Funny handshakes and bizarre initiation ceremonies? Myths and the Freemasons
Funny handshakes, backhanders for businessmen and bizarre initiation ceremonies. What's the truth about the masons? The brotherhood is stepping out of the shadows to tell us, as David Henry discovers.
Mar 05, 2012
By Manchester Evening News
Grand Secretary of the Freemasons UK, Nigel Brown.
Nigel is the General Secretary of the Freemasons. “It’s sort of like being the chief executive officer,” he explains with a smile. His headmaster appearance - smart suit, shiny shoes, thinning hair - and benevolent bank manager persona is not matching expectations.
Perhaps this is all a cunning ruse. For surely Nigel can’t really represent the masons, that secretive sect we know so little about but who hold such a vivid place in the popular imagination. Shouldn’t he have half a trouser leg rolled up and be jigging around in an apron?
“There are some extraordinary myths about masons and it’s really important to get rid of them. I’m very keen we are seen as a transparent, open organisation,” he says.
So Nigel has commissioned an independent report into the future of freemasonry by an outside body. When it’s published later this week, it’s hoped it will highlight the realities of masonry. It’s part of a campaign to cast light on the brotherhood as it approaches its tercentenary in 2017.
“When we celebrate our 300th anniversary, we want to be able to demonstrate we are not the organisation some people believe us to be.”
Ahead of the report’s publication, he’s touring the country to show the masons have stepped out of the shadows. The aim is to correct the public’s prejudices. He’s got a big job on his hands.
To some people, let’s politely call them conspiracy theorists, the masons is a sinister secret society hell bent on world domination, responsible for every war, assassination and political coup since the Enlightenment. Others view masons with a more mundane suspicion, seeing them as a group of old men who dress up in funny costumes in return for business favours. Nigel insists the truth is very different. Well how did the myths begin in the first place?
“I point the finger at us because we haven’t done enough to knock these myths on the head and now the myths have become reality,” says Nigel. “Before the Second World War we were actually right up there - respected in the community. We were very upfront and overt.
“But then Hitler had a downer on masons. He sent up to 200,000 to the gas chambers. After the war, masons became very inward-looking. It became very private and people wondered what was going on. Nobody corrected the myths that grew up.”
Right then, Nigel. Do the masons rule the world? He laughs: “I would love to say we do control the world but sadly we don’t at all. We don’t have any political influence and nor would we wish to have any. We’re not a political organisation at all.”
What about business backhanders? “Members are not allowed to do business networking. They can go elsewhere for that but at our meetings we don’t network.
“We only support people in their lawful undertakings. But that’s to do with friendship rather than business activities. If somebody is sick or about to lose their house we do what we can to help. It’s about supporting each other as friends.”
OK. What about women? Why can’t they join? “There are women masons,” says Nigel. “Another myth busted. In fact, anyone can join the masons. I’m proud that we have people from every age, religion and social background. The masons mirror society – and like society we are very diverse.”
And the handshakes? “There is no masonic handshake. In all the years I’ve been a mason I haven’t been given a funny handshake.”
Well that’s saying something because Nigel’s been part of the fraternity since he was 39. Now, aged 64, he’s reached the top of the club. As General Secretary he’s one of the organisation’s few full time employees. Previously he ran his own consultancy business and before that served in the Grenadier Guards, having trained at Sandhurst.
If the rumours are true, masons have all kinds of initiation rites, mystical ceremonies and mysterious codes. One practice is said to involve hanging a noose around new members’ necks.
Steadfast in his politeness, he calmly claims that’s not a fair reflection of the joining ceremony. “We see it like an umbilical cord.”
Masons perform a series of “one act plays”, like the initiation ceremony, he says. “There’s an element of theatricality, which can seem strange out of context.”
Strange indeed, but these rituals aren’t putting people off. There are currently around 250,000 masons in England. In East Lancashire, the area covering Greater Manchester, there are 6,000 members.
Last year the organisation raised £30m for charity. Among the good causes that benefited from their generosity was the Red Cross and the Royal College of Surgeons.
“We have a website. It’s all there online. We’re not trying to hide anything from anyone,” he says.
So if there are no backhanders, no political plot, what’s the point?
“There’s a wonderful feeling of belonging.
“In the internet age, life can be quite lonely. People are looking for a social structure. That’s what the masons provide.”
It almost makes you wish the myths were true.