Freemasonry’s new culture of openness

Luke visited Freemason’s Hall in London to gain a greater understanding of Freemasonry’s place in the modern cultural environment.

Freemasonry is a practice that pre-dates modern civilisation. As can often prove useful when tracing origins, we can break the word into its two constituent parts for clarity. Masonry, as a craft of distinguished skill, was exempt from the bounds of stationary labour in feudal societies; therefore, the mason would be free to move as he wished. This permission would be indicated by a handshake as a mark of distinction.

As the craft proliferated as a ‘club’, the obvious need for Masonry to ride the wave of culture has taken it out of stone on stone and into all areas of a man’s life – playing key roles in culture at large at points too, for example post World War II. As men would come back badly traumatized and with a lost sense of camaraderie that they had relied upon on the front, Masonic lodges are said to have filled a gap.

In the popular consciousness, the organisation is often shrouded in conspiracy and intrigue; one can spend hours at a time on the internet sifting through seemingly fallacious theories about how, for example, Supertramp knew about 9/11 in the seventies – apparently all thanks to a Masonic donor. When discussing this with people I would call it the ‘Freemasonry rabbit-hole’; every hour-long YouTube video would claim to have the answers and the great exposition. Freemasonry is X, Freemasons are Y: it is hard, basically, to cut through the misinformation and get to any semblance of truth.

Tenuous ideas of a worldwide clandestine power dynamic, however, seem mooted by the fact that Freemasonry in the 21st Century faces very real threats to its existence which have necessitated a new public face. In 2016 The Independent observed that a national total of 8,389 individual lodges in 2006 had gone down to 7,401 (a loss of around 99 lodges per year) –  a decline that can be observed since as early as 2000. Externally, Freemasonry is also facing scrutiny as Steve White (former Police Federation chairman) expressed his concerns about Masonic influence blocking reform for minorities in the services, in a story that surfaced in The Guardian this month.

The overriding issue with the public perception of Masonry is ambiguity manifested in two ways; on one side, a view of an open and altruistic fraternity with a rich history of benevolence – and on the other a dark brotherhood with its fingers in corporate and governmental pies. The common perception is of a system locked-tight with no potential for penetration – one can imagine my surprise when I received a reply from the United Grand Lodge of England’s Director of Communications, Michael Baker, within two minutes of making an enquiry – exemplifying how Freemasonry is entering a new period of openness fit for the twenty-first century.

When I arrived at Freemason’s Hall in Covent Garden (or, United Grand Lodge of England) the doors were open, and the front desk was manned by administrators discussing their Christmases next to resplendent marble pillars. No cursory glances were cast over me as I waited for Mr Baker to greet me in the foyer – this was openness quite contradictory to what is commonly expected of Masonry. I noticed that there was a banner advert for a new app, one that seemed to hold a portable map of lodge locations countrywide. Open and accessible, it seems.  I couldn’t, however, shake off fully the tin foil hat and noticed, amongst other things, that the App Store logo bears a striking resemblance to the Masonic compass. Once I was met promptly with Mr Baker he took me on a tour of the building, where he pointed out some oddities that show not only the building’s age but its character: in the waiting lines for the cloakroom, little ashtrays are built in to arm rests – an un-heard of fixture in the post-smoking ban era but quite commonplace in 1932, since when the building has been in use. There were times when one would see certain images inlaid on the floor or in the ceiling, presenting a field day for conspiracy theory. In reality, Mr Baker explained, a lot of the symbolism in the building doesn’t contain anything beyond the surface – it seems a simplicity pervades the practice, which is something that you won’t gather from Google search.

After my guided tour with Mr Baker, which included the Freemason’s Hall, he told me of the importance of forthrightness in the 21st Century: “what we are trying to do is develop levels of consideration in the first place, after awareness of Freemasonry. Potentially it could be advocacy or signing up, but creating a positive level of engagement is what Freemasonry is really about and saying to people: you probably never knew this. Social media will inevitably play a vital role in engaging the younger market (under thirty) which currently occupies less than two percent of the country’s two-hundred thousand strong membership. Baker explained that “There is an irony because Freemasonry in a sense is one of the oldest social groups, social media type groups if you like, in the world – having existed for over three hundred years – so the fact that we choose to communicate in the twenty first century idiom, if you like, is the only real challenge”.

