The Ceremony of the Empty Chair
By W. Bro Saranjit Singh Bassan SLGR
It’s a cold November morning. I have just parked my car at Westfield Shepherds Bush Centre. As I walk to the underground station, I notice I am the only one wearing a Red Poppy. My heart sinks a little.
Many years ago, lapels decorated with a poppy would have been quite normal. At the entrance of the station, I stop by to talk to the British Legion Poppy Fund Raiser, who presents a range of items available for a small donation. She tells me the uptake has not been too great so far. I donate and get myself a spare poppy.
I catch my train and head to Great Queen Street. As I enter the building, I get a warm feeling as I see many poppies on lapels. I am here as a visiting officer on an official visit to The City of London Rifles Lodge No 5606.
The Lodge was formed in 1936 by members of the regiment following a petition made by their Mother Lodge – Earl Roberts Lodge No 3151 on behalf of members of 6th City of London Rifles (more detail is available here). The Lodge attracts many former military personnel.
Upon my entrance to the anteroom, I am warmly welcomed by members, some of whom are about to carry out a quick rehearsal of a specific part of the agenda. Rehearsal done, we are ready to start the meeting. As this is an Emergency Meeting, W Bro Keith Roberts SLGR reads out the Dispensation Certificate, and the Lodge is formally opened.
The initiation ceremony for Mr Darren Hardy is ably carried out by W Bro Pater Gaskin and his officers before the Lodge is called off. At this point, preparations are speedily made for the next part, the Ceremony of The Empty Chair.
Indeed, an empty chair is placed in front of the worshipful master’s podium facing West.
W Bro Ian Ness, clothed with an EA apron, retires from the Lodge to await the deacons. Having been replaced by stewards, the two deacons (Bros Carl Francis and Sebastian Rollands) retire from the Lodge. After investigating the cause of an alarm at the door, the Inner Guard, Bro Joseph Arthurs, reports to the acting WM, W Bro Richard Talbot, that Brothers who had fallen in service of their country want admission, not in person, but through their spiritual presence. They want our continued remembrance.
As the WM gives consent for their admission, the brethren stand to order with the sign of Reverence, and the Inner Guard admits the fallen brothers.
Upon entering the Lodge, W Bro Ian Ness and the deacons flanking his sides assemble in front of the senior wardens’ chair to then slowly process towards the empty chair, the deacons a couple of steps in the lead. The moving notes of Edward Elgar’s Nimrod accompany the slow walk.
The procession stops in front of the empty chair. The Deacons move apart, face inwards, lift and cross their wands to allow the brother supporting the apron to walk to the empty chair. As the deacons lower their wands and face the WM, the standing brethren take their seats.
In recognition of the fallen Brethren’s spiritual presence, the WM asks W Bro George Berry LGR (acting Senior Warden) to position the EA apron as it would have been, had our departed brethren been present in body as well as in spirit. The senior warden takes the apron from W Bro Ness and performs his task with utmost fidelity.
The white lambskin apron, an emblem of innocence and the badge of a mason, is the first honour bestowed on our fallen brethren. It is placed on the seat of our deceased Brethren in recognition of their dedication to the highest ideals of the craft during times of war. This simple act reminds us of the masonic ideals of our fallen brethren and their noble thoughts, generous impulses, words of truth, acts of love and deeds of mercy. The masonic apron represents the highest aspirations of a brother in all ways, as each brother knows they give to man his only genuine happiness, his lasting satisfaction.
Our brethren gave themselves freely not only to the degrees of masonry but also to the obligations of service to their country in a time of great need. It is said that a man is made a mason first in his heart. A mason may have earned honours before or after being raised to the sublime degree. But as the world sees, those honours do not decorate his masonry but rather highlight the spirit, which makes him both a mason and a man of service. For our tomorrow, they gave their today.
The Chaplain, W Bro Brian Rice LGR, advances to place an evergreen on the empty chair as an emblem of immortality. Beyond a world of shadows, man has a glorious destiny since, within the earthly tabernacle of clay, there abides an imperishable, immortal spirit, over which the grave has no power nor death dominion. Brother chaplain turns to face the Lodge and recites Psalm 23, The Lord is my shepherd, before returning to his position.
At this time of the year, it is traditional to wear the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. It is also meant to recall the verse that gave rise to this poignant symbol, which W Bro John Cowan reads out:
In Flanders fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
John McCrae 1915
The Worshipful Master places the Lodge poppy wreath on the empty chair while the brethren stand to attention and observe a two-minute silence.
The Lodge’s standard is lowered by newly initiated Bro Darren Hardy.
Bro Michael Borg (Acting Junior Warden) recites part of For the Fallen:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them
Laurence Binyon 1914
The brethren repeat ‘We will remember them’
The Lodge standard is then raised, and the brethren can take their seats. The empty chair ceremony being concluded, the Lodge was called on for the further despatch of Masonic Business.
Later, the poppy wreath is placed temporarily at the memorial opposite the doors of the Grand Lodge Temple as an act of remembrance. When convenient, it will be taken to rest at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, as part of the Last Post Association’s Ceremony in an act of remembrance to the fallen members of the City of London Rifles Regiment.
This was the first time I had seen a ceremony of the empty chair. Full credit to The City of London Rifles No 5606 for putting it together in such a meaningful way. It was a very moving and poignant reminder that our freedom today is also due to the selfless sacrifice of so many before us.
We should never forget them; we will remember them.
This article is part of the Arena Magazine, Issue 47 January 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 47 here.