Celebrating 300 years

Enough is Enough

With the misconceptions surrounding the nature of Freemasonry commonplace, one particular news story in 2018 proved the catalyst for a nationwide campaign that would confront these beliefs head on, as Dean Simmons discovers

The doors to Freemasons’ Hall in London may be open to the public, but this hasn’t stopped rumours, myths and conspiracy theories from grabbing the headlines over the decades. However, it was a news story in The Guardian at the beginning of 2018, which was subsequently covered by other national newspapers, accusing the Freemasons of blocking policing reforms, that proved to be a turning point for the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE).

Dr David Staples, Chief Executive Officer of UGLE, rejected the claims as laughable in a letter to the newspapers. With the accusations following a well-trodden path of inaccurate and misleading information about Freemasonry, he called for an end to the discrimination against its members, citing the 2001 and 2007 European Court of Human Rights rulings that Freemasonry was not a secret or unlawful organisation.

Reflecting on the decision to respond, David says, ‘It’s something that has been building up over the past 20 years, as we haven’t argued our case or countered the increasingly ridiculous claims of our critics. I think the trouble, as we’ve seen in the past, is that if we don’t answer those critics, the vacuum is then filled by further ludicrous accusations.’

More was to come. In February 2018, The Guardian alleged that two masonic lodges were operating secretly at Westminster. ‘This was on the front page of an award-winning national newspaper and it was complete nonsense,’ David says. ‘Every aspect of that story was deliberately designed to give a false impression of Freemasonry and its influence.’ David again wrote to the newspaper, drawing attention to several inaccuracies, including the fact that the lodges did not operate in Westminster and that their existence is not secret – all of which could have been verified by a quick search on Wikipedia. While the letter led to corrections being made, there was clearly an appetite for these types of stories, and therefore a pressing need for Freemasonry to debunk the myths. 

ON THE OFFENSIVE

‘In light of a new approach towards how we manage the media and how we represent ourselves and our members, we needed to go on the offensive – it was a good one to put the gloves on for,’ says David.

Contesting accusations is one thing, putting a stop to them in the first place is another. It was to this end that UGLE responded with a letter from David, titled ‘Enough is Enough’, which ran as a full-page advert in both The Times and Daily Telegraph newspapers. The letter called for an end to the ongoing gross misrepresentation of its 200,000-plus members.

‘We need to open up and talk about what we do; we needn’t be afraid of being both proud of who we are and our membership,’ David says. ‘We are the only organisation that faces repeated calls to publish our membership lists. We are the only organisation linked to a whole host of rumours and conspiracy theories, despite there being no substantial evidence to any of it. It’s important to not allow these myths to perpetuate in the public eye, and take on the critics with the facts.’

In the spirit of transparency, David embarked on a series of interviews with the press. Whether it was laying to rest myths, highlighting community work and charity fundraising or outlining what it means to be a Freemason, no stone was left unturned. ‘I did 24 interviews in one day,’ he recalls. ‘But if you’re portraying yourselves as an open organisation, you need to make yourself available in order to demonstrate that openness.’

With Freemasonry thrust into the spotlight, David believes the ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign provides a strong communication platform going forward. ‘We need to be out there, as we have been for the last few months, taking journalists around our masonic centres, introducing journalists to Freemasons and letting them make their own minds up, according to what they see and what they find.

‘The Open Days being held in our Provinces are also important, as they allow us to engage not just with potential members, but also with our critics,’ continues David. ‘We shouldn’t shy away from that – we won’t convince everybody and we certainly won’t change everybody’s mind, but we want to give a true impression of who we are and what we do, and allow people to make up their own minds. Ultimately, we need to be in the public space for the things we should be known for.’

Opening up, inviting in

Freemasons’ Hall in London may have initially taken centre stage, but Provinces up and down the country have now embraced the campaign. Open evenings and interactive Q&A events have been taking place in masonic halls, inviting members of the public to find out more about Freemasonry and ask any questions.

Demonstrating the effectiveness of the campaign, there has been a rise in membership enquiries as people seek to find out more. Philip Bullock, Wiltshire Provincial Grand Master, says, ‘It’s had an effect in raising our profile, which has had a positive effect on the number of enquiries made to our Provincial office and website. Our Sarsen Club for younger members is also proving extremely popular and is growing in terms of membership and activities.’

‘Enough is Enough’ has been an opportunity to further highlight the ongoing efforts of many Provinces. ‘For the past four years we’ve taken a very proactive approach in making ourselves more visible,’ says Philip. ‘At the end of last year, we acquired a new display trailer that will be out and about appearing at county fairs, shows and marketplaces. This will allow us to expand our visible presence in the community.’

Further north, in West Lancashire, the Province has been busy giving the media guided tours of its masonic halls. ‘The reaction across the Province has been positive,’ says Tony Harrison, West Lancashire Provincial Grand Master, ‘and most agree that it’s about time we answered back.’

Cheshire Provincial Grand Master Stephen Blank, who also faced the cameras in an interview with the BBC, echoes those sentiments: ‘The reaction from my members has been overwhelmingly positive,’ he says. ‘We’ve always been proactive with our open evenings at masonic halls. We’ll continue to publicise these across the county, alongside our charitable and community activities. I think it’s very important that we continue to react swiftly and positively to any future attacks on Freemasonry.’

Published in UGLE
Wednesday, 03 January 2018 14:58

Letter to the Editor - National Newspapers

Following the news coverage in The Guardian, Times, Sun, Mail Online and Independent Online relating to Freemasonry and Police Federation reforms, Dr David Staples, Chief Executive Officer of the United Grand Lodge of England, has sent this letter (tailored) to each of these national newspapers

Dear Editor

I write in response to your articles Freemasons are blocking reform, says police chair and Why the secret handshake between police and Freemasons should worry us in The Guardian on 1st and 2nd January.

The articles show a complete and disappointing misrepresentation of Freemasonry. Furthermore, we understand, having spoken to the outgoing Chairman of the Police Federation, that recent media coverage does not accurately reflect his views.

We are quietly proud that, throughout history, when people have suffered discrimination both in public and social life, Freemasonry has welcomed them into our Lodges as equals. It is a shame that Freemasons are now quite openly discriminated against and that too many of our members, therefore, feel the need to keep their membership to themselves.

The idea that reform within the Police Federation or anywhere else is being actively thwarted by an organised body of Freemasons is laughable and suggests an unbelievable element of will and influence from an organisation which is non-political, non-religious, values integrity and upholds the law.

In 2001 and again in 2007 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Freemasonry was not a secret or unlawful organisation.

There is absolutely no reason why police officers, or anyone from any other walk of life, should not be a Freemason and we highlight our shared organisational values of integrity and service to the community.

Dr David Staples
Chief Executive Officer
United Grand Lodge of England

Published in UGLE
Wednesday, 13 June 2012 02:00

Tuning In

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.’

CHANGING OPINIONS

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.’

Published in UGLE

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) 

Published in Features

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