Interviewed by E Comp Gur Samuel
In our initiation ceremonies, we ask our candidates if they are prompted to join by a “favourable opinion preconceived of the institution”.
For E Comp John Burnapp, Past Assistant Grand Sojourner, his path to Metropolitan Grand Inspector began with holding that favourable opinion of our institution long before he joined its ranks.
“My father was very pro-Freemasonry”, Comp John recalls, “he was born in 1907, so he would have seen the days when Freemasonry was actually quite open - meetings of the local Lodge would be advertised in the local newspapers... my father had always been keen on Freemasonry, and his boss at work was going to propose him. Sadly, his proposer had the temerity to die before he actually completed the forms! He never became a Freemason in the end, because he didn’t know anyone else who was one. That was very sad for him, because I know he would have loved to have been a Mason. But that’s what sowed the initial seed - he only ever had good things to say about the Masons.”
While that initial seed had been planted, it would be a few decades yet before it would begin to sprout. Comp John’s childhood in Aspley Guise, near W oburn, was more focused on other interests and passions, developing a fascination for transport and vehicles - cars, trains, but most especially airplanes.
“As a child, I lived near Cranfield, which had an annual air display. Although it was a purely commercial one, so we couldn’t get in, all the kids used to ride their bikes up there and sit just outside the airfield on the end of the runway. It was an English Electric Lightning which stood on its tail, and us looking straight up its jet pipes, which really led me to eventually join the Air Force. I had looked at joining the Royal Aircraft Establishment, but in the end the attraction of operational aircraft, whether working on them on the ground or flying them later, was the real draw. I left school in July 1969, and joined the RAF in October, three weeks before my 17th birthday.”
John initially began what would end up being 23 years of service with an apprenticeship, before working as ground crew for a few years.
After some time, John decided “it was time to apply for air crew, so I applied, was accepted, and spent the rest of my service at RAF St Mawgan in Cornwall, mostly flying in Nimrods, which was absolutely fascinating and I thoroughly enjoyed it”.
However, the last few years of John’s time in the Air Force was spent in a new role - “I was on a ground tour, running a mission support system, and ended up in effect as the station’s IT director”. It was an important role that sometimes had very high stakes indeed.
“The system was used to brief and debrief crews, do post-flight analysis on all the stuff that they had gathered, and complete reports. At one stage, during the first Gulf War, we were actually the only useable communication link back to the UK, everything else had failed! So all the reporting came back from the Gulf through our system at St Mawgan, and then up to Northwood. It was essential that we maintained the system up and running at all times, we couldn’t afford to let it go down”.
Those final few years prepared John well for his next role in life; after completing his service in the RAF, he would go on to spend a few years as an IT director for four years, before becoming a management consultant - a field he continued in until he retired.
It was towards the end of his time in Cornwall, when John was about to move his family to Hertfordshire, that he realised there had been something of a missed opportunity under his nose the whole time. “When we were leaving Cornwall, we had dinner with a chap I’d flown with for years and his wife, and she mentioned that he was off to a Lodge meeting the following day.
“I asked him, ‘are you a Freemason?’, and he replied that he was. I responded, ‘well you didn’t darn well say anything, but I’m not going to join a Lodge in Cornwall now that I’m moving to Hertfordshire!”.
However, it wouldn’t be long before Comp John found his way into the fraternity. He overheard some of his new Hertfordshire friends talking about what he rightly judged to be Masonic matters. He approached them and stated that was interested in joining. On the 9th October 1999 he was initiated into Eclectic Lodge No 1201.
It didn’t take long for John to spread his Masonic wings. “Once I had done my third, I joined another friend’s Lodge - Westbourne no 733 - which was failing at the time. They were struggling and hadn’t had an initiate in years.
They had one lay brother going through the offices, who was then Junior Warden, with his older brother going through again ahead of him just so he could install him in the chair. The younger brother had a heart attack and died. I joined around that time, and my first meeting was their first initiate in five years, maybe more. I stood in as Junior Deacon as they didn’t have one; I had learned the first degree tracing board, so I did that at the meeting as well.
“That meeting was also the election meeting, and the older brother said, ‘John, you clearly don’t struggle with the ritual, will you become my Senior Warden, follow me through the chair and replace my late brother?’ I couldn’t say no to an honour like that! So, I hit the chair just three years and four months from initiation. And in a way because I was quite late joining - I was 46 when I was initiated - I was in effect running to catch up, and I just never stopped running!
I did a year in the chair at Westbourne followed immediately by two years in the chair at Eclectic.
“By the time I was coming out of the chair in Eclectic, I was in the First Principal’s chair in Chapter, and in the chair of Mark! So, it all happened very quickly.”
