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 423.

    Whilst not subscribing to the conspiracy theories, i do see dangers here. There's a real conflict of interest between men who are close friends "in a spirit of cameraderie" with mutual obligations and who also deal with each other in a professional capacity. It's an exreme form "playing golf with the boss (or customer)" to garner favour. And it works: Freemasons do well but its unprofessional.

  • Comment number 422.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 421.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 420.

    I don’t think masons are involved in a “world domination conspiracy”. But I’d have more respect for masons here if you would acknowledge that there just might be a problem with so many police, judges and civil servants being members, You’re in favour of openness, and masonry is nothing more than fun, friends and charity. How about publishing membership lists of anyone in public service?

  • rate this

    Comment number 419.

    I used to work for a large insurance company. It was full of people doing nothing in well-paid non-jobs. Middle and lower management was quite obviously well organised outside work. Manager A recruited Manager B's children who, in turn, recruited Manager A's children. Promotion of these favourites was achieved by giving them the credit for other people's work. Fingers in the till paid for by you!

  • rate this

    Comment number 418.

    "...Catholic reactionaries were looking for a scapegoat and the Jews - the usual target "

    Not any more! Freemasonary community is now consist of many mainly Jewish origin.

  • rate this

    Comment number 417.

    Do all Freemasons have six finger on their right hand, like in the drawing? That would make them very easy to recognise.

  • rate this

    Comment number 416.

    ....."But can this male-dominated body cast off its secretive image and win over a sceptical public?" Surely this statement applies to more than just the Masons? Committee who chose E.Hump for Eurovision, Tory Party, Pigeon Fanciers Assoc, the list goes on and on

  • rate this

    Comment number 415.

    Do you really think a secret society like the Free Masons would just come out and say 'hey everyone, were basically running the world as part of the New World Order' ? Obviously they wouldn't, so clearly they are going to tell us they are an open place with no such thing as secrets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 414.

    To clarify a few points:
    An 'Elitist club'? Hardly... I'm a sailor, my bank balance isn't overflowing!. Men of any race, creed or religion can join.
    Yes we have rituals that might seem odd but they are allegorical, to illustrate a point - people don't look in horror when Catholics drink the blood and eat the flesh of Christ.
    Just because you don't know somethings meaning does not make it sinister

  • rate this

    Comment number 413.

    "It is a society of secrets, not a secret society."

    Wish i had a quid for everytime that old one's been wheeled out. Even the thickest masons will know this one. Why would anyone want to join a little secretive club comprising people who you have zip respect for but who can blackball you and keep you out? No, i have never been rejected but i have been invited. No Ta.

  • rate this

    Comment number 412.

    Hahaha.. Theres a lot of Masons down thumbing decent comments. Trust the BBC to claim they built the Pyramids.. Whilst Masons donate an awful lot of money to charities etc they are still secretive and a network of people that can make things happen in their favour. You get a couple of Masonic police officers and you get situations like Hollie Greig and Robert Green.. Saturn worshippers..

  • rate this

    Comment number 411.

    Who wants to admit that they need to buy a social life through Masonry?
    All a bunch of saddos.

  • rate this

    Comment number 410.

    No dou't there is good and bad in any organization, want's so scary with the Masons, is they have alot of very powerful people who belong to them. So I'm sure there is something to be said that its a organization that looks after it's members over and above others, and hence likely here and there corrupt. To think otherwise is naive in the extreme.

  • Comment number 409.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 408.

    Oh the paranoia, I am not a Mason nor have a wish to be, but time after time people are trying to read conspiracy into being aMason or a Roman Catholic or the being in the local golf club or whatever. What next probe into the influences of ex girl guides? These people need to get a life and let those who wish to join the Masons alone. I for one couldnt care less if someone is a Mason or not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 407.

    Not just the 300 years anniversary, maybe the Freemasons are becoming more open because the Christian/Islam is recently criticised by the media.

    As I read it, Freemasons are non-religious, high moralled and secret in charitous works. With faith movements (like Anabaptists and Mennonites) during Catholic reformation, being secret helped them to survive and thrive if they helped each other.

  • rate this

    Comment number 406.

    The Fred Flintstone "Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes Lodge" is probably based on another organisation - the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes.

    Seriously - it really exists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 405.

    @365. PreCensored

    Hmmm. I have a pal in the armed forces. It was suggested that if he wanted to be promoted to Warrant rank, joining the masons would be a good idea. He didn't and wasn't promoted. Doesn't prove anything I know.

    Point I'm making is that this wasn't 'decades' ago - it was during the past decade.

    Secret societies or societies with secrets - all the same to me. Not to be trusted

  • rate this

    Comment number 404.

    Laughable to think that grown-up men still want to be part of a 'secret society' long after their Secret Seven days. What a bunch of inadequates.


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