How Open Should a Freemason Be?
W. Bro. D. E. A. Jones, CBE, DL, LLB, PSGD
1. SECRECY AS A BASIS FOR CRITICISM
"The secrecy that surrounds Freemasonry has traditionally been its greatest strength. Today it has become its own worst enemy". These are the introductory sentences on the dust cover of Stephen Knight's book, "The Brotherhood". Few, if any, Freemasons would regard Knight's work as a fair and accurate portrayal of their organisation's nature and activities. Most would nonetheless agree that the allegation in the second sentence is worth of close scrutiny, especially in the light of comments by other non-Masonic individuals and organisations in recent years. A spokesman for the United Reform Church, in a radio discussion following a relatively tolerant report on Freemasonry, stated: "...and the only judgemental thing, I think, in the report is to say that there is really too much secrecy about Freemasonry for it to fit easily into the Church picture". Other reports, more deprecatory in tone, which were presented to the General Synod of the Church of England and to the Methodist Conference respectively contained censorious references to the existence and extent of secrecy in Masonic affairs.
Freemasonry's most hostile critics undoubtedly regard the 'secrecy' factor as the most potent weapon in their otherwise rather scanty armoury. Less antagonistic individuals have frequently voiced their distaste at what they deem to be an excessive emphasis on secrecy; some of them have rejected Masonic membership for that reason. Typical expressions are: "We had believed that the Masons were a secret organisation whose sole aim was for the betterment of its own members" and: "I concluded that you were a secret society and that is why I never joined".
Those who express their abhorrence of the 'secrecy' factor invariably use the expression 'secrecy' in a highly pejorative sense in so far as Freemasonry is concerned.
To them, its existence suggests that freemasons are engaged in unworthy activities or are committed firmly to principles which are in some way nefarious, and which they dare not confess. In other words, they see Freemasonry as conspiratorial in character, and it should therefore be impugned. They would view it as Shakespeare viewed those who conspired to murder Caesar:
"Oh Conspiracy! Shamist thou to show
thy dangerous brow by night,
when evils are most free?
O then by day where wilt thou find a cavern
dark enough to mask thy monstrous visage?
Seek none, Conspiracy; hide it in smiles
2. THE ORIGINS OF MASONIC SECRECY
In considering the subject of secrecy in the Masonic tradition, it is pertinent to recall that secrecy has frequently been the sine quo non for the continued existence of numerous groups and organisations, Masonic and otherwise, the purposes and principles of which could in no sense be described as malevolent or contrary to the common good. This was the key to survival in societies where oppression and persecution prevailed. Papal bugs in the 18th Century, the threat of excommunication, and the interdiction of Masonic assemblies in many European Countries, on penalty of death in some instances, caused lodges to conceal their existence and masons their Masonic identity. In more recent times, it will be remembered that Freemasonry was reviled in Nazi Germany and Freemasons were persecuted. Small wonder, then, that in those circumstances the rules of secrecy were regarded as a practical necessity rather than as the product of an ancient tradition.
That tradition is, of course, a long-standing one. Robert Macoy, the 19th Century Compiler of a "Cyclopedia and Dictionary of Freemasonry" in America, implied that Freemasonry was a secret society, relating it to "all the great associations of antiquity the objects of which were to civilize and improve the condition of mankind". Macoy dismissed criticism of the "secrecy" element rather briefly and petulantly in the following words: "The objection often urged against the Order on account of this peculiar feature is too puerile to be considered". Other writers, of a more esoteric disposition, regarded secrecy or mystery as inherent to Masonry, e.g. the American writer Joseph Fort Newton who, in propounding the theory of the Secret Doctrine, referred to it as "a hidden teaching understood only by those fit to receive it". Yet, Newton concluded, there was no mystery in Masonry, save the mystery of all great and simple things. Most Freemasons would agree that the 'secret' or 'mystery' is in this sense not readily definable.
A less pedantic and probably more realistic explanation of the origins of Masonic secrecy lies in the fact that Freemasonry is an extension of the stonemason's Guilds in the Middle Ages. As these were closed societies of operative masons which jealously guarded their trade secrets they established set ceremonies for the admission of apprentices and a system of signs and passwords for the purpose of identifying as operative masons those travelling workmen who belonged to other lodges.
3. THE FORMAL REQUIREMENTS OF FREEMASONRY IN RELATION TO SECRECY
These are surprisingly few in number. They consist of.
- The Antient Charges which, in relation to "Behaviour in the presence of Strangers not Masons" command caution in a mason's words and carriage, that the most penetrating stranger shall not be able to discuss or find out what is not proper to be intimated and, in relation to "Behaviour towards a Strange Brother," masons are told "to examine him........ that you may not be imposed upon by an ignorant, false, pretender whom you are to reject with contempt and derision and beware of giving him any hints of Knowledge."
Insofar as "Behaviour at home and in your neighbourhood" is concerned, Freemasons are enjoined "to act as becomes a moral and wise man; particularly not to let your family, friends and neighbours know the concerns of the lodge, etc., but wisely to consult your own honour, and that of your ancient brotherhood, for reasons not to be mentioned here".
- The Masonic Obligations. These, in the three Craft degrees refer to the "secrets or mysteries" which are never to be revealed. Our ritual comes closest to defining these in the Charge after Initiation, namely that secrecy consists in an inviolable adherence to the Obligation —never improperly to disclose any of the Masonic secrets entrusted to the Candidate. Those secrets are, by strong inference, the appropriate signs, steps, grips and words disclosed to the Candidate in the course of the ceremonies.