This adaption into twenty-first century means of communication could mean an increased public understanding of the organisation’s practices, too – within reason. “on a basic level that we have certain things that are retained within the ceremony, adds that element of mystique and mystery”. Baker explained that the common indictment of ‘secrecy’ is really privacy and a retention of tradition; “if I said to you to become a Freemason all that happened is I got you to sign a form and I gave you a cheese sandwich you’d go ‘what the hell was that all about’?”. Mark Lee, a junior Mason in Kent reflected the sentiment, highlighting that too much in the public domain “spoils the surprise and occasion for candidates coming in”. It is easy to see how room is made for criticism, as the lack of full disclosure leaves even more potential for the aforementioned theorising. One of the most commonly distorted facts regards the dues that a Mason will pay to his lodge, which sits, despite speculation, at £150 – dining inclusive.

The core tenets of Masonry, either way, are unashamedly in the public domain – most importantly including entry requirements: The belief in a higher being and being of an appropriate age. The practices in-meeting such as the ins and outs of reciting the eight-page soliloquy during ‘petitioning’, or study of the legend of Hiram Abiff saved for the third-degree, are however retained. This was one of the hardest masonic concepts to make sense of for me, even without delving deep into esoteric theory; a belief in a higher being is required. This opens Masonry up to a multi-faith dynamic. The idea is that one can acknowledge a being higher than oneself and that is how gnosis and growth occurs – it also ties neatly into the cultural environment of altruism adopted by the Masonic tradition.  Growth, faith and maturity occupy the important practical pillars of Masonry, Mr Baker explained: “If you’re a male and over twenty one and believe in a supreme being, you can strictly speaking become a Freemason. However, you can join younger than twenty one – ordinarily that would mean eighteen… there is a wealth of bright young men who may have an interest in Freemasonry and it would seem fit with the whole concept of academia, don’t forget the second degree is all about liberal arts, academia and learning”. Since 2005, 55 new University based lodges have been founded.

There is apparently an overriding simplicity in Masonry which allows for this openness. Regarding indictments of misuses of power, as have occurred this month regarding the policing system, Baker joked that “We can barely organise dinner for 20 people, let alone the next government and what we do past Brexit”. and more seriously “I think the thing with Politics and Freemasonry is that there will be people who are Freemasons and politicians”, the idea being that Freemasonry would not influence the policy but the man. This of course, is fogged up a little by the fact that the ‘secrecy’ (privacy) is retained, which naturally leaves a gap for the wildest speculation that one wishes. I mean this not just in the context of the aforementioned internet speculation: Freemasonry has had a rather dicey history due to this. Freemasonry was a prime target for Mussolini’s Fascist Italy – the US actually played a key role in reinstituting the practice post-war. This quashing was due mainly to the nature of a ‘secret society’ contravening the principles of Fascism (that is to say it provides the opportunity for mass dissent or insurrection), but it could also to be partially due to the Masonic dedication to being apolitical. Still to this day Freemasons are prohibited to discuss political matters in lodge meetings – further mooting the idea that they are behind the reins of power.

I was curious about potential growing pains and tugs that Freemasonry may experience in a more ‘progressive’ and indeed more secular society. The cultural environment of 2018, as well as being more open thanks to the advent of social media, is one that may be difficult to negotiate for a group that restricts its membership to men and has a strong religious basis. “The speed at which society and culture has changed over the last quarter of a century is exponentially so much more rapid than probably in the last century and a half and I think will continue at that rate – futurologists would certainly tell you that”. Mr Baker explained, “we have to adapt to that; we have to understand that the demands on a young man’s time, on his life, on his partnerships… even the demands on his leisure time are so much more universal now than they ever were, and so much more demanding, that we have to accommodate for that”. This seems to have become manifest in a slimmed down version of Masonry: “we no longer read out in full the minutes of the previous meeting, they’re circulated in advance”. “That saves a lot of time, so that young guys who can’t make a four o’ clock meeting, or even a five o’ clock meeting, can come in at half five after work and still enjoy the main part of the meeting, which may be a ceremonial or a damn good lecture”.

To roll with the times Freemasonry has had to take the jump into the online sphere and adapt its practices for the modern man: this new culture of openness seems geared to bring an understanding of the practice previously absent from the public consciousness – one that is ready for the hyper connected age.

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