Fewer on the square
Feb 28th 2002
From The Economist print edition
British freemasonry used to be feared for its power. Now it fears for its life
FOR centuries, a new freemason swore not to reveal the society's secrets on pain of having his throat cut and his tongue torn out and buried in the sand at low water. Now British freemasonry is launching a public-relations campaign to try to prove that it has nothing to hide.
Freemasons are worried. About 10,000 men in England and Wales become masons each year, but with an average age of nearly 60 among the nation's 475,000 freemasons, the brotherhood is in decline.
Although some freemasons claim that the society goes back as far as ancient Egypt, a more conventional view dates its origins to medieval cathedral-builders who carved in soft “freestone”. Known by outsiders for its peculiar clothes and handshakes, the brotherhood also has a coherent, egalitarian, set of beliefs. Men are required to believe in a “supreme being” of any creed, and to treat each other as equals, irrespective of race or class.
Around the world, freemasonry has been seen as a subversive cult, and has aroused the suspicion of rulers. Many of the men who supported the revolutions in France and America were freemasons, and the group became linked with rebellion. But in Britain, freemasons have worked hard to stay on the right side of authority, enlisting members of the aristocracy and royal family as protectors.
Arguably, they have been too successful at cultivating links with power. Since a bestselling book published in 1983 argued that freemasons exert a malign influence in public life, people have tried to force freemasons to declare themselves. So far, they have failed. In 1999, a parliamentary inquiry concluded that it could not prove that masons exert improper influence on public life.
The criminal justice system and some local councils ask that new recruits say if they are freemasons, but the drive to force those already in public life to reveal themselves has lost momentum—probably because the society has too. Chris Mullin, the Labour MP who led the parliamentary inquiry, believes that these days being a freemason is becoming a hindrance in public life rather than a help. One sign of the times is that the lodge of medical freemasons that met for years at London's St Thomas's Hospital has recently been told to convene elsewhere.
Hence the public-relations campaign. United Grand Lodge, the main governing body, has already ditched some of its more controversial rituals, to the dismay of many brethren. Now it has hired a public relations firm. In April a magazine called Masonic Quarterly will be launched, and in June freemasons will jog through London for charity, wearing T-shirts emblazoned “I am a freemason.” United Grand Lodge wants to draw attention to freemasons' donations to non-masonic charities.
United Grand Lodge will find it difficult to reverse the fall in membership. The average initiate is in his late 40s, according to John Hamill, the lodge's head of communications, and, as recruitment falls and old members die off, the number of freemasons in Britain is shrinking. Young people work longer hours and modern women, it seems, resent their partners spending their evenings at men-only clubs. The PR campaign may, of course, succeed in making the whole thing sound less spooky; but if the air of conspiracy surrounding freemasonry dissipates, the society may find it has lost its main attraction.