The Grand Secretary embarked on a nationwide media tour to dispel some myths and spark discussion about Freemasonry. Sophie Radice reports
Nigel Brown, Grand Secretary of the United Grand Lodge of England, has just been on a tour the length and breath of England – not forgetting an interview with BBC Wales – that would exhaust any electioneering politician or celebrity trying to promote a new book. Over just four days, Nigel gave 40 back-to-back interviews to national and local newspapers and radio stations.
The publication of a new independent report The Future Of Freemasonry was the catalyst to generate discussion about the role of Freemasonry in the twenty-first century, while at the same time debunking certain persistent myths about the organisation. Both the tour and the report are the first stages in the build up to the 300th anniversary of the Freemasons in 2017 and to promote a better understanding of what Freemasonry means.
Nigel found it exhausting but exhilarating, particularly enjoying the direct contact he had with the public in the regional radio phone-in discussions: ‘People still believe certain things about the Freemasons, and of course the deep-seated myth that it is a secret society with unique business networking opportunities came up many times. It was really good to be able to say: “Look, would I be doing a tour of England if it was a secret society?”
‘I was able to tell people that the only time the Freemasons ever went underground was during the Second World War when more than 200,000 Freemasons were sent to the gas chambers by Hitler because he saw Freemasonry as a threat. Seeing Hitler’s persecution of Freemasonry, particularly after he invaded the Channel Islands, and fearing the invasion of England, members became alarmed,’ continues Nigel. ‘Many of the people I spoke to on the tour were very surprised to hear this.’
Nigel goes on to explain that Freemasonry then played an important role post-war for troops returning home, many of whom wanted to be with other men who had been through the same experience. ‘Many lodges were formed during the immediate post-war period. Perhaps too many because there was such a strong need for camaraderie and because of what had happened during the war. As a result they naturally became inward looking.’
need for belonging
While the number of lodges has now levelled out almost to its pre-war period, the sense of brotherly support remains in the 250,000 members in England and Wales. Among its conclusions, The Future Of Freemasonry report states that ‘there is a timeless need for a sense of affiliation and belonging’. The report also emphasises the importance that Freemasons place on helping others.
‘The only requisite we have for joining the Freemasons is that they are people of integrity, honesty, fairness and kindness who believe in a supreme being,’ explains Nigel. ‘We welcome people of all races and religions with different social and economic backgrounds. This kind of openness, and the fact that Freemasonry is a non-religious and non-political organisation means that the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Israel is a Palestinian, and that is because the decency and morality of our members is of paramount importance.’
When Nigel told people he met on his tour that the Freemasons were the biggest charitable givers after The National Lottery, donating £30 million last year, he was met with incredulity. ‘These very large contributions come from Freemasons’ own efforts rather than from street collections or any other type of external fundraising. Because the Freemason does not ask for thanks or reward it means that very few people know about our charitable donations, even though they are on such a large scale. For instance, we are the main donors to The Royal College of Surgeons, funding much of their research and donate generously to the Red Cross. I know it seems a small thing but it is something that I am particularly proud of. We are the people that provide teddies for all children going into surgery, to comfort them in that difficult moment.’
Questions about Freemasonry rituals, rolled-up trouser legs and secret handshakes were well prepared for. Nigel explained that he had never come across the secret handshake but was glad to shed light on the rituals as a series of ‘one-act plays’ performed by members as they moved up the ranks of the Freemasons. ‘I was happy to tell interviewers and those ringing in to radio discussion programmes that there was nothing sinister about it. I think that rituals are very important to a sense of belonging and our members thoroughly enjoy taking part in these performances and memorising their lines. They provide a distinctive character to joining and moving through the ranks of the Freemasons – our aim isn’t to make Freemasonry bland but to make the public more aware of what we do.’
Even in recent memory, Freemasonry has had to deal with discrimination against members. ‘On some job application forms there was the question, “Are you a member of a secret society, e.g. the Freemasons?” We got that removed by the European Court of Human Rights, but we still have to work hard to make sure that our members are not wrongly judged, or feel that it is something they have to hide. As the report shows, our members really value the feeling of belonging to an organisation that contributes to society and is a part of their life that they can be proud of. Freemasonry is more relevant than ever – in a competitive and fragmented society it provides a combination of friendship and structure.’
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has handed down a landmark judgment under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights – prohibition of discrimination – in an application involving public appointments brought by the Grand Orient of Italy
The decision was taken by six votes to one. Under Article 41 of the Convention, the court held, unanimously, that the finding of a violation constituted sufficient just satisfaction for non-pecuniary damage.
They awarded the Grand Orient of Italy 5,000 euros (£3,400) costs and expenses.
The Grand Orient of Italy, which is not recognised by the United Grand Lodge of England, had complained about a law laid down by the Region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia regarding rules to be followed for nominations to public offices for which the Region was the appointing authority.
In particular, this law, enacted in February 2000, required candidates for such posts to declare whether they were members of a Masonic or, in any event, a secret association.
The absence of a declaration constituted a ground for refusing appointment. In a note of 15 September 2005, the regional council showed that only one of the 237 candidates for a post on the executive board of a company in which the Region was a stakeholder, had declared they were a Mason. This individual eventually got the job.
Regarding the negative effects that the obligation to declare one’s membership of a Masonic Lodge might have on the image and associative life of the Grand Orient of Italy, the court held that it could claim to be a ‘victim’ of a breach of Article 11 of the Convention.
The ECHR added: “That conclusion meant that there had been an interference with its rights to freedom of association. It followed that the facts in question fell within the ambit of Article 11. Article 14 of the Convention was therefore applicable.”
Furthermore, the court observed that the provision in question distinguished between secret and Masonic associations, membership of which had to be declared, and all other associations.
Members of the latter were exempted from any obligation to make such a declaration when seeking nomination for public office. They could not, therefore, incur the statutory penalty for an omission.
Accordingly, there was a difference of treatment between members of the Grand Orient of Italy and the members of any other non-secret association.
Regarding whether there was an objective and reasonable justification for such a difference, the court reiterated that it had already held that the prohibition on nominating Freemasons to public office, introduced to ‘reassure’ the public at a time when there had been controversy surrounding their role in the life of the country, had pursued the legitimate aims of protecting national security and preventing disorder. The court considered those requirements remained valid.
On Article 11, the ECHR found that the prohibition on nominating Masons to certain public offices for which the Region was the appointing authority was not “necessary in a democratic society.”
Penalising someone for their membership of an association was unjustified, since that fact was not in itself legally reprehensible.
The Grand Orient of Italy had previously complained about another Region, in which the court had delivered a judgment in August 2001. In the present case, being a Freemason did not automatically bar a person from nomination for a public office, because the only candidate for a particular job, declaring himself to be a Mason, had nevertheless been appointed to the post.
However, the ECHR found that those considerations, which might be relevant under Article 11, were not so important where the case was examined – as in this case – from the standpoint of the nondiscrimination clause.
In Friuli-Venezia Giulia, only Masons were under an obligation to declare their membership when they sought nomination to certain public offices for which the Region was the appointing authority.
As such “no objective and reasonable justification for this difference in treatment between non-secret associations had been advanced by the government.”
Accordingly, the court held that there had been a violation of Article 14 taken in conjunction with Article 11 of the Convention.
Chamber judgment: Grande Oriente D’Italia di Palazzo Giustiniani v Italy (No. 2) (Application No. 26740/02)