makes substantial grants to help individuals, community organisations and charities in Berkshire. Your response has been incredible and your generosity has given me the confidence that we will close the gap to our target well before the September 2016 end date I set back in 2011 and I am most grateful for this wonderful support.
The really good news is that a general improvement in the overall health of our lodges is clearly evident. It has been a very long time since so many of our lodges had a full programme of work for the next twelve months and several lodges have a full programme to the end of 2017. Some lodges have started to introduce additional meetings into their calendar to cope with the rising workload. We have plans to continue to development the initiatives which have contributed to such a favourable position, such as the “Introduction to Freemasonry” events, our improved website, and increasing the public’s awareness of our involvement with the community.
On the subject of the public’s perception of Freemasonry I can tell you that this will be a prime focus for further work which will be the responsibility of our new Assistant Provincial Grand Master. The public’s awareness of the contribution which Freemasonry makes to the community is hugely important to the future wellbeing of our organisation and the importance of good internal and external communications to achieve this cannot be overstated. As we move towards our Tercentenary in 2017, when Freemasonry’s presence and contribution will be very much in evidence across the country, we will be developing a series of events to celebrate our 300th anniversary which will give us many occasions to enjoy ourselves whilst also promoting Freemasonry.
A year ago at this meeting I launched the “2 in 2 Challenge”, which set every lodge the task to grow its membership by a net two by September 2016. It is pleasing to see that an increasing number of lodges are already meeting their “2 in 2” objective and the evidence shows that more will do so if the caring nature of Freemasonry is brought into clearer focus to reduce resignations. That is why we launched the concept of the Lodge Care Team earlier this year and I have been impressed with the positive response this initiative has received and delighted that the vast majority of lodges have already put Lodge Care Teams in place. I have no doubt that the activities of the Lodge Care Teams will make a significant contribution to a successful outcome for the “2 in 2 Challenge”.
Brethren, I think the advances we have made in reversing the long term membership decline are most encouraging. It is interesting to note that an increasing number of our new members are self referred, coming to us as a result of Open Days, Websites or approaches to the Provincial Office and these newer members appear to be thoroughly enjoying their membership and are making excellent contributions to their lodges. This trend shows that there is a considerable untapped potential for attracting new members into Freemasonry and I hope this will encourage lodges to redouble their efforts attract new members in the year ahead. Attracting new members is not as difficult as we sometimes imagine, particularly if we all take the opportunity to raise Freemasonry in our conversations as often as we can. I was intrigued only week before last to read in the Minutes of a lodge represented here today, and I quote, “On the return of the candidate the Charge after Initiation was presented by the Brother who met the candidate by chance recently and engaged in conversation which soon turned to Freemasonry”. There are many more such people out there waiting to experience what Freemasonry has to offer. While much work has still to be done to ensure that all lodges grow their membership consistently, progress is encouraging and I thank you all for the efforts which have been made, and will continue to be made, to ensure that your lodges flourish.
I cannot close without thanking my Executive for the commitment they have made on your behalf to Berkshire Freemasonry over the past year or without thanking W Bro David Keys, our Provincial Grand Secretary, W Bro Julian Pacey, our Provincial Grand Director of Ceremonies, and their many helpers for ensuring the success of today’s annual meeting. As always it has been a team effort which has produced great results.
Brethren, I wish you all a most happy and successful year ahead and thank you again for your unstinting support and your attendance here today.