Would you want to be a Freemason?

Clockwise from top left: Egyptian room inside Freemasons' Hall, London; facade of the same; Benjamin Franklin on US note; detail of worshipful master; Masonic founding constitution (images courtesy of Thinkstock and Getty images)

Dogged by conspiracy theories, Freemasons insist theirs is a modern, open organisation. But can this male-dominated body cast off its secretive image and win over a sceptical public?

They designed the pyramids, plotted the French Revolution and are keeping the flame alive for the Knights Templar. These are just some of the wilder theories about the Freemasons. Today they are associated with secret handshakes and alleged corruption in the police and judiciary.

But dogged by this "secret society" image, the Freemasons have launched a rebranding exercise.

On Friday, the United Grand Lodge of England, the largest Masonic group in Britain, publishes its first independent report. The Future of Freemasonry, researched by the Social Issues Research Centre, aims to start an "open and transparent" discussion ahead of the group's tercentenary in 2017.

Nigel Brown, grand secretary of the United Grand Lodge, says it's time to banish the reputation for secrecy. "We're being proactive now. It's essential we get people's minds away from these myths." For instance, there is no such thing as a secret handshake and professional networking is forbidden under Masonic rules, he says.

Even this is disputed. Martin Short, who wrote about the Masons in his 1989 book Inside the Brotherhood, says the handshake is real. "If you meet a middle-ranking police officer, you'll suddenly find this distinctive pressure between your second and third fingers. The thumb switches position and you feel that someone is giving you an electric shock."

Illustration of a "masonic handshake" Stereotypes such as the handshake persist

The report for the most part dodges such controversy, surveying members and the wider public on Masonic themes such as male bonding, charitable work and ritual. It argues that members value the community of Freemasonry and that outsiders are largely ignorant of how the organisation works.

With 250,000 members in England and Wales and six million around the world, they are a minority, albeit one associated with the levers of power. The first US President, George Washington, and another leading American revolutionary, Benjamin Franklin, were Masons. Today a significant proportion of the Royal Household are members, and the Duke of Kent is grand master of the United Grand Lodge of England.

Masonic rules demand that members support each other and keep each others' lawful secrets, which has led to fears of corrupt cliques developing.

It's nothing new, says Observer newspaper columnist Nick Cohen.

Ever since the 1790s Masons have been "whipping boys" for global conspiracy theorists, he argues, adding that after the French revolution, Catholic reactionaries were looking for a scapegoat and the Jews - the usual target - were too downtrodden to be blamed.

Freemasons in popular culture

Spooks cast, L to R: Matthew McFayden, Keeley Hawes and Peter Firth

Freemasons Hall in London's Covent Garden stood in for MI5 headquarters in the BBC spy drama, Spooks (pictured above)

An episode of The Simpsons charted Homer's attempts to join a fictional secret society called the Stonecutters, and the comic disasters that ensued

Fred Flintstone of the eponymous 1960s cartoon belonged to a club with Masonic echoes - the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes Lodge, for men only

It was the Freemasons' turn and the narrative of a secret society plotting in the shadows has never gone away, says Cohen. "You can draw a straight line from the 1790s onwards to the Nazis, Franco, Stalin right up to modern Islamists like Hamas."

The charter of Hamas - the Islamist party governing Gaza - states that the Freemasons are in league with the Jews and the Rotary Club to undermine Palestine.

These theories are "clearly mad", says Cohen, but attacking the Masons has become a staple for anyone suspicious of a New World Order.

There's also the sense that Freemasons are "weird", says James McConnachie, author of the Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories.

Initiations include rolling up one's trousers, being blindfolded with a rope round one's neck, and having a knife pointed at one's bare breast. "They offer a progression to a higher level of knowledge," McConnachie says. "It's alluring and cultish."

Grand secretary Brown argues that the initiations are allegorical one-act plays. They give people "from all walks of life" the chance to stand up in front of an audience, conquer their fears, and make friends, he says.

"People don't associate fun and enjoyment with Freemasonry but it's the common thread for us. It's about camaraderie and making lasting friendships."

Another vexed issue is its male-only image. There are women's orders in Britain with 20,000 members, but Freemasonry is overwhelmingly male. The UGLE does not recognise or approve mixed lodges.

The report talks of a "quiet revolution". But some information should be withheld from public view, Brown says. "Keeping a bit of mystery is good news. If people joining know absolutely everything, where would the excitement be?"

