Freemasons make no secret of need for younger members

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Set in their ways for 300 years, the Freemasons are opening a lodge aimed at young people to combat a slump in membership.

Having once boasted as many as half a million brothers in the years after the war — including Sir Winston Churchill and the Duke of Edinburgh — membership has fallen to 192,818.

The lodge, which will open this year, will be run entirely by young members with the three leading positions — secretary, treasurer and director of the ceremony — to be men under 35.

Its activities will have an emphasis on environmental and mental health initiatives. It will also hold more social events than other traditional lodges.

Although about 65 per cent of Freemasons are between the ages of 50 and 80, its recent polling suggests that people under 34 are the most positive towards the organisation.

Known for its arcane rituals and handshakes, the body is undertaking a campaign aimed at casting off its shadowy image in the hope that greater transparency will entice more to join. A university scheme with 3,500 members is already under way but the new lodge, which was announced in the fraternity’s first annual report, due to be published next week, will specifically look to draw young professionals.

The audited accounts, seen by The Times, show the Freemasons hold more than £75 million in fixed assets, including a London property portfolio worth £58 million. Among its real estate holdings are a West End nightclub and several shops and restaurants.

The accounts also shed light on the organisation’s founding principle of mutual aid and charitable giving. Last year it raised more than £42 million for charity, with 10 per cent dispensed to members who had fallen on hard times and the rest to non-masonic charities.

This summer Freemasons’ Hall, the London headquarters of the United Grand Lodge of England, will open its bar and café to the public for the first time.

The organisation has spent £150,000 refurbishing the art deco interior. David Staples, 46, the grand secretary who is the driving force behind the Freemasons’ new ethos of transparency, said he hoped that people would come and “have a drink with a Freemason”. He added that bringing passing footfall into the building would give people “something they actually want but at the same time allows them to see Freemasons being Freemasons”.

Amandeep Bansel is among those to be initiated as part of the drive for younger members. Bansel, 21, joined in 2018 through the universities scheme in his first year at Royal Holloway, London.

He said that he was drawn to the history of the organisation, adding that it filled an “existential gap” that he felt as a student. “At uni, you go drinking, you do all of these rites of passage, but then after a while you find there are very few avenues to give back,” said Bansel, from Hornchurch in east London. “Society can feel very withdrawn and I think the Freemasons’ idea of fraternity is very appealing to some young people.”

Band of brothers
Though Freemasons emphasise the inclusivity of the fraternity, certain stipulations are demanded of prospective brothers.

Applicants are expected to have a religious belief, though it does not matter which one. They must be of good character, aged 18 or over and be proposed by two members. They must be male, although there are two separate female-only Grand Lodges.

Applicants can apply on the United Grand Lodge of England website and will then be called to their local lodge for interview. Members form an investigative committee to conduct background checks on applicants.

If they are found to be of good character, they will proceed through three symbolic degrees, each of which involves a different initiation ceremony.

These take place at the lodge and require initiates to perform in an allegorical play based on the biblical story of Solomon’s Temple.

The unorthodox handshakes, which many associate with the group, form part of the ceremony. Freemasons are required to take an oath not to reveal the handshake to the public.

The third degree is the final stage before becoming a full member. The ceremony involves close questioning, which is where the expression “giving someone the third degree” originates.

Braham Djidjelli

Deputy Group Communications Officer
Provincial Grand Lodge of Essex