Frequently Asked Questions
– Separating Facts from Fiction –
1. How widely followed is Freemasonry?
In the UK alone, there are over 320,000 Freemasons and more than 8,000 Lodges. The Masonic fraternity is further represented in dozens of countries throughout the world, with membership believed to exceed 6 millions. (Source, External Relations Dept. – UGLE)
Some so-called “Masonic” organisations found overseas may not conform to the constitutions by which we operate and therefore we cannot and do not recognise them.
2. Is it a “secret” society?
No, absolutely not. Secret societies are usually sinister groups that exist “underground” to avoid detection. By no stretch of the imagination, can Freemasonry be regarded as that – much as some would like to claim it is!!
We make no pretences about our existence, what our objectives are, where we meet and when. In fact we want everyone to know as much as possible about Freemasonry. We’d like you to visit us, chat with us and discuss any aspect you wish.
But as with any organisation there are elements we want to keep private. It is solely those things which, if made freely available, would destroy the sequence of the unfolding story – the amazing journey of self-discovery and learning that Masons value so highly.
3. Does the notion of “Secrecy” feature in Masonic ceremonies?
As a legacy of centuries-old ceremonial terminology, yes it does. By today’s standards, this terminology is probably far too extreme. Nevertheless, words associated with “secrecy” remain in our ceremonies by tradition. By default, they happen to serve as a timely reminder that, today, privacy is a rare commodity valued by everyone – and something we should always respect in our daily lives.
These days, a better interpretation of “secrecy” in Freemasonry would indeed be “privacy” – to protect from premature disclosure, the strictly sequential process of learning and self-discovery that comprises the great Masonic journey.
Even Masons themselves cannot divulge elements of the story to junior members until the latter have advanced to the relevant “degree” of knowledge. The privacy of the unfolding story is vitally important and fundamental to the success and joy of Freemasonry for all of its participants.
Thus we regard as private many details of our ceremonies and rituals. Having said that, it is very easy to obtain a book of Emulation Ritual – ISBN 0 85318 209 4. It provides a very good outline of what we do and how but which omits some detail.
4. Is it true that Masons have to “swear to secrecy”, supposedly on pain of awful physical penalties?
Yes it is – but it’s not nearly as dramatic or sinister as it sounds!
Firstly, swearing to secrecy exists to remind Masons of the importance of preserving the concept of the “journey of self-discovery” and the unfolding Masonic story. It’s rather like ensuring that no one reads the last chapter of a thrilling book without first having read carefully all the preceding pages. And the process can take many years!
Therefore a Mason is not permitted to get a “sneak preview” of what lies ahead, nor is he allowed to divulge them to anyone – otherwise there would be no journey, no unfolding story!
The notion of a physical penalty for “disclosure” is again purely symbolic – a legacy of the days of ancient ceremonies – but it does serve to place great emphasis on Freemasonry’s reliance on the integrity of the individual to preserve the amazing way in which it works.
5. What else does Freemasonry help us to understand?
Although a voluntary and charitable organisation, Freemasonry is strongly structured and hierarchical. Whilst somewhat at variance with the modern preference for ‘flat’ relationship/management structures, its character helps us to appreciate the advantages of having “order” in society and in life in general.
Just like the ancient teams of working stonemasons, by having “order” – people who plan, lead teach and encourage, people who learn, practice and perfect – great and enduring things can be achieved.
6. Can women join Freemasonry?
No. Although Freemasons’ partners and their families play a vital role in the fraternity’s social and charitable activities, under the constitutions of the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) by which we operate, women are not admitted as members.
However, there are two separate and unrelated organisations that welcome women:
The Order of Women Freemasons
The Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons
NOTE: They are not officially recognised by UGLE, as they do not conform to its constitutions.
7. What are Masonic ceremonies and rituals?
Masonic ceremonies and rituals provide a spoken and enacted framework for the journey of learning and discovery. Through them, Masons learn about the great human qualities and virtues that Freemasonry advocates, and their relevance to them as individuals and their importance in society.
In effect, the ceremonies and rituals are “plays” enacted by Masons, having learned by heart, the scripts appropriate to their position or office in Freemasonry. Sometimes, ceremonies can be quite dramatic if not theatrical – but always for a purpose – to emphasise a fact or a message. For example and by repute, no Mason ever forgets the sheer drama, excitement and emotion of the Third Degree ceremony, in which he finally becomes a Master Mason.
As a Mason progresses in his Masonic journey, over a number of years, rising through a series of positions or offices, so he takes different parts in the ceremonies, learning them by heart, and gaining a deeper understanding of the relevance of each role.
You can read more about this subject from the Masonic book of Emulation Ritual – ISBN 0 85318 209 4
8. What are the so-called “mysteries” of Freemasonry?
In today’s definition of the word, there are no “mysteries”, as such. A far better description would be “knowledge” or “information” that has yet to be learned!
