Ah, the English press never disappoints. In a perfectly pleasant article about the United Grand Lodge of England's Grand Secretary, they just can't help themselves. They get the term "funny handshakes" right in the title. And they drag Roberto Calvi and the P2 scandal in from left field, even though Calvi's murder was never linked by actual evidence to Freemasonry. But I digress...
"Inside the Ministry of Funny Handshakes" by Martin Waller
Everything you thought about the Masons is wrong, says the man out to change their image
The first thing you notice is the handshake — firm, dry and apparently, orthodox. No odd grips, sliding thumbs or other obvious digital manipulation. Nigel Brown laughs. “One of my jobs is to get rid of these misconceptions,” he says. He is the new public face of Freemasonry, since his appointment as Grand Secretary, United Grand Lodge of England, in 2007.
Indeed, he is probably its first public face — there have been prominent Masons in its near 300-year history, such as the Duke of Kent, Grand Master and overall head of the Lodge, with 43 years in the role. But no one before has been charged with explaining the inner workings of the movement to a largely uncomprehending world.
The Grand Lodge is at Freemasons’ Hall, off Kingsway, Central London. Millions of Londoners and tourists will have walked past the white walls of this gigantic Art Deco landmark, which contains 11.5 acres of corridors, with little idea of what happens within.
Brown has offered to show me around and debunk some of the misconceptions. For one, this is not some hermetic temple. “It’s always been open to the public — we have managed tours.”
Alternatively, you could catch it on screen. One of the top ten film locations in London, it has featured as the HQ in Spooks on TV, in the latest Sherlock Holmes film and as one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in The Green Zone, which, it must be admitted, required only one of the less imposing meeting halls.
Among the other misconceptions: Masons do not collude with each other to gain advancement in business. They do not use hidden signs, the “grips” or “tokens”, as they are known, to do this. It is not inimical to women. It is not a religion or an order. But yes, women cannot join men’s lodges, and yes, they do wear the relevant clothing — “regalia” — for ceremonies.
For other, more outré theories, see the wilder fringes of the internet.
Freemasonry has, in its three centuries, attracted the hatred of the Roman Catholic Church, Hitler and most communist regimes. It is still seen by some as a vast, multi-tentacled conspiracy aimed at world domination.
Brown, 62, is the 13th Grand Secretary since 1813, when the movement in England and Wales was reunited after a half century of schism. He was brought up the son of a district commissioner in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, educated in South Africa, went to Sandhurst and became a captain in the Grenadier Guards. He went into business and became a Mason in 1985 — his father was not one, but an uncle, an Army officer, was. “A good friend who was a Mason asked if I had thought about it,” Brown says. “I said, ‘No, but tell me more’. What he told me was absolutely aligned with my thinking — the camaraderie, the rest of it.”
He found he enjoyed the ritual, and the three evenings a year Masonic events took up. In 2007, as he was winding down his consultancy business and approaching 60, he went through a month of vetting and interviews at the Lodge for the Grand Secretary’s job, the organisation’s chief executive.
“They wanted somebody who would run it as a business and open Freemasonry up so that people would realise what it was all about rather than what they thought it would be about.”
Brown insists that Masons will become more apparent in the future. “It’s absolutely vital we encourage people to talk openly about their Freemasonry. We have to get rid of all the discrimination that arose over the years because people haven’t talked about it. It’s important that it gets opened up. It would be intolerable for any Mason to say, ‘I’m sorry I can’t tell you that’.”
The discrimination, he says, is the requirement, on application to join a number of public sector jobs in the Civil Service and in local government, for any Mason to declare his membership, a disclosure that would not extend to a golf club or other social network. This was challenged by Italian Freemasons and deemed contrary to the European Convention of Human Rights, and has been written out of applications to join the Ministry of Justice and one large London council, Lambeth.
Other legal battles will follow elsewhere. “We’re going to continue with any organisation that discriminates like that,” Brown says. “We uphold the law and what we don’t do is have any allegiance or obligation to any other Freemason.”
I ask if, during his time in business, he came across, and gained advantage from, any fellow Masons. “There would be no way I would know if they were Masons. One thing to clarify is the feeling that there is a way a Mason knows who a Mason is. That isn’t so.”
There was a huge surge in Freemasonry after both world wars: at its post-Second World War height significantly larger numbers than today owed their allegiance to the Grand Lodge. This reflected the desire of returning servicemen to maintain a network that tied them together.
The more sinister side of Masonic life was inadvertently exposed in 1982, when Roberto Calvi was found hanged under Blackfriars Bridge in London, his pockets weighted down with masonry. The bridge was supposedly chosen for its symbolism.
