There are six million Freemasons around the world.
Famous members include comedian Richard Pryor who is reported to have joined the Henry Brown Lodge in Peoria, Illinois, in 1982.
Other notable Freemasons include Hollywood actor John Wayne while several American Presidents have become prominent members of the organisation.
George Washington was a master Mason and founding father Benjamin Franklin graduated to grand master and edited and published the first book of American Masonry in 1734.
Garry Rogers, a former CID officer with the Greater Manchester Police, alleged that Masons at the top of the force had once tried to protect an officer.
In Britain, the membership also cuts across society and includes kings as well as those from much more humble beginnings.
King Edward VII was a well known Mason as is Jim Davidson today.
A number of British prime ministers have joined the organisation, including George Canning and Winston Churchill. In the world of sport, footballer Jackie Milburn was one and so was boxer ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
It’s easy to laugh at the secret handshake and the surreptitious lifting of the trouser leg.
Ever since Monty Python mercilessly ridiculed the ancient rituals of the worshipers of the United Grand Lodge of England, public opinion has tended to dismiss the Masons as harmless, anachronistic nonsense.
But in the past few weeks, a more sinister impression of the secret movement of “brothers” has begun to emerge.
Then this week another officer went further, claiming that Masonic cliques had blocked investigations against their own and discredited officers who tried to expose them.
Garry Rogers, a former CID officer with the Greater Manchester Police and recipient of the Queen’s Police Medal, alleged that Masons at the top of the force had once tried to protect an officer who was later found guilty of criminal deception.
Rogers said that police who were also Masons had split loyalties between the secretive organisation they belonged to and the public they are supposed to serve.
In Britain today Freemasonry membership reaches into the heart of government.
Critics say that someone reporting a crime has the right to know whether the policeman investigating the case and the person they are complaining about are members of the same lodge.
The society has told i that up to ten MPs and around 200 judges and policemen are paid up Masons. These pillars of the British establishment are joined by hundreds of civil servants and councillors who meet up to eight times a year in ancient buildings across the country.
Then there are the initiation ceremonies. Much has been written about how men are led blindfolded into a gathering of fellow brothers where they take part in rituals so sensitive that members are told to never disclose what happens.
Britain has a long history of secret societies, but for the last three centuries, the Masons have been pre-eminent.
Back at the Masons HQ in London, the recent media onslaught has prompted the biggest PR operation in the society’s 300-year-old history.
Stung by the criticism of what it regards as a “gross misrepresentation” of its values, the society paid for a full-page letter to be published in The Guardian, The Times and The Daily Telegraph.
Masons’ chief executive officer, Dr David Staples, called the attacks on its 200,000 plus members “discrimination. Pure and simple.” Not content with the PR blitz, Staples wrote to the Equality and Human Rights Commission as well as complaining directly to the press regulator, Ipso.
Adding: “As an organisation we welcome individuals from all walks of life, of any faith, age, class or political persuasion. Throughout our 300 year history, when people have suffered discrimination Freemasonry has embraced them into our lodges as equals.”
He says that far from blocking reform in the police or covering up crimes, masons serve the public to best of their ability.
A force for good?
So how should we regard the Masons today?
Are they a benign charity, a force for good that openly works with the communities from where their members are drawn; or are they a secret society holding undemocratic influence over the government and police?
As we have seen, the modern Masons have gone to a lot of effort to dispel the notion that all this secrecy is damaging to society. Yet serious concerns persist; the chief one being that secret membership of the police or the judiciary cannot be good for justice.
If the judge and one of the litigants happen to spend their weekends performing secret rituals together, surely the other litigant has the right to know about it? In 1998 the Labour government brought in laws that made it compulsory for a new judge or a magistrate to declare their Freemasonry membership.
But after threatened legal action from the Masons, the then Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, removed this disclosure requirement.
The decision followed a Government review which found no inappropriate influence by Masons and a European Court of Human Rights ruling which said it was discriminatory for Italian Masons to be asked to declare membership. Yet, suspicions still fester.
So, surely the best way of assuaging these suspicions is to publish a public register of membership.
According to reports, new members taking part in rituals are blindfolded, and a rope is tied twice around his arm or neck. The right trouser leg is rolled up until the knee is exposed and a slipper is placed on the left foot.
David Staples told i: “We do publish a list of all our senior officers in our Masonic Year Book but we consider it a private matter for each member to decide if they want their membership to be public or not. The majority of members are quite happy to publicly declare their membership. However, some don’t want to. Those who prefer to keep their membership to themselves tend to fear the consequences of declaring it publicly.”
He says that all Masons are under a Masonic and moral duty to report any inappropriate behaviour.
Staples considers it “laughable” that people believe there is a cabal of Freemasons “pushing any political agenda.”
He stresses: “We are a non-political and non-religious organisation who draws our membership from those across the political and class spectrums. Politics and religion are not discussed either in our meetings or at dinner afterwards. This is one reason that people with different views and backgrounds are able to meet as equals and enjoy each other’s company.”
‘Glorified gentlemen’s club’
So is the modern lodge little more than a glorified gentlemen’s club (there are women Masons but they have their own organisation)?
Staples insists the Masonic club is much more than a London dining venue: “Gentlemen’s’ clubs tend to be exclusive, have restrictive membership rules and provide a premises where members can meet on a daily basis… we take people of all religions, ages, classes, backgrounds, political views, races and faiths.”
However, a close inspection of the Masons’ charity accounts reveals that more than half of this cash was funnelled into Masonic good causes.
For example, members who have fallen on hard times and can no longer afford to keep their children at private schools can apply to have the fees paid. They can also ask for help for private medical treatment.
Looking after their own
What happens during the initiation ceremony remains one of the Masons most closely guarded secrets. However, a number of former members have spilled the beans.
During the three-stage ceremony, the participant takes part in a series of rituals.
According to reports they are blindfolded, and a rope is tied twice around his arm or neck. The right trouser leg is rolled up until the knee is exposed and a slipper is placed on the left foot.
The person is now considered fully prepared and is taken to the front door of the lodge, where an extensive ritual dialogue begins with three knocks on the door.
In the final stage, the candidate strips to his shirt and trousers. Both knees and arms are exposed and a rope is wound around his body
Masons’ chief executive David Staples says the “ceremony is private because we do not want to spoil it for potential members.”