Standing on the shoulders of a giant
I’d met Matthew earlier this year at a Festive Board and felt I’d made a new friend – it felt like we’d covered every topic under the sun. It was a real pleasure to pick up our conversation again a couple of weeks after he was appointed to his new role and see how he was settling in.
Matthew is a young 55. He spent 29 years as a teacher and in various leadership positions at different times – including being a Head. He was also an active officer in the Territorial Army. When his own children left school, he embarked on a career change, moving to the English-Speaking Union, a membership charity which promotes “oracy” – speaking and listening – amongst young people, which runs educational programmes (including debating competitions) for primary and secondary school pupils. He took the role as Head of Membership and Engagement, inspiring their diverse army of volunteers to be as engaged as possible around their mission. He’d known the ESU since he was 14 when he had entered one of their competitions and then very well from age 21 when he won a place on the ESU British Debating Team on its tour of the USA; he has been volunteering for them throughout his adult life.
Matthew talks fondly about his children – Rebecca, 23, Sam, 22 (a Freemason) and his twin Will, who was tragically killed by a hit-and-run drunk driver before lockdown. Matthew is a man who’s extremely emotionally honest, who has experienced extreme sadness and great success, but is pragmatic to the end. He lives with his partner Sarah in the North West of England, and splits his time between there and Surrey.
And he’s certainly picked up a wide range of relevant skills around membership attraction and engagement, learning and development and organising volunteers, which are extremely pertinent to his role as MetGSec. He adds “I’m not planning to be the headmaster, telling people off; I’ll be spending most of my time making things happen and looking after all our stakeholders.” He deeply understands the challenge that “every member is a volunteer, who pays to be a volunteer. What I really want to do is carry on the job which David (Swain) and the Secretariat team do, which is fully to engage with the members and help them do what they want to do, while guiding them through the policies and decisions of MetGL.” He’s also planning to make communication with him and his team as simple as possible.
Matthew was at The Queen’s College, Oxford as an undergraduate when a couple of friends introduced him to Apollo University Lodge No 357. He was active in the Oxford Union, so was only initiated in his third year (1989) after stepping back from the Union. He went on to be exalted into the Royal Arch in 1990 and followed on with a number of other orders. Life then took him to London, where he joined a number of units there and, while still active in Oxford, is focussed on London. He adds “I had about 10 years off actually because of family commitments and a girlfriend who wasn’t keen on it. I went back when my son, Sam, went to Oxford and was very keen to join Apollo, which is when I re-joined. I am just so pleased to have re-started my Freemasonry; it’s been magic to be back.” That connection was hugely important to him during lockdown, and having lost his son, Will, he said “Freemasons completely wrapped their arms around us.” Returning from that break really re-energised his relationship with Freemasonry.
Before his time off, he’d been Master of three London lodges so was familiar with the London Centres and Metropolitan, but really had no idea of the complexity of the machinery which runs it all. When he returned to Freemasonry, he was recruited into the Met Learning & Development Team and has been involved in the roll out of the Members’ Pathway, working with New Leading Lights led by AMet VW Bro Jonathan Hillman. This gave Matthew a much broader view of London Freemasonry. He built on this when he was promoted to MetSGD and undertook escorting duties, and becoming a Visiting Officer to two Lodges. “You get to see the amount of work that goes on in the background, which I had no idea about, from the MetGSec’s office through to the 43 Rulers and all the other teams – including Communications, Membership, Mentoring, the Almoner and Charity Stewards’ team and the army of SVO, VOs, EOs and DCs. Most London Masons don’t realise how much time extremely committed volunteers give to make it all happen and in supporting them.”
The MetGSec / MetScribeE
I asked him about the process of becoming MetGSec / MetScribeE. “I was encouraged by a few friends who thought I was well qualified, and the process was incredibly civilised. DepMetGM R W Bro Warren Duke led the process and did the first interviews. There was a second round, meeting the staff in the Met office, including Dep MetGSec W Bro John Wood, Elaine Faux and Linda Mesher and then the final board led by Sir Michael with all four Deputies, which was pretty intensive – a probing, but friendly interview.” He added that it was a very modern, professional process where relationships were built and ideas exchanged, in addition to being quizzed.
It made him want to work with the Met team.
How do you feel about filling your predecessor’s huge shoes?
“A couple of years ago I did send him a message saying ‘if you ever decide to retire David, I’d be really keen. . .’ – he replied ‘you never know!’ It was terrible to hear he was unwell, but I’m really happy he’s so much better now. He has given me the handover which he never got, and a lot of support. He regularly answers my questions on the phone, via WhatsApp etc! He’s rightly revered by his team – when I said to him ‘I have big shoes to fill’ he said ‘you’ve got very big feet!’ – which is typically modest of David!”
Matthew will be very visible and accessible in his new role: “I’m really going to try and get out and about a lot – attending as many Installed Masters and Installed First Principal units as I can – if invited – to meet all those involved in London Freemasonry. And regularly pop into the Café / Bar to meet people. I’m not stand-offish, or grand and I don’t want to be called ‘sir’!”
“My job is to serve the 31,000 London members. Sometimes that will be difficult, with occasional disciplinary issues and complaints, but I’m hoping we can do things in a really positive way. We have a lot of challenges in London and we’re only going to get there if we work hard together.”
I pressed him on how he’ll do things differently to his predecessor: “David was a real master of the details and processes. You can’t run a big organisation without those processes, and so that’s something I really want to emulate. He built a great, experienced staff team and a large number of volunteers working for the secretariat managing everything from banner dedications and centenaries to exhibitions and special events. I am especially fortunate to have John Wood as the Deputy MetGSec; he really is a tower of strength and a great repository of knowledge.”
He went on to say that there were some new opportunities: “But also the circumstances are different. We have the new office, and the opportunity around the Members’ Pathway, New Leading Lights and also UGLE’s strategic roadmap to help deal with the unique challenges in London from the cost of dining to most members travelling by public transport. With Hermes coming in, we have a real chance to get all that data and really understand where exactly our strengths and weaknesses are.”
He sees it as his job to support the Rulers and our wider membership in addressing today’s challenges and the plethora of initiatives currently in progress. What Matthew has, which David didn’t inherit, is a really stable platform, built by his predecessor. As he said: “I want to engage the membership more, but I can only do that by standing on the shoulders of the giant who built the process.”
This article is part of the Arena Magazine, Issue 50 December 2022 edition.
Arena Magazine is the official magazine of the London Freemasons – Metropolitan Grand Lodge and Metropolitan Grand Chapter of London.
Read more articles in the Arena Issue 50 here.