Handshakes and trouser legs – secrets of the Freemasons
As a report says the Freemasons are still relevant, its Grand Secretary reveals all about the group's eccentric traditions.
Damn it! You are given a rare opportunity to greet one of England's most senior Freemasons and, in your eagerness to ingratiate yourself, you forget to clock the handshake. Was there a subtle application of pressure on the index knuckle? Or something in the grip, perhaps?
Nigel Brown, Grand Secretary of the United Grand Lodge of England, smiles indulgently. "We can do it once more, if you like."
Again, nothing. But that can't be right, can it?
"Number one, there is no Masonic handshake," he says. "I'm afraid my handshake is a perfectly normal one. Sorry to disappoint you. It is one of the great myths."
There are no handshakes?
"There are no handshakes."
Really, really, really?
"Really, really, really."
Mr Brown has taken an oath not to disclose the signs used by Freemasons to recognise each other, so maybe he has to say this. But he sticks to his answer when pressed.
"The worry of this myth is that if I extend a handshake and the other person returns it, we would immediately be doing business to the detriment of someone else."
The Grand Secretary is here, in his office in the Freemasons' Hall in London, to discuss a report called The Future of Freemasonry, commissioned by his organisation. Prepared by a think-tank, the Social Issues Research Centre, it seeks to place the Craft in a modern context, shedding light on an organisation regarded by many as a secret society populated by the rich and powerful, and liable to you-scratch-my-back corruption. Or worse.
"None of the researchers were Masons," says Mr Brown. "Our aim was to show that we are relevant and transparent. Secrecy is one of the greatest myths, and our aim is to get rid of myths. I'm here to tell you that there are no secrets – that is probably the greatest secret."
This attack of Masonic glasnost comes as the Craft looks forward to its 300th birthday. It was in 1717 that, according to Mr Brown, a group of like-minded men got together in a coffee house and devised a non-sectarian, socially egalitarian forum in which men of integrity could fraternise, while avoiding the vexed issues of religion and politics. They took as their guiding metaphor the trade of stonemasonry, hence the symbols of Freemasonry – the square, compass and apron – and its three degrees of evolution, Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason.
The report is a rather woolly thing, drawing on interviews with Freemasons and others. Its main points are that there is a longing in men to belong, to bond with other men, to help others (Masons donate £30 million a year to charity) and to take part in ritual.
"We all take part in ritual in some form or another," says Mr Brown. "The ritual in our case is a series of one-act plays. You have to be a thespian to some degree, to learn your lines. Members enjoy it because it is a rare opportunity for public speaking. As people go up the ladder, there is a bigger role to learn."
To be a Freemason you have to be male (although women have established their own lodges), aged 21 and a believer in a "supreme being". So you can be a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim but not an atheist. One can apply but for most recruits it is the tap on the shoulder. The one-act plays, to use Mr Brown's description, are staged during initiation and progression to a higher degree.
"They are allegorical plays," explains Mr Brown. "You come into life with absolutely nothing, and that is what the initiation is about. The second play is about living a good life and the third is about preparing for the end of your life."
So why is a noose placed around the neck of the applicant?
"Yes, there is a noose, but it is depicting the umbilical cord, so when you are born the umbilical cord is cut. The initiate doesn't have to do anything at all. It's done beautifully. There are no surprises for the chap coming in, no tests. The beauty is that you feel you belong."
So why not allow the filming of an initiation?
"Out of context it would seem silly and would spoil it for people coming in. Like everything, there should be a bit of mystery, because it adds to the enjoyment. But you have my assurance: it is a beautiful ceremony and everyone feels comfortable."
Mr Brown attended school in southern Africa before taking a commission in the Grenadier Guards. Prior to taking up the role of full-time secretary of the United Grand Lodge of England – UGLE for short – he ran his own consultancy. He became a Mason in 1985 on the recommendation of a friend.
UGLE has 250,000 members around the world. The Grand Lodges of Scotland and Ireland administer some 150,000 members. There may be as many as six million globally – two million in the United States. Five British kings, including Edward VIII and George VI, have been "on the square", as were Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle. The Duke of Kent is the current Grand Master of UGLE, and his brother, Prince Michael of Kent, is a Mason. Yet, despite royal patronage, and the presence of Freemasons in the judiciary and the higher reaches of the City (there is a Bank of England Lodge) they deny being an underground arm of the Establishment.
"There have been masses of books written, the vast majority are complete rubbish," says Mr Brown. "The modern problem is the internet and conspiracy websites."
You find it all there: the Illuminati, Bilderberg, the all-seeing eye on the American one-dollar bill. Bill Clinton is supposed to be a 33rd-degree Mason, there being, according to conspiracists, a stair of secret degrees ascended only by the elite.
"Dan Brown mentions some super degree or something in his book but there is absolutely no truth in it at all," says Mr Brown. "There's nothing not known to the rank and file but if someone is very interested in Freemasonry, they can develop their knowledge."
"They can perfect their ritual."
Whatever that means. Mind you, they let Jim Davidson in, which suggests an eclectic membership, professionally if not politically. What about policeman? There are supposed to be loads of them in the Masons.
"We don't have a lot of policemen, actually," says Mr Brown. "This talk that you can hush up a crime or something is absolutely not the case. Any criminal record and you would be out straight away."
Driving without due care and attention?
"It's at that level that we would start asking if you should stay on."
"That might thin our ranks a bit."
What about one's private life?
"In my humble opinion it links to integrity. Infidelity would definitely be frowned upon but each case must be considered on its merits."
"Fine. The key thing is to get men of quality coming in. One rotten apple can spread to the whole basket."
When government departments and councils issued forms asking job applicants if they belonged to secret societies, specifically Freemasonry, UGLE fought successfully to have the wording changed on grounds of discrimination. But why the culture of secrecy?
"In the 1930s Freemasonry was relatively open but then as many as 200,000 Masons were put in the gas chambers by Hitler because he feared they were a secret power base.
"When the Germans invaded the Channel Islands, the Freemasons' Hall was ransacked and members deported to camps. So people in Britain, fearing invasion, went underground."
Mr Brown sees religious belief as an indicator of integrity, of community-mindedness. The churches, though, do not return the compliment. The Roman Catholic Church still regards Freemasonry as a "grave sin" and the Church of England considers aspects to be "incompatible" with Christianity. Mr Brown denies absolutely that the Craft is a secret religion.
But there is something quasi-religious about Freemasonry. One only has to stand in the temple inside the wonderful, Art Deco Freemasons' Hall to feel its force. The symbolism is all around, silent and somehow intimidating. Above all, there is that all-seeing eye on the ceiling, beaming down on the white-gloved, aproned brethren.
One last chance to ask about arcane ritual. The rolled-up trouser leg. Now that has to be a joke, surely?
"During the initiation ceremony, for a moment, a very short time – and it only happens once in a person's life – a trouser leg is rolled up," admits Mr Brown.
What a relief! The Freemasons are dotty after all. The Great Architect is in his heaven and all's right with the world.
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