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Freemasonry: Time to shed the stigma

PUBLISHED: 19:00 10 September 2015

King Alfred lodge presented a cheque for £500 to The Weston Bipolar Self Help Group at an open day held at the Masonic Hall on  Saturday

King Alfred lodge presented a cheque for £500 to The Weston Bipolar Self Help Group at an open day held at the Masonic Hall on Saturday

Archant

Freemasonry is a concept that has fascinated outsiders and conspiracy theorists all over the world since its beginnings in the 15th century.

Ron and Beryl Smith were collecting for Children's Hospice South WestRon and Beryl Smith were collecting for Children's Hospice South West

Its traditions stem from King Soloman’s building of the first temple in Jerusalem, which led to the formation of a community of ‘freestone’ masons to deliver the project.

Their profession held many trade secrets that less gifted stoneworkers wanted to learn, so they protected them by creating handshakes, signals and codes to identify each other.

The head of the project was an architect called Hiram Abiff, who was killed by three masons after refusing to divulge to them the secrets of the temple.

Abiff was thus considered to be the first ‘master mason’ because he died to protect the secrets of his craft.

Maria Benton manning the Weston Hospicecare stallMaria Benton manning the Weston Hospicecare stall

Today, there are around 250,000 members in England and Wales, who form 6,750 lodges, the masonic term for groups.

The organisation is becoming increasingly keen to dispel a somewhat sinister aura of secrecy that still springs to many minds upon the mention of Freemasonry.

This became apparent when I met with two lodge members, John Cole and Garry Hawkes, who were keen to tell me how much things have changed.

John said: “The reason for all the secrecy stems from before World War Two, when there were fears that Hitler, who hated and killed freemasons, would invade this country, so we had to go underground.

“It’s taken us this long to become so open again. Before the war we would parade through the streets, but there was a good reason for all the secrecy, to protect lives should the worst happen.”

The notion that there are still any secrets is laughed off quickly.

Garry says: “How the hell can the largest men’s organisation in the world keep its contents secret in the age of the internet? It’s all on Google should you want to find it.

“We just don’t talk about it with those who aren’t members. If you knew it all before joining, it would not be as special should you want to progress. It’s become mystery rather than secrecy.

“If you knocked on the door and said ‘masonry is crooked and should be condemned’, we would more than likely ask you to come in and have a look round, and learn a bit about us.”

They both admit that it can be frustrating that a negative reputation still engulfs freemasonry’s strong charitable ethos.

John says: “Lodges in Somerset gave upwards of £400,000 to more than 450 charities between 2008 and 2012. Members donate their own money to their lodge’s pot, which is then distributed at its committee meeting, with many also contributing to a national masonic fund by direct debit.

“On September 12, 2001, the masons sent a cheque to the lodge in New York and said ‘use it as you think fit’. We always act fast after a national or world disaster.

“The Teddies Loving Care (TLC) appeal provides teddy bears to children in A&E who are in severe pain and distress. Ninety per cent of its funding is provided by freemasonry and none of it is spent on administration. That doesn’t sound very sinister to me.”

I am taken aback by at this point by my uninformed pre-conceptions that all there is to masonry is ceremony, feasting and drinking.

In light of what I have learned, it is difficult to begrudge them their monthly get together when it seems like such a small part of what they do.

The passion from the pair when they tell me about charity has left both on the verge of hoarse, and we wind down.

Something Garry says before we depart echoes loudly as I stroll back to the office: “Any code, if there is one, is purely about being a good citizen and the way you live. All we want to do is make the world a bit better and be good people. It’s about time perceptions and assumptions to the contrary changed.”

I headed to the open day on Saturday to look around the now less daunting Masonic Hall, tucked away in Tivoli Lane.

Seven lodges meet at the hall, namely St Kew, King Alfred, Wessex, Birnbeck, Athelston, Tivoli and The Somerset Provincial Grand Stewards.

I talk to onlookers and the charity fundraisers present, many of whom admit to undergoing a similar change in perception as myself.

I am shown around by Bill Wilson, a member of lodge. He said: “My wife is a counsellor and has come to the conclusion that members go through a similar transformation to therapy.

“It grows you as a person in so many ways. I have seen men join who have grown into greater, more confident people from participating in lodge life.

“You learn to nurture your friendships and support each other and society as a whole. That’s all it’s about, really.”

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