In 2017, British Freemasonry will celebrate its 300th birthday. The exact origins of the infamous secret society are still unknown. While the first Grand Lodge opened in 1717, evidence suggests that Freemasonry began much earlier. The most romantic history, press officer Mike Baker tells me, points to the Knights Templar. More realistically, it may have been the product of the medieval guild system combined with elements of Rosicrucianism. We're at the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) in London's Covent Garden, the imposing stone building decorated with esoteric symbols. The Masons' reputation for mysticism has made them a beacon for conspiracy theorists, ranging from purported links with 9/11 to the Illuminati and New World Order. Now, in the lead up to their tercentenary, the Masons are trying to manage this centuries-old PR problem. The question is, what happens when the world's oldest secret society tries to open its doors?
Part of the Masons' makeover is challenging the most persistent myths. "We actually prohibit politics and religion in what we do," Mike tells me. They're even hesitant about making public statements, "because of our history and because we would not want to seem politically motivated. You know, the conspiracy theories around, with Bilderberg and things like that." So why join if there's no opportunity to meddle in politics? It's all about the values, Mike says. The Masons make charitable donations as part of their community involvement. Right now they're in the middle of funding London's second air ambulance. "The next time you have a serious accident and the air ambulance flies down and, underneath it, you'll see a square and compasses – just think how that happens to be."
One of UGLE's more surprising requirements is that members must believe in a Supreme Being. "As long as it's a creative force," Mike quickly adds, meaning no Satanists. It's true that other orders of Freemasonry, like the Grand Orient in France, will admit atheists. But UGLE has been steadfast in refusing to imitate the French. "It adds a degree of credibility to promising to be good basically," says Mike. "The overall obligations we have, which are purely and simply about being a good person and upholding our values. So that's why the Supreme Being is important to us."
While they might not be a religion, allegorical plays and symbolism are key to how the Masons operate. The Grand Lodge is filled with evidence of that mysticism. The main room is decorated by a fantastic checked carpet, ceiling murals, and a mindboggling golden organ. There are also several majestic thrones. During ceremonies, Mike explains, the Worshipful Master sits in the east where the sun rises and the Senior Warden in the west, where it sets. Like so many Masonic rituals, it symbolises the progress of man from darkness to enlightenment.
Thrones turn out to be a theme in the Grand Lodge, with three enormous specimens in the Grand Officer's Robing Room. The walls are decorated with portraits of Royal family members who were Grand Masters before being crowned. The reason the thrones are so large, explains Mike, "is that Prince Regent, who became George IV, was quite a big chap. Somewhere in the region approaching 30 stone I believe, so he needed a big chair." Stools are provided during investiture to keep the royal feet from dangling.
What about the famous Masonic handshake, I ask him. Is it real? "Yeah," he says. "They're nothing really odd... All they are is a form of qualification for you to pass from one stage to the next. So after your initiation you're given another token of recognition or handshake, which allows you to pass into the next level... And really it's rather boring." Talking to the press officer, it's clear that part of their strategy is downplaying anything too weird.
More contentious than the handshake is the issue of female Freemasons. The male-only sentiment is built into their rituals, with Masons bearing their breast to prove their masculinity. In England there are women's lodges which are recognised by UGLE as "regular" in everything but gender. "Regular," Mike explains, "is a word that means that they do things the way that we would expect." UGLE doesn't acknowledge the small number of mixed lodges. It's "a heritage thing" Mike says, and not one that their members are eager to change.
In that respect, the Masons resemble so many other old boys' clubs that are being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. But that reluctance to change is becoming a demographic problem for the Masons. The overwhelming number of Freemasons are, unsurprisingly, men. They're also ageing quickly. Right now, there are five times as many members over 80 as there are aged 21-30. The mean age is late-50s. So the Masons are reaching out to younger men. This has meant going online, being role models in the community, and possibly modernising the more archaic texts.
Part of the problem for the Masons is that their distinctiveness is both a blessing and a curse. They're a deist non-religion marked by a disjointed mixture of conservatism and high theatre. Surely some of the attraction for any potential member is that weirdness. After all, what's the point of joining a secret society that wants to be open, transparent, and normal? But with that comes more of the same reputational hammering the Masons want to avoid. I ask Mike if there's ever the temptation to just open everything up? Almost all of their material, he tells me, is available online anyway. However, for UGLE's members, looking would spoil the surprise. Right now they're trying "to demystify it but without removing the element of fascination – that's the difficult thing." If the Masons want to celebrate their fourth centenary, they'll need to square that difficult circle.
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