Freemasonry is, in general, not well-understood by the general public. The following conversation is typical of one Researcher's experience after revealing that he is a Freemason.
Disclaimer: The following is written in a personal capacity, and does not represent the opinions of the United Grand Lodge of England or any other Masonic body.
Are you a Freemason?
So you do all that dodgy handshake, bloody oaths, rolled-up trouser legs and helping each other in business stuff?
Er, hang on. The tone of your question betrays more than a little prejudice. Ask me a sensible question...
Alright, so what do you do?
What, at a Masonic meeting?
We conduct elaborate ceremonial plays which illustrate an individual's moral and spiritual growth by using stonemasons' practices as metaphors, Old Testament myths and Enlightenment rationalism.
Yes, we really do.
Hang on a minute, no funny business like rolled up trouser legs and helping your mates out in business?
Look, the public is very prejudiced and only believes of Freemasonry what they want to believe, because they don't understand it. The actual function of Freemasonry, ironically, given that belief, is to cultivate morality.
But aren't you supposed to be quiet about it? It is a secret society after all...
Freemasonry's existence has been public since 24 June, 1717, when the first Grand Lodge was created in London. Since then, although the content of its ceremonial hasn't been public, members have not had to hide their membership and you can look up the locations of Masonic meeting places in the phone book. Hardly a secret society.
But I know an old Mason who is very mysterious about it and refuses to discuss it.
The post-war generation of Masons were secretive because of the fear that Masons would be targeted by the Nazis in the event of an invasion during the Second World War. For the Nazis, Freemasons were considered public enemies and many were sent to concentration camps in continental Europe. You can understand therefore why Freemasonry in Britain kept a low profile. It seems that the habit of keeping membership secret lingered. In 1984, the United Grand Lodge of England changed the policy to one of openness: lodges now have websites and hold open days. Individual Masons are encouraged to be open about their membership, except where to declare membership could be seen as attempting to gain unfair advantage.
So Masons don't use their membership to get a lift up the career ladder, pervert the course of justice etc..?
In my years as a Mason, I have never come across this sort of thing happening. I honestly don't know if it does happen and I would be appalled if I came across it. While, like any large organisation, you can't necessarily like every member you meet, I have got the impression that the majority of the membership is a decent bunch who does take Freemasonry's moral lessons to heart. Do people who talk of 'Masonic' conspiracies really believe that the agenda for our meetings includes items like 'Swing planning decision at x Council meeting brother y's way...'?
But you get up to some pretty weird stuff, don't you? Handshakes, bared breasts etc?
Each Masonic degree ceremony (of which there are three) incorporates a part in which the candidate has to prove that he has acquired the skills necessary to advance to the next degree. This is done because the medieval stonemasons upon whose rituals Freemasonry is based couldn't necessarily read and had to communicate their aptitude by some other, secret, means, such as a handshake. These 'signs' were kept secret in order to preserve the integrity of the Craft, ensuring that unskilled workers could not bring the trade into disrepute. Nowadays, the 'modes of recognition' are the only part of Freemasonry (in England and Wales anyway) that Masons are bound not to reveal. The remainder of the ceremonial, while not technically secret, is kept private so as not to spoil the experience for the candidate on whose behalf it is being conducted.
But surely you don't need secrets in the 21st Century?
The ceremonial is intensely symbolic and it is in that light that one should view the 'secrets'. Freemasonry is concerned with helping you learn about yourself. It's an interior journey, whose lessons or 'secrets' are cheapened if revealed in public.
I'm surprised. I had no idea that it was so, er, philosophical.
It is very philosophical. Most Masons though, don't delve too deeply into the philosophical content of the ceremonial, even though the three degree ceremonies can be profoundly moving: if one allows it, the ritual can press buttons that can turn a man whose view of life has hitherto been shallow and narrowly self-centred into a more rounded, generous and spiritually-minded individual.
Do you really roll up your trouser legs?
The degree ceremonies do require that the candidate does that, but in context (and that is crucial given that the ceremonies teach using symbolism) it makes sense. Nothing in the ceremonial is arbitrary or deliberately eccentric for the sake of it. Every part of the ceremonial is about meaning and it can take many years to absorb and interpret the three degree ceremonies. Of course the public just focuses on one part out of context.
What about the whole sinister world conspiracy thing?
Bonkers. Freemasonry is as sinister as the flower arranging group at your local church! There is no single worldwide Masonic organisation. Each country (or state in the USA) has it own autonomous Grand Lodge which warrants lodges within its jurisdiction. The ceremonial and organisational structure varies among grand Lodges too, though all are ultimately derived from the English, Scottish or Irish Grand Lodges and follow agreed standards. Organisations that are not recognised by these 'regular' Grand Lodges are not considered Masonic. So if someone tells you he is an 'Elk' or a 'Moose', they may be member of very worthy institutions, but they are not Masons and couldn't attend one of our lodge meetings. But to come back to the original point, all I can say is that such suggestions are just plain silly. Conspiracy theorists of course, will say that 'we would say that wouldn't we?' What can we do?!
There is a pretty virulent strain of anti-Masonic material being put about by some fundamentalist Christian groups, largely in the US. The material I have read is ill-informed, deliberately twists facts and takes quotations out of context to pursue a highly prejudiced agenda. It uses, in some cases, well known hoaxes and peddles myths without any substantiation. If you want facts about Freemasonry, read material written by real historians to academic standards.
Is it true you have to be asked to become a Mason?
There has always been a tradition that the reverse is true: you have to do the asking, based on the favourable impression you have received. These days, it is allowed to make the suggestion to someone that they might enjoy Freemasonry, but Masons are not allowed to push people into being Masons if they are not happy about it.
What are the requirements?
You have to be of good moral character, 21 or over, male and able to profess a belief in a supreme being.
I meet most of those requirements, except that I don't believe in a supreme being. Can I still join?
No. It's essential. The point is that the ceremonial assumes a shared worldview that includes a benevolent, transcendent deity. If you don't share in that worldview, there isn't much point in participating.
Although those are the formal requirements, ideally, you will be known to one of the lodge members and he will be able to propose you. The lodge will probably want to meet you to get to know you a little too. Quality, not quantity of members is important.
Is there any reading material?
The United Grand Lodge of England has two booklets:
I don't know any Masons - what would I do if I wanted to join?
In England and Wales, contact:
The Grand Secretary
The United Grand Lodge of England
Great Queen Street
London WC2B 5AZ
Outside England and Wales, I'd suggest you look up the local Masonic hall or Grand Lodge for your country/state and explain that you're interested in joining.