He was a member of the Italian P2 lodge, which has no links with the Grand Lodge in London, and acted as financial adviser to the Vatican. It was, implausibly, suggested that he had committed suicide. The Roman Catholic Church is, however, opposed to Freemasonry as irreconcilable with its beliefs. Before he became Pope Benedict XV1, Cardinal Ratzinger said: “The Church’s negative judgment in regard to Masonic association remains unchanged since their principles have always been considered irreconcilable with the doctrine of the Church and therefore membership in them remains forbidden. The faithful who enrol in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion.”
In this he was following the accepted doctrine, and the declaration was approved by the Pope in 1983.
The Church’s opposition is, it says, because Freemasonry claims to be above all religions and this goes against Catholic teaching. Some lodges of continental origin are anti-Catholic; others do not deny the existence of God. For this reason some Catholics have claimed it is possible to belong to such lodges. But the Vatican denies local bishops the right to say that Freemasonry is acceptable.
Many public sector bodies have restrictions on Freemasonry. The police, however, do not. In 1999 a former officer was jailed for attempting to abuse his Masonic connections within the Metropolitan Police, and there have been frequent allegations of conspiracies within the force involving Freemasonry.
There have been little take up across the police forces of a voluntary code of registration for Masons. The Met’s policy, which is followed across other forces, is not to require individuals to declare membership.
To bring Masonry above the surface, Nigel Brown wrestles with several dichotomies. If not overtly religious, it is still a patchwork of religious symbolism, much of it pre or non-Christian. The chief officer at any ceremony sits at the east, for example, to represent the rising of the Sun. The all-seeing eye on a triangle and the six-pointed star are everywhere. The whole thing was seemingly cobbled together in the 17th century drawing on influences and symbols from the medieval guild of Masons, though some in the membership believe its history is longer.
It hopes to operate as a 21st-century organisation but is deeply hierarchical — the Grand Master has a veto on the creation of new lodges and what initiatives are put before the membership.
And there is the issue of women. There are about 50,000 members of the Women’s Order of Freemasonry, which celebrates its centenary this year. “They are happy to remain independent. We acknowledge them,” Brown says. You can join a lodge only by invitation, so it’s hard to see how anyone lacking a Y chromosome could infiltrate the male side. Matching organisations means sex discrimination laws do not apply.
There are three requirements for a Mason, he believes. “Thespian” — you must enjoy the ritual. “Sociable” — there is a dinner after each meeting. And “mindful of the needs of others” — governed by a “higher self” rather than pure self-interest.
We take a turn around some of the 11.5 acres of corridor. Two huge brass doors depicting the building of Solomon’s Temple open on to the main meeting hall. The inside looks like a luxurious council chamber, but vaulted with a muralled ceiling of cerulean blue that would suit a Byzantine basilica.
The building is also home to several UK lodges, each with its own meeting room. The Indian room is decked with stone brought back from the subcontinent. Outside is what looks like a rack of billiard cues, but each is topped with a brass ferrule depicting carved figures such as an eagle. These are wands, each with their appropriate ceremonial use.
We walk past another arcane object, a dark wood frame that supports a blue wrought-iron undulating lattice, apparently designed to accommodate a series of upright objects in parallel.
What is the function of that, I ask? Brown looks at me oddly. “It’s an umbrella stand.”
How they function
The structure of freemasonry is complex, reflecting its piecemeal growth since 1717, the year of the foundation of the Grand Lodge. This has control over masonry in England and Wales, through the Metropolitan Lodge and 47 more in the provinces. There are another 33 “districts”.
Scotland and Ireland have their own networks. Unaffiliated movements overseas include a huge one in the US. There is some overlap with the Grand Lodge; the latter has four districts in India.
It is is hard to judge the number of Masons worldwide, though some put it at six million. There are 250,000 on a new database at Great Queen Street, 30,000 of them overseas, the rest in England and Wales.
At Great Queen Street, 1,000 are employed by its four charities based there — the Lodge is the second biggest charitable donor outside the National Lottery, handing out more than £20 million a year. Some of the charity goes to support Masons and their dependants, some to the usual causes — £100,000 went out to the victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami.
Another 1,000 staff work directly for the Lodge itself administering the network. About a third, the most senior, are themselves masons.
Unfortunately, the Grand Secretary seems to be taking openness much too far the other direction. For him to actually declare, "It would be intolerable for any Mason to say, ‘I’m sorry I can’t tell you that’,” cuts the very heart out of the core beliefs of Freemasonry. EVERY Mason should be perfectly comfortable saying to a non-Mason, "I'm sorry, there are things I can't tell you. I gave my word. And if I told you, my word would be meaningless."