Grand Lodge marks its 300th anniversary
The Times, 24-9-2016
Although its origins lie deep in the Middle Ages, British Freemasonry as an organised network of egalitarian gentlemen’s clubs, or lodges, takes its foundation from a meeting at the Goose and Gridiron pub near Sir Paul’s Cathedral on June 24th, 1717, when the members of four lodges got together to create a Grand Lodge. Sir Christopher Wren, a member of the St Paul’s Lodge who had effectively been the Masons’ chief organiser, was seen to have “neglected his offices” – he was in his 80s by then – and was passed over as the first Grand Master in favour of Anthony Sayer, a gentleman of which little more is known.
Principally, says Diane Clements, director of the Freemasons’ Museum and Library, their aim seems to have been to arrange a decent feast of which they had felt a lack, but the tenets set then are principally the same today: brotherly love, community charity and moral truth.
To mark the tricentenary the Grand Lodge, a dominating Art Deco temple in London’s Covent Garden, is opening a new gallery that dispenses with some of the myths about Freemasonry and for the first time relates the story of a much misunderstood society.
Since 1717 the Freemasons have been accused of secrecy – Diane Clements prefers the word “privacy” and it is not a secret society, its rules being open to public scrutiny – which has allowed myths to develop and accusations of undue influence in public life. There are no blood sacrifices, Roman Catholic Freemasons cannot be excommunicated, there is absolutely no connection with ancient Egypt or the Knights Templar, and the secrets are about nothing more than modes of recognition. Since 1908 there have been women’s lodges whose first “Most Puissant Grand Commander” was the women’s rights leader Annie Besant.
Many members of the royal family have been members, and the exhibition has the enormous gilded throne made by Robert Kennett in 1791 for the then Prince of Wales when he became Grand Master. Celebrating his own anniversary next year of 50 years as Grand Master is the present Duke of Kent, who will open in the exhibition on September 29.
But there are rituals, from one of which we get the word “hoodwinked” from the practice of placing a bag, or hoodwink, over an initiate’s head during enrollment. The exhibition has photographs of some of them, showing that trouser legs are indeed rolled up by candidates to prove they are flesh and blood, and there are three degrees of membership, admission into the third being the most testing and giving us another common phrase.
In 1723 the first rules were drawn up. The only religious requirement is that Brothers believe in a single god and its roots are in the Old Testament; there are many Jewish and Muslim members; religion and politics are never discussed at lodge meetings where the only recognised ranks are those of the fraternity. The symbolism of recognition that dots the ceremonies and apparel of Masons mostly derives from the tools of the stonemason’s trade, his square, compass and plumbline, and chiefly the mason’s apron, their “jewels”. The prisoners of the Japanese in Changi Jail in the 1940s fashioned jewels from metal taken from a derelict bus; during German occupation Jersey Masons made aprons from paper; at the Siege of Ladysmith in 1899-1900 Brothers fashioned their aprons from linen napkins.
Freemasonry had a prominent place in public life, but it was effectively forced underground by Nazi persecution. Hitler even obtained a list of lodges in the UK for targetting, and the Grand Lodge sent microfilms of its most treasured documents to Canada, Australia and New Zealand for safety in case Britain should be invaded.
But the Freemasons have taken on a much more public charitable role since the 1980s, and far from in decline membership in England, Wales and the Channel Islands (Scotland has its own organisation) now stands at over 200,000 in 6,800 lodges, and 6 million worldwide.
Three Centuries of English Freemasonry opens at the Freemasons’ Hall, 60 Great Queen Street, London WC2B 5AZ on September 29.