Painting of Masonic Lodge meeting, depicted with curtains being drawn back to reveal people within The centuries-old veil of secrecy is falling away

The Masons are walking a difficult tightrope, says brand consultant Jonathan Gabay. For the rebrand to be effective, they have to demonstrate they are serious about being open and transparent. And yet, in the process, they risk alienating members who value the "cachet" of secrecy and tradition, he says.

People join the Masons not because it is a community group raising money for charity but for its "snob factor" and history, argues McConnachie. If this is overtaken by a transparent, inclusive approach then the organisation would be indistinguishable from many other dining clubs. "You'd have to ask - why would you want to be a Freemason rather than a Rotarian?"

Distrust remains strong. Last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams controversially named a Freemason as the next Bishop of Ebbsfleet. He had previously said that Freemasonry was "incompatible" with Christianity. In August 2010 it emerged that a new national Masonic lodge had been set up by senior police officers.

Former Home Secretary Jack Straw tried to address the issue of Freemasons working in the criminal justice system. In 1999, new judges were required to publicly disclose whether they were Masons.

But after a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights, the requirement was dropped in 2009. Police officers have a voluntary requirement to disclose - but only to their superiors.

Open day at the Grand Lodge of France's freemasonry in Paris, 2010 An open day at the Masonic lodge in Paris

Researching his book in the 1980s, Short found that "corruption in the police was enhanced and shielded by the Masonic lodges."

It's difficult to know whether anything has changed as the Freemasons do not make their membership list freely available, he says. Brown responds that to do so would breach data protection rules.

Given all the suspicion, it's hard not to feel sorry for Freemasons, says Cohen.

"Researching them, you do become rather sympathetic. If people want to say Freemason lodges are nests of corruption then fine. But they've got to prove it. It's no good just saying it."

However, there is something amusingly peculiar about Masonic ritual. It is this rather than the historical baggage that is their biggest obstacle to getting a fair hearing, he argues. "Rolling your trouser leg up is quite funny. If they do want to rebrand then perhaps they should drop the trouser leg rolling."

How to spot a Masonic building

Masonic lodges and symbols on buildings in London and Washington DC (images courtesy of BBC and Getty)

"Masonic legends associate geometry with ancient Egypt, and so buildings sometimes have a distinct Egyptian flavour," says Professor James Stevens Curl, author of Freemasonry & the Enlightenment: Architecture, Symbols, & Influences.

"Columns often appear 'distyle in antis', meaning a pair of columns set between two walls to form a porch or some other element in a building [examples in top images]. However, many examples of 'distyle in antis' feature classical columns based on Greco-Roman exemplars, so this can sometimes be a subtle way of alluding to the lost Temple of Solomon.

"The letter G often appears in Masonic buildings [pictured bottom]. Some have said this is the deity, but if that were so, the French would use D instead of G. The use of this symbol seems first to have been associated with geography, but later with geometry."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 323.

    I am not a Mason. I know many Masons. None are corrupt, engaged in global conspiracies or evil in any way. How do I know? The same way you all know your wife or husband is not corrupt or conspiring. You just know. In any case, the Masons always aver that they are not a secret society, merely a society with secrets. If they were secret, we would not be having this exchange of views, would we?

  • rate this

    Comment number 322.

    I am surprised at how many posters would gladly sacrifice their civil liberties on the basis of a conspiracy theory. I suspect it's more about grown-ups playing kids' games. (Plus they have to conduct their social life in secluded places because they won't get served anywhere else with their trousers rolled up.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 321.

    For the defense and advancement of MEN. (who act out rituals and own an embroidered apron.) Who needs to play secret societies?

  • rate this

    Comment number 320.

    I have had personal experience with Police corruption relating to the Freemasons.

    MY girlfriends ex husband is a member and regularly drinks and drives and she was worried for her children's safety when he had access. She reported him to the local police who promptly phoned him up and told him and didn't log the complaint because they are all masons too.

    The masons should be outlawed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 319.

    The secrecy associated with the Freemasons is not just with the external world. Even people within the organisation are deliberately kept in the dark as to what is happening the level above them. The rituals which are portrayed as a bit of harmless fun but are actually occult practices. If you really want to know what they are about read former Freemason, Ian Gordon's book The craft and the Cross

  • rate this

    Comment number 318.