4. RECENT AFFIRMATIONS AND GUIDELINES
The United Grand Lodge has stated unequivocally that Freemasonry is not a secret society. It had been argued long ago that only in a very unimportant sense of the word could the Craft be called a secret society.
Anybody could belong to it, if he had the requisite qualities. There were checks on indiscriminate admission, but in that sense many London clubs could be called secret associations, since their doors were more jealously guarded than those of a Freemason's lodge!
Nevertheless, like countless other Societies it is entitled to regard itself as a private, as opposed to a secret, organisation. As such, it should not be expected to disclose all its affairs, its discussions, or its internal procedures to anyone who might demand them. Its constitution and rules are in any event available to members of the public, as are numerous explanatory pamphlets relating to its nature and principles.
Another guideline, perhaps more relevant to the subject of this paper, is the United Grand Lodge's declaration that on inquiry for acceptable reasons, Freemasons are free and will be proud to acknowledge their own membership.
5. SECRECY OR OPENNESS — ATTITUDES REVIEWED
Many Freemasons, despite the well-publicised policies of the United Grand Lodge relating to secrecy and privacy, remain doubtful as to the extent to which they, as individuals, should discuss Freemasonry with "outsiders". Some, nurtured for many years in a Masonic environment in which they regarded absolute secrecy as the norm, will be reluctant to utter a word about Freemasonry outside their immediate family circle. To them, the smallest breach in the dams of secrecy and privacy would seem regressive and unwarranted. Others, anxious to avoid being furtive, and aware that a deceitful attitude on the part of the individual Masons may contribute to public disdain of Freemasonry in general, might prefer a greater degree of frankness than the expressed policies of the United Grand Lodge appear to allow.
Clearly, those aspects of secrecy which are an integral part of Freemasonry must be preserved and protected. Nevertheless, an excessive aura of secrecy going beyond that which the Masonic charges and traditions require, and which may well brand Freemasons as evasive or shifty, especially in relation to their membership of the Craft, should be discouraged. Freemasonry does not —and need not —court popularity; at the same time it cannot afford to allow its public image to be tarnished by unnecessary impedimenta.
What guidelines would be appropriate in this respect? The following suggestions are put forward for discussion. They do not transgress the fundamental requirements of the Antient Charges and the Masonic Obligations, and whilst they go a little way beyond the avowed policies of the United Grand Lodge, they are not significantly inconsistent with them.
- Freemasons, as a general rule, should be prepared to acknowledge, with pride, their membership of the Craft. The United Grand Lodge allows them to do so "on inquiry for acceptable (or respectable) reasons." This suggests that a Freemason may not, in ordinary conversation, volunteer to a friend that he is a mason. Might not this policy be described as "ultra-cautious"? That policy suggests further that if asked the simple question "Are you a mason?", a Freemason's retort should be "Why do you ask?", and before replying in the affirmative he should judge the adequacy of the reason for the enquiry. Should he regard the reason as inadequate or unacceptable, his choice is to say "no" (a lie) or to refrain from answering, which is tantamount to admitting (rather than claiming with pride!) membership of the Craft. Should not the United Grand Lodge review, or at least re-word, its policy in this respect? It is open to doubt whether the majority of freemasons, in divulging membership, have acted within the strict terms of that policy. Truth, after all is one of the Grand Principles on which the Order is founded!
- Freemasons should always disclose their membership of the Craft in circumstances where non-disclosure would be contrary to a legal requirement or to accepted standards of conduct in public bodies. e.g. a Councillor who is a Freemason should always declare his interest and refrain from discussion or voting on any issue involving a Masonic interest, such as a planning consent for the development of a Masonic building. He should do so whenever a Masonic interest is likely to benefit or be detrimentally affected. Police officers, too, should ask themselves if they should not disclose their Masonic membership whenever they are required to investigate matters involving fellow-masons.
- Freemasons should never divulge their Masonic membership —even to one who is believed to be a fellow-mason —for purposes of personal profit or personal advancement, or in the case of a criminal investigation, for the purpose of securing unwarranted assistance from an officer conducting the investigation.
- Freemasons may engage in discussions about the general nature of Freemasonry, its aims, and its principles. Indeed, a readiness to promote its aims and principles in serious conversation with responsible individuals should be commended. As the United Grand Lodge has put it, in ordinary conversation there is very little in Freemasonry which may not be discussed.
- Clearly, those secrets which are covered in the Masonic Obligations must never be divulged or referred to. Non-masons who may be curious about certain other matters, such as the nature or content of the Masonic ceremonies should not have their curiosity satisfied. These, and indeed all proceedings within lodges, are matters to be shared and enjoyed by Freemasons alone: their revelation to nonmasons would undoubtedly detract from their value. They, together with the secrets covered by the Obligations, comprise much of "what is not proper to be intimated". (Antient Charges).
There are other actions and attitudes which Freemasons can take or adopt to render Freemasonry more open and therefore more natural and acceptable in the eyes of the public. Opening Masonic buildings to public view, the use of Masonic dining facilities by the public on a commercial basis, and the removal of some of the less desirable features of many Masonic buildings such as bricked-up windows, excessive anonymity in appearance, and general drabness are all matters which go hand in hand with Masonic openness: they are more appropriate, however, for discussion in another subsidiary paper.