Secrets and Ties
Tired of being 'mugged' by the media, the United Grand Lodge of England has appointed a PR agency to improve the image of freemasonry. But can the spin doctors allay suspicions that the secretive organisation is pulling strings in the police and judiciary? Stephen Moss reports
Wednesday March 21, 2001
You're not going to mug us, are you?" asks Chris Connop, spokesman for the United Grand Lodge of England. He is evidently worried on this point, as he asks the question half a dozen times. He also looks suspicious when the photographer starts grovelling around on the floor of the grand temple at Freemasons Hall, an art deco masterpiece in central London and the masons' HQ. "I don't like being photographed from below," he explains. "It makes me look sinister." The photographer becomes agitated and utters an expletive, which may be the first swearword ever uttered in freemasonry's most hallowed hall.
Connop is paranoid because mugging has become an occupational hazard for freemasons. He is fuming over Monday's Newsnight, which made great play of the bizarre initiation rites undertaken by aspiring masons, and by an article by the son of a mason in the Independent portraying freemasonry as "the perfect hobby for bored middle-aged men engaged in undemanding jobs who hanker for a faintly exotic social life".
The freemasons hope this is the dark media hour just before a golden dawn. They are tired of being traduced, and have appointed a PR agency called MDA to re-present them to a doubting public. The doubts have been put most forcibly by Martin Short, author of The Brotherhood, who argues that the heavy concentration of masons in the law and the police force perverts justice. "Can all the rituals be merely symbolic?" asks Short. "One must presume that people join lodges predominantly to feather their own nests, and to form a loose combination against the interests of everybody who is not a mason."
Short did battle on Newsnight with Mike Dewar, head of MDA and a former colonel whose 30 years in the army has left its mark in the way he describes everything in military terms. He is preparing a campaign on behalf of freemasonry; it will be a battle, and initially the masons may have to take some flak, but a couple of years on he reckons our ideas of freemasonry - and our presumption that it is secretive, sinister and self-interested - will have been changed.
"The freemasons feel defensive at the moment," says the brisk, pinstripe-suited Dewar. "They feel they've been pressured. They've been attacked and vilified for so long that every reaction is a defensive reaction - 'No, we're not going to do that; as a matter of principle we won't publish lists of members.' I hope that in two years' time, when this campaign starts to be successful, they'll be a lot less sensitive about that sort of thing. They're not per se secretive about being a mason; in fact they're happy to sing about it, and that's what I'm encouraging them to do."
Dewar is not a mason and says he prefers not to know what goes on at initiation ceremonies (sharp instruments placed against bared breasts, silken nooses placed around the heads of initiates). "I couldn't care a damn what the ceremony is," he says. "That's not what's important. What is important is that these people are extremely good people; well-meaning, upright people with high moral standards. They are a fraternal society whose aim is to make good men better, and their achievements speak for themselves. They collect massive sums of money for charity - £17m last year - and most of the money goes to non-masonic charities."
Others have been less willing to ignore the rituals that are an integral part of freemasonry. In 1996, in an article in this paper, Short attacked the penalties which he said initiates agreed to accept if they transgressed against a brother mason: "having my throat cut across, my tongue torn out by the root and buried in the sand of the sea at low water mark". And that, said Short, was only the penalty for "first-degree" masons, the so-called entered apprentices in their Persil-white aprons. Second-degree (or fellowcraft) transgressors faced having their hearts "torn from their breasts and fed to ravenous birds", while third-degree (or master mason) miscreants faced the ultimate penalty, being severed in two, their bowels burned to ashes, and those ashes "scattered over the face of the earth and wafted by the four winds of heaven."
Short, however, had not been reading the extremely useful Freemasons' Diary, which explains that these hideous penalties have fallen into disuse. "When masonic ritual was developing in the late 1600s and 1700s," it explains soothingly, "it was quite common for legal and civil oaths to include physical penalties, and freemasonry simply followed the practice of the times. After long discussion, they were removed from the promises in 1986."
