Think of the Freemasons, and the first thing that springs to mind for most people is either a secret society with funny handshakes, or tales of global conspiracies, or an old-boys network that only looks out for its own. But members of the modern Freemasons are out to shed that old image, claiming that they want to be more open and show the world what they’re really about. They say they want to get back to the organisation’s roots, and that the wild claims have mostly come about in the past 100 years.
Mike Wilks is the provincial grand master – the most senior mason – for the Provincial Grand Lodge for Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Speaking to The News at the Fareham Masonic Hall in Queen’s Road, Fareham, he says: ‘We are trying to dispel those myths. ‘I’m quite open about Freemasonry and what we do and why we do it. ‘You can buy the books about all our rules and regulations, you can even find out about our rituals and read about what we do. The only thing you can’t do is experience them unless you’re a member. ‘If someone says they don’t want people to know they’re a Freemason, I would rather they weren’t a Freemason.’
The province has about 11,000 members, and there are some 250,000 members across the UK in 8,000 lodges. Worldwide, there are six million members. But contrary to popular belief, joining is not only by invitation – anyone can apply as long as they meet certain criteria. And set religious beliefs are not required, apart from the belief in a supreme being, but this is open to interpretation to allow all faiths. Mr Wilks says: ‘We need to be careful about who we bring in and anybody who wants to join needs to be proposed and seconded. ‘We have had to tighten up our procedures a little, but that’s because so many people come to us through the internet these days. ‘We interview them and we tend to interview them at home with their wives or partners present, because it’s important that they support them and understand what they are joining.’
Members can proceed through the ranks of the organisation, with three main levels, or degrees: the entered apprentice, fellow craft and master mason. Each degree has its own rituals and associated items, some of which are pictured, which are heavy with symbolism. For example, when a new candidate is brought into the chamber for the first time they are brought in blindfolded. ‘This is because they come in in a state of ignorance, and then when the blindfold is removed they are enlightened,’ Mr Wilks explains.
There are also the rough and smooth ashlars. These stones are symbolic of progress – the rough ashlar is a stone straight from the quarry representing the new mason before their initiation. The smooth ashlar represents the Freemason who has learned the lessons of the organisation and who lives an upstanding life. However, one sticking point for critics of Freemasonry is that it remains for men only. ‘It is a men-only organisation,’ says Mr Wilks, ‘but we are inclusive in terms of our family and they are involved in our social activities. ‘The ladies are very much included, but not as direct members.’
Historically, the organisation’s need for secrecy came in no small part in reaction to the Nazi regime – up to 200,000 masons were persecuted and killed in the Second World War. ‘Our members at the time, they went underground, they stayed members, but they kept quiet about it,’ adds Mr Wilks. ‘By the end of the Second World War, we had been secret for more than a decade. ‘The new members were then secretive because that was how we had become. ‘But people shouldn’t be concerned, there’s nothing sinister about us.
‘The grand master, the Duke of Kent, took over in 1967 and his view was that we have to move away from this whole secrecy bit. ‘We have always been a force for good and nothing’s changed. ‘The first grand lodge was formed in 1717. It started out as an organisation to improve the moral standards of the blokes who joined it. ‘There was a period of moral decline in those days and a number of men decided to get together and develop a proper organisation with a structure and rules and regulations. ‘Up until the 1930s, we were very much part of the community and generally recognised as a positive organisation.’
The Freemasons have been accused of being involved in numerous conspiracies over the years. Some of the more colourful have seen them accused of secretly controlling governments, and in various versions, being in league with the Illuminati or the Jews, to bring about a New World Order. There have also been claims that higher-level masons deliberately deceive their lower-degree brethren, and the real truth – of an occult-based faith, is only revealed as they advance. And they have been implicated in high-profile crimes and attacks, from the Jack the Ripper case to the assassination of John F Kennedy and the 9/11 attacks. They even faked the moon landings in 1969 – according to some.
ONE of the best-known stories about Freemasons is the secret handshake, supposedly used to indicate to fellow members that you too are part of the society. But Mike Wilks says it originates back to the times when not everyone could read or write and it was a means of identifying your position in the masons, and they like to refer to it as a ‘grip’ rather than a handshake. However, now he says it is only used for ceremonial purposes: ‘It’s not to be used outside our ceremonies or outside the lodge. It’s not only something that’s frowned upon, it’s a disciplinary offence.‘If I was interviewing someone for a position and they revealed to me they were a Freemason in that way, they would go straight to the bottom of the list.’
A bit of TLC
INITIALLY started by Freemasons in Essex in 2000, Teddies for Loving Care (TLC) was established in Hampshire in 2005 as a Freemasonry in the Community initiative. It aims to provide teddy bears, mainly to hospital A&E units, including at Queen Alexandra Hospital in Cosham, for staff to give to children admitted who are in severe distress. Each teddy carries a tag saying ‘Donated by local Freemasons’ and every child who receives one is allowed to take it home. The charity receives funds that have been donated by local Freemasons. As well as providing dozens of teddy bears to nine hospital A&E departments, the TLC operation has been extended to include the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Air Ambulance Service, St John Ambulance and several women’s refuges, and also across into Surrey.
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