Yes, as a legacy of ancient ceremonies, the term “mysteries” often occurs in Freemasonry – but it has nothing to do with wizards and magicians!! The term is used in the context of those steps and elements of knowledge on the path of self-discovery that a Mason has yet to learn. That which a Mason has learned is therefore no longer a so-called “mystery” to him, but it remains described as such amongst other Masons who have yet to “discover” them.
9. What about those so-called “funny handshakes” and “passwords”? Do they exist?
They certainly do! They’re rather quaint, old-fashioned and the butt of many a joke! Masons can find them amusing too. Still much in use today, they remain as a centuries old tradition, from the days when there were no reliable means of identity as there are today.
In bygone days, by giving a particular password and a distinctive handshake when visiting other Lodges, a Freemason was able to prove his membership and demonstrate the “degree” he had obtained in the Craft.
The concept of the password and handshake is thought to have stemmed from ancient times when stonemasons used similar methods to prove their level of expertise when finding new work.
There were no employee references in those days to take to a new employer! So a series of carefully guarded words was used, each representing a particular level of proficiency in stonemasonry. It prevented unskilled stonemasons from claiming to be skilled. And also, of course, on this, depended the level of pay at which they were contracted!
In the same vein, stonemasons guarded their identity so diligently that they would make their own unique “mark” – the stonemasons’ mark – on every piece of stone they carved. These can still be seen today on the stonework of castles, cathedrals, churches and palaces all over the world. The leading stonemasons used these marks to identify the origin of outstanding or faulty workmanship.
But for the working mason, the mark became his personal hallmark, the mark of pride in his work. Improving his standard of workmanship, overcoming imperfections, was his sole means of improving his lot in life.
In the same spirit, Masons today are encouraged continuously to develop and improve themselves. By adopting worthy values and exercising commendable standards of personal conduct, so he develops his own personal hallmark.
10. We’ve heard about the “rolled-up” trouser leg? Is that true too?
Yes it is. This too is an ancient part of our traditional ceremonies. It occurs at the moment when someone is first admitted into Freemasonry as an “Entered Apprentice”. The meaning of the rolled up trouser leg is simple and symbolic – firstly to remind him that he joins Freemasonry, figuratively, in a poor and humble state; secondly, to make such an impression that he should never forget the needs of others, particularly those less fortunate than himself.
11. What part does religion play in Freemasonry?
Belief in God, the Supreme Being is the heart and bedrock of Freemasonry.
However, Freemasonry is not, nor ever will be, a religion. Nor does it purport to have any religious standing whatsoever.
Freemasonry does not expound the virtue of any one religion in particular. It expounds the virtue of Faith in general and the advantages it holds out for every person – man, woman and child.
Freemasonry embraces people from all the main Faiths. But in the spirit of Craftsmen, the Supreme Being, or God, is referred to as the “Great Architect of the Universe”. That generic title is acceptable to anyone who believes in a Supreme Being and enables people from all Faiths to stand together in collective homage.
In this sense, Freemasonry has, since the early 1800’s been ahead of its time in its desire and success in bringing together people of all Faiths.
12. Why do Lodges meet in a “Temple”?
Any room in which a Lodge convenes formally is referred to as a Temple.
Normally, temples are regarded as places of worship, of religious practice. But in Masonic terms, the temple is a place where Masons of all Faiths may not only pay homage to the Great Architect of the Universe but also enact long-established ceremonies and rituals that help guide them on their quest of self-discovery and self-improvement.
13. How strict are the Masonic rules?
Masonic rules and regulations place much emphasis on the individual to exercise his integrity and responsibility. Because of this, the rules are generally very highly respected by everyone, giving the impression of being strictly applied. And indeed they are. But as in most things Masonic, it is close guidance and good example that generally prevails rather than castigation.
Whilst we recognise and accept that human failing will always be amongst us, we have clearly defined limits of tolerance.
Thus, significant breaches of our values and the expected standards of conduct are treated very seriously. Transgressors may be admonished formally, or suspended, or invited to resign and in extreme cases, expelled. Over the last three years, in England, there have been no fewer than 43 expulsions enforced by The United Grand Lodge of England.
14. What is a “Lodge” ?
A Lodge is, in effect, the modern version of what used to be a group of working stonemasons. These days, rather than stonemasons, a Lodge can be viewed as a social team whose common objective is to promote and share in the experience of pursuing the precepts and values of Freemasonry.
In doing so, they remain stonemasons at heart for, as metaphorical sculptors, they try to create in themselves better and more worthy individuals.
Its members gather to meet on a regular basis on pre-determined dates. Membership of a Lodge can vary from a handful of men, to well over a hundred – although it is most commonly in the range of 30 – 60. Collectively, the members are known as “Brethren”.
There are over 6,000 Lodges in England alone and over 8,000 in total including overseas Lodges which operate under the constitution of the United Grand Lodge of England
15. Who runs the Lodge?
A Lodge is strictly hierarchical, and is led by the “Master”, called the “Worshipful Master”. He is supported by officers – two “Wardens”, two “Deacons”, an “Inner Guard” and a “Tyler”.
Each year, a new Worshipful Master of the Lodge is elected and then appointed in a special installation ceremony.