The end of mythology
John Hamill looks back to the pivotal moment in 1984 when Freemasonry had to confront its negative image with a policy of openness
Reviewing the many events that took place in our Provinces and Districts during the Tercentenary celebrations, I was struck by the number that included families, friends and members of the public. As the Pro Grand Master said in his review of the year, those events exemplified our membership’s renewed spirit of confidence and its pride in the Craft. It also reveals members’ wish to share that pride with their communities.
To most of the current members, being so visible in their communities last year was something new. However, like many things in Freemasonry, it was a welcome return to the past. Up to the outbreak of the Second World War, Freemasonry was a very visible part of the community. Meetings at national and local levels were freely reported in the national and local press: two weekly masonic newspapers and a monthly magazine were on public sale. Freemasons regularly appeared in public ‘clothed in the badges of the order’ either laying foundation stones of new structures or taking part in civic processions or those celebrating national events. As a result, Freemasons were both known and respected in their local communities.
A MUCH-NEEDED WAKE-UP CALL
During the war, Freemasonry turned in on itself and, with a shortage of newsprint, much social reporting disappeared from the media. After the war, introversion continued and Freemasonry gradually disappeared from the public consciousness. An unwillingness by Grand Lodge to engage with the media when they misreported Freemasonry allowed a mythology to grow. This was greatly helped by the less scrupulous in the world of journalism who knew they could write what they wished about Freemasonry without any fear of an official comeback from Grand Lodge.
The mythology and its effect on Freemasonry came to a head in 1984 with the publication of the late Stephen Knight’s anti-masonic rant, The Brotherhood: The Secret World of the Freemasons, which, for the first time in English Freemasonry, brought together the strands of anti-masonry in one volume.
In effect, the book was a wake-up call to English Freemasonry. The lead was taken by the Grand Master, who asked the Board of General Purposes to seek ways of better informing the public as to what Freemasonry is – and its place in society – so that they had good solid information against which they could weigh the nonsense appearing in the media on an almost daily basis. That gave birth to what has become known as the Openness Policy, which the Grand Master has greatly supported since its inception.
AND A CONTINUING EVOLUTION
It has been a long process – a perfect example of the old adage that it takes years to build a good reputation, seconds to lose it and years to rebuild it. I think that future historians will see the events of 1984 and what followed as a watershed moment. Since then, Freemasonry has evolved, and taken a long look at what it is and how it should fit with modern society. Today, it is a relevant and contributing part of our communities, without having changed its basic principles and tenets.
After all the positive media coverage that we received during last year’s celebrations, it was more than sad that a reputable newspaper such as The Guardian should put on the front page a story about Freemasonry that contained three major untruths, which a call to Freemasons’ Hall could have corrected. The story, as we know, led to ‘Enough is Enough’, which is reported on in this issue. As you will see, it was not a one-off project to meet an immediate need, but will be a continuing process led from the centre, with the Provinces, Districts and Metropolitan area all having a crucial role to play.
Plans are in place to provide the tools from the centre to bolster and maintain that pride and confidence that was so evident during the celebrations. Having been involved in ‘openness’ since its inception, I am convinced that what is already in place and what is being developed for the future will change attitudes and the public’s perception of Freemasonry. There will always be a minority that will believe the myths and are not open to their minds being changed, but with time they will become an insignificant minority.
‘Freemasonry has evolved, and taken a long look at what it is and how it should fit with modern society’