One of the most satisfying and enjoyable experiences for the active and enthusiastic Freemason is to have taken part, as Master of his Lodge, in one of the ceremonies, and participating in the ritual to a standard that can only be described as “Satisfaction to yourself and advantage to your Lodge”.
This would have only been possible as a result of hours of intensive learning, and committing to memory the lines of the ritual, combined with careful preparation in rehearsal and delivery.
What is quite incomprehensible is the performance of the Master later at the Festive Board, who stumbles along with absolutely no idea how to rule and direct his Lodge. He then proceeds to deliver what is often a boring, incoherent, irrelevant and unimaginative Response to his Toast.
Why does this happen?
The reason is simple. The Brother involved does not understand that there is absolutely no difference between the control of procedure at the Festive Board and Masonic speech-making as there is in the technique for the governing of the proceedings, and the enactment of the ritual in the Temple.
This can be summarised in three simple words: Preparation, Practice and Performance. To become a great ritualist requires training and dedication. This applies equally to becoming an accomplished Master of a Masonic Lodge.
It is a sad reflection on the preparation of the Master-Elect, who in many Lodges is installed into the chair and immediately comes under the control of the secretary, the director of ceremonies, or a host of the Lodge elders who seem to forget that their status in the Lodge is one of Past Master.
It is the duty and responsibility of the Master to rule and direct his Lodge. If he is so weak that he needs the constant supervision and instruction from senior members of the Lodge, this is a reflection upon them, that they have not trained him properly in preparation for his high office.
To be in control requires certain management skills that need to be acquired well in advance of a brother’s installation into the chair of his Lodge.
The procedure at the Festive Board should be an established sequence of events that includes the formal Toast List. It should be set out as a written plan and course of action to be followed by the Master and his director of ceremonies.
This should even include directions about when to stand, when to gavel, and who is to control the Masonic fire. This may be an established custom within the Lodge, but it needs to be set out in such a format that will enable the Master and his principal officers to control the proceedings smoothly with dignity and style.
In most Lodges it is the established practice of ‘Taking Wine’ during the meal. This is frequently undertaken to excess, causing disruption during the serving of the various courses, which is dangerous if food is being served. It is also totally unnecessary, causing inconvenience to brethren who are eating their meal. In fact, it is bad manners.
This tradition at the Festive Board is one of ancient usage, when every brother could challenge anyone at will to take wine. The result was total bedlam. Grand Lodge decreed that the practice should stop and that taking wine at the table should be the prerogative of the Master.
By tradition, the Master takes wine for the first time with his Wardens, then no-one will join.
It is then a sensible arrangement for the Master to take wine with everyone, which covers all those present. The exception could be at Installations, when VIPs are present, or the rare occasion when the Master may decide otherwise. Any further taking of wine is purely repetition and should be discouraged. It is tedious and does not make sense.
Preparation for high office should not begin months before Installation, but years. As a brother approaches senior office, the demand on him as a good public speaker becomes paramount. If he is about to become a Warden, he will face the prospect of having to make a contribution to the Toasts on every occasion for several years ahead.
It is the practice in many Lodges for the Junior Warden to propose the toast to the visitors, and the Senior Warden proposes the toast to the Master. The Master responds to his toast on each occasion. This can amount to 20 after-dinner speeches over the period of three years!
This can be a most formidable scenario for a brother who, in addition to his duties as a Warden, will also be engaged in the task of studying the three Craft Degrees and the Installation Ceremony from the Chair.
It becomes easy to understand the wisdom of a prospective Master to have engaged in preparation well in advance.
To write a speech, not under pressure, months if not years in advance is very sound preparation for the Masonic future.
It now becomes clear that to prepare for high office is not just about learning the ritual, it is also about the task of speech preparation. If speech-making is about planning in advance by the creation of the ‘’skeleton’’, then clothing it with sensible thought and then storing it away for the future is the solution.
It does not matter if, when the time comes, the content needs to be modified to suit the occasion. This is relatively simple because the hard work has been done well in advance.
Let us look at the toast to the Master:
- Leadership by example – the direction and management of the Lodge;
- Pledge of support by the brethren;
- Pride to see the Master having reached his goal – inspiration to others;
- Congratulation on his polish and style in the Chair – his courtesy;
- The meaning of the Master’s Song in relation to the present incumbent.
A simple booklet about leadership or managerial control will provide all the ideas necessary for this subject. Most important is the Master’s response:
- Gratitude, pride of achievements, another milestone in the history of the Lodge;
- Friendship and support received;
- Pleasurable memories;
- Pledge of continued support for the Lodge.
Finally, let us take a look at the toast to the visitors
- Privilege to entertain visitors;
- The objective of Freemasonry is friendship.
Every Christmas a small, delightful book is published called The Friendship Book, written by Francis Gay and published by D.C. Thompson & Co Ltd, and is available at all leading booksellers.
It contains a ‘Thought for each day of the forthcoming year’ and is all about friendship,. This book provides an inexhaustible supply of wonderful material for the speech writer for the visitors’ toast.
Humour is an important ingredient in after-dinner speaking. However, to be entertaining and amusing does not mean that you must shower them with irrelevant jokes (often in bad taste) in the misguided belief that after-dinner speaking is about telling funny stories. It is not!
A relevant tale will add considerably to a speaker’s toast or response, but it needs to be very carefully introduced. It must illustrate a point that the speaker is making.
Another golden rule’ is never read your speech – always speak from notes. Try to avoid holding the papers in your hand, because if you are slightly nervous the papers will tremble, notifying to the audience that you are nervous.
The experienced speaker will write ‘bullet points’ down on a simple white card as a guide. These will be discreetly placed on the table in front of the speaker. Your eyes should sweep across the notes, and your audience should not be aware that you are collecting information from the bullet points in front of you.
In conclusion and most important – a cardinal rule of our fraternity – never, never permit or allow anyone to tell a rude or risqué joke at any Masonic Festive Board, under any circumstances whatsoever. It is against the Tenets of the Craft.
Ray Hollins is the author of A Daily Advancement in Masonic Knowledge: One Hundred Short Talks on the Craft.
For further information visit www.masonicshortalks.com