    I'd happily become a freemason. Sounds like fun! ;-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 317.

    I'm a member of 2 clubs. Both: require approval from existing members to join; dont share all their information with non members; meet regularly for social events; have member only benefits; have members who have a higher position than others who have more control of the club; undertake charitable work; form friendships that can help you when needed. The masons and a mountaineering club.

  • rate this

    Comment number 316.

    As a Scottish Free Mason, I do find this article funny to say the least, the research is poor to say the least.
    Freemasonry is not a secret society but a Society with secrets,
    Who manned Regiments 201 and 202 during 1939 till 1945 creating a 5th column in these islands in the event of invasion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 315.

    As a Roman Catholic anglo saxon Englishman, I would never join such an organisation.

    They claim its for a charity No its for Business pure and simple.
    IMHO its outrageous the Police , Judges and solicitors are allowed to be masons.

    Its outrageous some masons attempt to link themselves to old historical Crusader Military Catholic orders such as the Templars.

    Angelcynn modignes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 314.

    My great grandad was a policeman - he was promoted a couple of times and then told by a couple of his mates he would have to be a mason to rise any higher... he didnt want to be - and he didnt rise any higher.

  • rate this

    Comment number 313.

    I find the whole idea appealing because it IS private and secret. Just because you choose to do something in a group, in private does not make it illegal, evil or wrong. When every social medial site wants me to share every facet of my life with the entire world, I'm starting to cherish the idea of some honest group privacy. It seems keeping your business to yourself is slowly becoming a crime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 312.

    A correction to your interesting piece Mr de Castella: "Another vexed issue is its male-only image. There are two women's lodges in Britain with 20,000 members, but Freemasonry is overwhelmingly male, and mixed lodges are forbidden."

    You are correct that most members are male. However - there is one male-only Masonic organisation, two female-only, and one mixed. Each have hundreds of UK Lodges.

  • rate this

    Comment number 311.

    Re 290. With respect as a freemason I do not recognise any of the behaviours you describe in my Lodge. Before I became a Mason the local Grand Master offered to meet with both me and my partner to answer any question she had about freemasonry. She attends Ladies Nights with other partners and she is a 'real feminist'. If there was anything as you describe she would let me know, and I would leave.

  • rate this

    Comment number 310.

    I've always thought of it as just another form of childlike escapasim for overgrown boys. Secret clubs and codes, with clubhouses and hideaways - and no girls allowed! - while us women get on with looking after everything else in the 'real world'.

    Ok, perhaps I'm suffering a slight hangover from International Women's Day!

  • rate this

    Comment number 309.

    I was union shop steward at work and became convinced that my boss and full time rep were in cahoots as masons after an offhand comment after a wages meeting. I resolved to join and blow the whole thing out of the water. I joined and discovered that neither were in fact masons and ten years later I became master of my lodge.

  • rate this

    Comment number 308.

    So, police officers/judges etc being Freemasons, does anybody not have a problem with that?

  • rate this

    Comment number 307.

    Who honestly cares if a bunch a middle aged blokes meet up for dinner & chat once a week? the secrecy & daft rituals are probably just to create demand for new members - i.e. so that people want to join to find out what the fuss is all about. They're no different from public school old boy networks, or the exclusive old gentlemen's clubs. They don't have any real power.

  • rate this

    Comment number 306.

    Very sadly, the majority of Freemasons are let down by the minority who like to use their 'status' to hold themselves in higher regard than the rest of society. Despite my husband not wishing to join, an 'associate' of ours explained how he has researched his background/family on Google(!) and had deemed him unworthy of a nomination. Strange, as his father and grandfather had both been members!

  • rate this

    Comment number 305.

    The handshake is wrong - and yes I'm a mason, and no I'm not just saying it's wrong because I want to 'protect the secrets'!

    Like so many aspects in life where certain information is guarded (for whatever reason) there will always be people who try to fill in the gaps with nonsense.

    Ironically many masons don't know much either! They do the ritual but never understand its history or significance

  • rate this

    Comment number 304.

    As a young adult I used to frequent a pleasant country pub above which the local masonic meetings were held. Throughout the course of an evening when 'the Masons were in' you'd hear the rythmic thump of footsteps coming through the ceiling, as though some ritualistic dance were being performed up there.
    Ever since always viewed Freemasons as rather bonkers but harmless (bit like Morris dancers)


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