A secret society? No, we’re freemasons because we enjoy friendships and fun

Nigel Brown, Secretary of the Freemasons in England and Wales.
Nigel Brown, Secretary of the Freemasons in England and Wales.
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For centuries freemasonry has been known as a ‘secret society’ but we’ve got them all wrong, Grand Secretary Nigel Brown tells Sheena Hastings.

WHEN you read or hear the world “freemason” what comes to mind?

The popular perception is of a private and secretive all-male club which observes ancient and arcane rituals and deals in strange handshakes and passwords. Another common belief is that masons favour each other in business dealings. The comic portrayal of a mason shows him wearing an apron, blindfolded and reciting gibberish with one trouser leg rolled up.

Nigel Brown has to laugh along a little as this stereotype is trotted out yet again. It’s surely not surprising if the rest of us, albeit out of ignorance, see freemasons as somewhat bonkers at best and uncomfortably mysterious at worst.

Nigel, who is grand secretary of the United Grand Lodge of England (second only to the Duke of Kent in importance and presiding over 250,000 members in England and Wales and 34 around the world), cheerfully admits that if the masons have a public perception problem (and they do) then they have only themselves to blame.

“Before the Second World War, we were a highly respected organisation known for our good work in the community. But Hitler was very much against freemasons, as he was against Jews, and we believe that upwards of 200,000 masons were put in the gas chambers. His problem was fear of the unknown, I think, as with any group of people he could not completely dominate.

“As a defensive mechanism, members tended to go under the parapet. When people came back from the war they found that the shared experience of fighting and suffering was something they could only really discuss properly with each other. They formed new masonic lodges and became inward-looking, not talking about freemasonry to the outside world.”

So, according to Nigel (he is addressed as “Grand Secretary” by his 200 staff at the UGLE’s magnificent art deco HQ in Covent Garden), the aura of secrecy grew up in the last half-century. But what about the nudging, winking, handshaking stuff that allegedly helps one mason to recognise another?

“No, no handshakes or winks.” What about the interesting check tie – is there a code embedded in it? Or is that distinctive red and green striped watch strap a sign to others of the fraternity? “No, it’s an ordinary tie, the ring is a family ring and this is my regimental watch strap,” says the affable Nigel, who was born in South Africa and later went to Sandhurst and retired as a captain in the Grenadier Guards before going into business consultancy.

“I have no way of walking into a room and knowing who is a freemason. As for the stories that we feel obligation to each other or do one another favours, that is absolutely forbidden. If another member was ill I would do everything I could to help, but I could not favour them in any way in business.” After decades of going about its work in a cloud of mystery, Nigel Brown and the other big cheeses in the freemasons have decided – with the support of most of the membership, barring a few older brethren – that it’s time for openness and transparency.

Unlike his predecessor who never gave a media interview, Brown – Grand Secretary since 2007 – is throwing himself with great gusto and enthusiasm into this exercise. The masons have for centuries done good works and given many millions to charity but always anonymously.

They are, he says, the second biggest charitable donors in the country after the Lottery, and last year alone gave £30m from member subscriptions to natural disasters funds, as well as local donations given by individual lodges, whose memberships varies between 25 and 35, meeting a few times a year. With so many clubs and charities out there, what made him join the freemasons?

“A friend suggested it and proposed me. He said I’d enjoy great company and good dinners. Of course, you quickly find that there’s a lot more to it than that. I’d call it a hobby, and the greatest thing about is it the camaraderie and that it’s about looking outside yourself.”

As he puts it, masons tend to be the kind who get involved in the community in other ways, but its membership embraces no one type of person. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker? All social backgrounds, faiths and political persuasions? Yes, any “person of integrity,” he says. “So many myths have been allowed to perpetuate that they have become reality in so many minds. We don’t mind people joking about certain things but basing decisions about us on misinformation, particularly in the public sector, is discriminatory.

“There were job application forms with the question: ‘Are you a member of a secret society eg the freemasons’ and that was plain wrong. Firstly, we are not a secret society and secondly, just picking on freemasons is discriminatory. The European Court of Human Rights has now changed that.”

It may not be a secret society, but there is a lot about the freemasons the rest of us don’t know or understand – in the same way as we perhaps don’t understand the finer points and traditions of any centuries-old organisation we’re not part of.

Nigel does seem to want to preserve some of the mystery while at the same time reassuring us that masonic practices and beliefs are nothing to frighten the horses. Members must be honest, fair-minded individuals with no police record. Once accepted into a lodge, they become an entered apprentice and then over time move up the ranks to become a master mason then through the offices to Grand Master.

At each stage the “test” of their progress is learning and performance of a role in a one-act play, scripted in 18th-century language and couched in terms of a parable full of symbolism, which the member needs to interpret and use to understand themselves and freemasonry better.

The famous rolled-up trouser leg features very briefly in one of these plays, as a demonstration that the apprentice is physically strong enough to carry out his “work”.

Maybe it’s time to join the 21st century and dispense with the play-acting? “No, no,” exclaims Nigel. “The members would be very upset if we got rid of it. It’s good harmless fun.” Nor, despite the current drive for better public understanding, is freemasonry ready to have mixed-sex lodges. “There are two female orders, and we accept each other but don’t want to mix. It would change the whole dynamic, and I think wives and partners would be less keen.”

One major rule of freemasonry is that neither religion nor politics should be discussed. Although there is a spiritual dimension, a general deference to “the great architect of the universe” and an insistence that members do hold some faith (thereby being more like to be “men of integrity”) it is no threat to religion, says Nigel.

But over the centuries it has been viewed with suspicion, particularly by the Catholic church, which used to ban freemasonry. Nigel says the UGLE has a “reasonable relationship” with Catholicism today, and many members are Catholics. Each priest is allowed to take his own stance on whether parishioners may be members, though.

“A key thing to us is to dispel the myth that we are a religion in any shape or form. What we are is a source of friendship, cohesion and structure. In this diverse society we are a force for good.”