I asked for clarification from Jim Daniel, grand secretary of the United Grand Lodge. "The physical penalties, which were always only symbolic, were removed from the obligations in 1986," he says. "They were not replaced, so that a candidate still makes his obligation in the certain knowledge that he will be 'branded as a wilfully perjured individual void of all moral worth and totally unfit to be received into this worshipful lodge or any other warranted lodge or society of men who prize honour and virtue above the external advantages of rank and fortune' if he violates his obligation." So no ravenous birds or ritual disembowelling, but you certainly won't be welcome at lodge suppers.
The rest of the ritual remains intact, and the masonic diary defends it as a "shared experience which binds the members together", posing a crucial question to itself in its Q&A explanation of freemasonry - "Why do grown men run around with their trousers rolled up." Its answer is unembarrassed: "It is true that candidates have to roll up their trouser legs during the three ceremonies when they are being admitted to membership. Taken out of context this can seem amusing, but like other aspects of freemasonry, it has a symbolic meaning." (Irritatingly, it doesn't explain what it symbolises.)
Masons are sensitive to the charge that they owe their primary allegiance to their "craft". "Freemasons do not swear allegiances to each other or to freemasonry," says my masonic diary. "Freemasons promise to support others in times of need, but only if that support does not conflict with their duties to God, the law, their family or with their responsibilities as a citizen."
Connop becomes agitated at the suggestion that masons would put their masonic commitments before their worldly duties. "We are not allowed to go around giving masonic signals [there are secret handshakes, passwords and signs] outside a masonic context, because if we did we could be thrown out," he insists. "I'm a magistrate and if I were sitting as a magistrate and somebody tried to give me one of the degree signs, I would say immediately what was going on if I was in the chair. If not, I would say to the chairman, 'I'm sorry but this defendant is trying to gain advantage by his membership of freemasonry,' and I would retire from the bench and not hear that case. That is outrageous. That is not what we stand for."
The hardest thing for an outsider to grasp is what freemasonry is actually for. Connop, who is a member of no fewer than 13 lodges, supplies a one-word answer: "fun". He enjoys the ritual, and opens his mason's case to show us his numerous medals, aprons and masonic ties. He is heading off that evening to the lodge of which he is master to "make a mason" - induct an apprentice into the craft - and is palpably looking forward to it, rehearsing the lines which form part of ceremony. He values the moral compass that freemasonry provides in his life and is moved when he shows us the masonic artefacts that soldiers carried with them in the first world war, but above all he wants to stress the enjoyment and sense of fellowship he derives from being part of the organisation.
The Real Secrets of Freemasonry, a guide to the craft prepared by Worshipful Brother George Gibson in 1945 and much reprinted since, takes a more moralistic stance. "Freemasonry is an organised system of morality . . . derived from divine wisdom and age-long experience, which for preservation from outer assault and inner decay is veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols. It preaches the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. The influence of divine inspiration is with it throughout. Each Candidate for membership declares his belief in the Supreme Being: keeping strictly aloof from political divisions, it demands from its members a recognition of the eternal and of the light which comes from above."
So what is the essence of freemasonry? Material self-advancement and sinister secrecy, say its critics. Fun, fellowship and a moral code, masons counter. Dewar, who hopes to reverse the decline that has seen membership in England and Wales fall to 320,000, intends to present them as "good, solid citizens with the right moral values who support all that is good in society". But there are two other factors which must surely be considered - food and stamp collecting.
The editor of The Square, "the independent magazine for freemasons", devotes his editorial in this month's issue to the important question: "To eat or not to eat". "Any masonic group which sought to eliminate my choice of whether I dine or not can do without my presence," he thunders in a vigorous defence of the "festive board" against the "Nazis of the masonic world" who want it reduced or eliminated. It is, he explains, "one of the big topics of conversation in masonic circles". What does Martin Short think of that?
I also scanned the small ads in The Square for sinister cabals looking for masons to join their ranks. The Logic Ritual Association, the Goose and Gridiron Society, the London Lunchtimers, the International Masonic Poetry Society . . . bodies to make the flesh creep. And, scariest of all, the Masonic Philatelic Club, based in Cleveland, "open only to masons in good standing of the English Constitution and recognised Grand Lodges". There is an article in The Square about the stamps of Belgium (remarkably, it is part four in a series on Belgian stamps). I assume that encoded within these apparently innocent words on Belgian politician-freemasons is a sinister message to the philatelists of Cleveland. You have been warned.