We begin The Book of Hiram with a three word paragraph: ‘Freemasonry is dying’.
The world is a rapidly changing place and there is a downward trend in all fraternal organizations in almost every country. But it is in England and Wales where Freemasonry appears to face its biggest challenge to a healthy future.
That challenge does not come from bigoted anti-Masons, nor even the antagonistic left-wing MP’s who have tried hard to prevent Freemasons from enjoying their right of free association. No, it seems to us that the greatest threat to the Order comes from the United Grand Lodge of England itself – the body that has positioned itself as the world’s premier Grand Lodge.
Until relatively recently UGLE was guilty of inaction. It consistently ignored all attacks made upon it by anyone, refusing to even deny the silliest of claims such as: that Freemasonry was founded to make its rich members even richer through a web of structured cheating and corruption or even plotting global domination. Because UGLE did not begin to explain what Freemasons did in their buildings without first floor windows, the public imagination ran riot and membership of the Craft in the second half of the twentieth century become a social embarrassment rather than a matter of pride.
Common sense finally won through and the old policy of zero communication was ended and Freemason's Lodges have become more open - even inviting members of the public into their lodge rooms. We welcome this openness. But we have fundamental concerns about the entire structure of modern Freemasonry and have grave concerns that UGLE is only paying lip-service to the idea of openness.
While launching the Web of Hiram we wrote to all lodge secretaries under the English and Scottish constitutions to inform them about the new website that is being hosted by Bradford University to provide free access to the full text of large amounts of discarded Masonic ritual.
Click here to view the letter.
Some days later we received the following email from UGLE which had been copied to John Hamill, John Vazquez and Andy Critcher. The email read:
We have today received a Royal Mail sack of envelopes addressed to the
Secretaries of various Lodges care of Freemasons' Hall. Not all Lodges
meet here and in any event it is not our policy to forward mail sorts.
The sack will be kept here at the Front Hall under the care of the Front
Hall Duty Officer for you to collect.
Might I suggest that if you wish to advertise you contact our Director of
Communications, VWBro. John Hamill here at Freemasons' Hall with a view to
advertising in our 'MQ Magazine'.
Mrs Karen Haigh
We were not impressed with the invitation to pay them money in order to tell our brothers across the country about a free resource. The letters had been sent through the Royal Mail, addressed to the Lodge secretaries and using the full postal address as given in the Masonic Year Book. We sent a reply email stating in firm terms that we expected our mail to be delivered to the addressees in the normal manner. No further communication has been received from UGLE.
There are many Masonic centres around the county where a large number of individual lodges meet. It is usual to have ‘pigeon holes’ for the mail but on previous occasions we have received letters from Provincial Grand Lodges stating that, on the instructions of UGLE, someone had intercepted our mail and that it was now awaiting our collection or destruction. Other lodges returned our letters saying that they had been "instructed to return them".
We can only conclude that English Freemasonry dislikes incoming communications as much as it does the outgoing variety.
We have met many men who are officers of the UGLE and they generally prove to be very good men indeed. They have been given grandiose titles (usually entirely honorary) but have little or no say in the running of the organisation. None of them have any idea of how they came to be appointed to these grand positions.
Once a Freemason has served as Master of his lodge he is eligible to be chosen to become an officer of his local Provincial Grand Lodge. Such preferment is almost inevitable and it is the speed at which it occurs and the status of the rank that is indicates how well the individual's face fits. Only a very few are ever invited to join the hallowed ranks of the United Grand Lodge of England – and none of them will know why they have suddenly received a ‘tap on the shoulder’. One Grand Lodge officer told us 'It’s a complete mystery to me why I was chosen'.
On the other hand, others will know that they will never be amongst the chosen ones. When our first book came out in 1996 we received many invitations to speak to individual lodges. Suddenly, several of them were cancelled without explanation. Then several Worshipful Masters told us that they had been told that it was in their best interests to cancel our talk, as failure to do so would result in their ‘Masonic career’ being very limited. The ones that told us were men, strong enough to ignore such blackmail.
Freemasonry is a splendid organisation with values that should set an example to all others. But unfortunately this is not always the case.
One example of behaviour which falls short of the Masonic ideal occurred when a review of one of our books appeared in the magazine Freemasonry Today. The review was entirely critical although it did not respond to our findings. It also contained several phrases and had a style that was very much like those previously used by John Hamill, then the Grand Librarian of UGLE and now head of communications. The authorship of the review was attributed to someone called John Heron, which struck us as possibly being an invented name that could have been a very simple amalgam of the names of three paid officers of UGLE who worked together.
We contacted the magazine and asked who John Heron was, telling them the names of the people that we suspected had penned the attack. The editor wrote back admitting that there was no such person as ‘John Heron’ but refusing to tell us who the real author or authors were. We responded by saying that we could think of no respectable reason why the author or the magazine would wish to mislead its readership by hiding the identity of the person or persons responsible.
UGLE has a different attitude to its own status compared to all other Grand Lodges. In Scotland for instance, the Grand Lodge exists to service the network of lodges across that country, but under the English Constitution it is the ordinary Freemason who is required to serve his 'rulers' in the Craft.
In Scotland all Freemasons are referred to as ‘Brother’ when addressing them by name, no matter how exalted their rank. In England it is the person not the rank that is honoured with these mysteriously promoted individuals styled with titles such as ‘Very Worshipful Brother’ or ‘Most Worshipful Brother’.
Despite the fact that all of the Freemasons who founded the first Grand Lodge in London in 1717 were ntitled men, it is now essential that the Craft in England is led by an aristocrat. The rules of UGLE state: ‘The Grand Master, if a Prince of the Blood Royal, may appoint a Pro Grand Master, who must be a Peer of the Realm’.
In an age where the country is run by the House of Commons it is surely unacceptable to have an unelected body ruling Freemasonry by dictate. Even Great Britain’s second chamber, the House of Lords is being reformed to become more democratic.
A few years ago we suggested to Sheffield University that it should have a Department of Freemasonic Studies. We are pleased to say that this department was created under the splendid leadership of Professor Andrew Prescott. UGLE gave some cooperation with this new venture but it is telling that the department finds it easier to source its Masonic ritual from the British Library, rather than UGLE.
From the attempts to inhibit our communication about the ‘Web of Hiram’ to lodges and from many other incidences we are aware of, we believe that the UGLE does not want anyone to look at old rituals. In our view this is not based on a desire to hide secrets, it is more a fear of a loss of control of documents which do not reflect UGLE's standard explanation that Freemasonry is simply an invented set of short morality plays. This description is obviously absurd to anyone who studies enough old ritual.
Freemasonry is dying - but it is not dead yet. We believe that it can be saved by radical self-surgery. Cut out the anachronistic control system, modernise the administrative structure and preserve the ancient ritual.
UGLE must be reformed before it kills Freemasonry. We call upon all Freemasons under the English constitution to ask questions of our ‘masters’ in London and to insist that UGLE either reforms itself, or is reformed by the ordinary Freemasons in England and Wales who fund it.
In 1773 the Brethren of St Andrew's Lodge in Boston, USA, carried out a protest that has become known as the Boston Tea Party. They were fighting for a simple ideal, which they believed to be Masonic; it was 'no taxation without representation'. If the British government of the day had been more reasonable with its citizens it is entirely possible that the United States would still be a colony.
The United Grand Lodge of England should remember that it is ordinary Freemasons who are maintaining them and their outdated, autocratic system of control. If they take this opportunity to practice the new openness that they have so far only paid lip-service to, then, and only then, English Freemasonry just might have a future.