Comp John was exalted into Kingswood Chapter - which unlike his two London- based Lodges was in the Province of Hertfordshire - on the 23rd February 2001. John recalls: “My seconder into Freemasonry lent me a copy of the book Beyond the Craft, and said ‘have a read through, see what you fancy joining - no more than two to start off with, and one must be the Royal Arch.’ And as I got into the Royal Arch, I understood what he was talking about”.
E Comp John Burnapp - 5 THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW:
1. John is an avid jazz fan, which led to him playing clarinet for several years
2. Describes model railways as a “lifelong passion” and used to build model locomotives from brass
3. Enjoys silversmithing in his spare time- even making the head for a verger’s wand!
4. Has restored two cars - a Rover Hundred, an Alvis TD 21 and a Fordson Major tractor
5. Has had the opportunity to drive several traction engines for the air displays at St Mawgans - which John describes as having been “tremendous fun - though incredibly noisy!”
Indeed, John believes that, while no-one should ever be pressured into joining the Royal Arch, that some Lodges could be doing more to encourage and support members into learning more about Royal Arch Masonry, so they can make an informed decision about when is the right time for them to join. John says, “I understand that pressures of work, family pressures, and pressures on finance can prevent people joining. But for those who can - why not? It’s an important part of Masonry”.
After installing his successors into the chairs of both Westbourne Lodge and his mother Eclectic Lodge, John became Secretary for both Lodges - and would similarly take on Scribe Ezra in Westbourne Chapter, which he had joined when it was in a similar state to that the associated Lodge had been in when he first joined. Indeed, that led to John’s only regret in Freemasonry - “I always wanted to be Director of Ceremonies - I’m ex-military, I love ceremonial! but obviously someone saw something in me that said, ‘he’d be good at the admin side’, and so I’ve never been Director of Ceremonies in anything. I’m Assistant Director of Ceremonies in another chapter, but that’s it! Maybe they take the view they don’t want an ex-military Director of Ceremonies!”.
John became an Almoners Liaison Officer - his first role within the wider Metropolitan structure - and that led to him being named the Provincial Grand Almoner in the Royal Arch for Hertfordshire. His first active role within Metropolitan Grand Lodge was as Metropolitan Grand Pursuivant, which he was appointed to in 2007. “Although the office wasn’t technically an escorting office at the time, they were short of escorting officers, and I volunteered”.
He was offered a role as a Visiting Officer after his active year, but turned the appointment down: “I saw a couple of friends who went into being a VO with Senior London Grand Rank that got quite a rough ride as Metropolitan’ s structures were still fairly new then. I was being asked if I would do it with London Grand Rank, and I said if you don’t mind I’d rather hang back until I get my SLGR! Which I did”. John became a Visiting Officer in Chapter soon after. Comp John’s active journey continued with an appointment as Metropolitan 1st Assistant Sojourner in 2011, and then as Grand Standard Bearer in the Craft in 2016 - “I had to read the letter four times before it sank in that it was an active office, rather than past! That was a huge surprise to me. I wasn’t expecting to get Grand Rank anyway, and certainly not an active office, so I was absolutely thrilled to get that.”
One year later, John was promoted to Senior Visiting Officer in Craft Masonry, under then-Metropolitan Grand Inspector, and now Assistant Metropolitan Grand Master, Chris Hayward PGSwdB. It was a post he was in for just 18 months, before receiving the call offering him the position of Metropolitan Grand Inspector in the Royal Arch.
John credits his work with Westbourne Chapter as being at least part of the reason for the appointment. Having forced members to decide if they wanted to continue, and drawn a commitment from them, with the help of a few key people, the meeting sizes grew from five or six attendees, to over thirty.
“At the 12-year point of me being Scribe E, which coincided with the 150th anniversary of the consecration of the chapter, I said ‘I can now stand down as Scribe E, I’m leaving it in good shape’. By that time, we were dining 35. At that 150th anniversary meeting, the Inspector came up to me and said ‘would you be happy for me to put you up as Met Inspector?’. The next thing was a discussion, then a later phone call on behalf of The Metropolitan Grand Superintendent saying he was offering me Metropolitan Grand Inspector and would I be willing to do it?. Having already discussed it with my wife, who has supported me fully throughout, I said yes!”.
John has set himself a personal challenge of visiting all 47 Chapters in his inspectorate within the first 18 months.
On his visits, he says “I try not to appear scary to junior masons, but the chain is all too easy to overawe people, and I want them to be open with me about their thoughts, what they would like to see, because they’re the future”.
He is proud that his Leading Lights seminars have grown from 20-odd attendees in the first instance to, after sending a letter of invitation to every Mason in his inspectorate, over 100 attendees booked in for the upcoming seminars.
John has enjoyed delivering three 50th year certificates and intends to spread a message throughout his Inspectorate of Masonry being fun, but also offering support to help all his Chapters thrive and grow.
This article is part of the Arena Magazine, Issue 40 April 2020 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 40 here.