What really goes on in a Freemason’s Hall?

what really goes on in a freemasons hall - What really goes on in a Freemason's Hall?

A once secret society opened its doors to the public in Bristol last weekend.

Freemason Hall which sits at the bottom of Park Street in Clifton, is home to the Provincial Grand Lodge of Bristol.

It is the central hub for the practice of freemasonry across the region, which is one of the oldest and largest fraternal organisations in the world.

Freemasonry still contains ceremonies and rituals that remain largely secret today, but in recent years the order has become more open and transparent in its practises, and the event in Bristol is part of that.

The open day itself saw a steady stream of Bristol public coming into visit the grand building, where a series of tours and talks took place. This isn’t the first time Freemason’s Hall has done this, they started to have open days back in 2006, but this is the first of its kind for three years. It is part of its drive to modernise its membership and become more outward facing.

yH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7 - What really goes on in a Freemason's Hall?

Open day at the Freemasons Hall on Park Street, Bristol. (Image: Bristol Post)

The Freemason’s Hall is the only one of its kind in Bristol, and meetings are believed to have taken place on the site where it sits since 1775. The building itself was built in 1932, as a memorial to the 3000 members that were killed during the first World War.

Within the Hall there are 37 Lodges. Each Lodge has a name, and a committee, and meets formally once a month.

 

The highest ranking Mason in Bristol is the Provincial Grand Master Jonathon Davis, and he is a member of Dolphin House Lodge. He said: “We have 58 members, and I have been a member for 27 years.

“My role is to oversee the Province of Bristol, of which this is the centre, and I report regularly to London where the United Grand Lodge of England our headquarters is based.”

What is a Freemason?

Freemasonry consists of fraternal organisations that trace their origins to local groups of stonemasons, from the end of the fourteenth century. It teaches ‘self knowledge through participation in a progression of ceremonies.’

These ceremonies, are in effect ‘plays’ that are memorised and recited by members in front of the ‘Brotherhood’ as they progress through the order. New members are expected to move between three degrees.

Level one is the Entered Apprentice, level two the Fellow Craft, and level three a Master Mason.

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Jonathan Davis Provincial Grand master stood with the bible, and the square and compass that are symbols within Freemasonry. (Image: Bristol Post)

The Provincial Grand Master explained: “It takes about a year to move through the three degrees, to become a Master Mason. After this there are seven officer positions, taking a year in each, until you then get to become a Worshipful Master.”

 

There are, however, other degrees one can move up. One is the 33 degree Scottish rite.

This is considered the highest form, often shrouded in secrecy and one of the more esoteric paths of Freemasonry. The Grand Provincial Master said: “There are other paths and elements of Masonry you can explore. But this is a tiny minority of Masons which desire to or become a 33 degree mason. They are very rare.”

The Temple

The Temple is where the ceremonies take place. Within the Temple there are a number of interesting facets. Seats align either side of the hall, and the Worship Master has a seat like throne at the end.

In the centre of the room lies the ceremonial memorabilia . Each Temple in each Freemasonry Hall varies, and in Bristol there are two large pillars symbolising King Solomon’s Temple, and beneath lies a large bible with the masonry equipment of a square and compass on top.

On the ceiling there is a gold plated giant G, which symbolises God.

yH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7 - What really goes on in a Freemason's Hall?

The Temple at the Freemasons Hall on Park Street. (Image: Bristol Post)

On what appears like an altar is a symbolic painting coveerd with a blue cloth,  surrounded with large candlles. Two large stones feature, one unpolished and raw, the other smooth and complete. The Grandmaster said: “This symbolizes the journey of a new member from a rough stone into a polished and more rounded person. Symbolic as one moves through the three degrees.”

The Ceremony

Freemason’s take a vow of silence about the degree ceremonies, swearing an oath to the religious book of their choosing. They are allowed to mention, but forbidden to fully unveil to non-members what happens. In the new era of transparency why does this matter?

 

The Provincial Grand Master explained; “The whole ceremony is symbolic. We keep those bits in as secret because if we are open about it, then it makes the whole point of the ceremony pointless. It becomes a meaningless ritual, and loses its value.”

“We all make a vow and promise on the name of our supreme being, that we call the ‘Great architect in the sky’ not to disclose secrets.”

yH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7 - What really goes on in a Freemason's Hall?

Square and compass of Freemasonry (Image: Bristol Post)

Despite this the Provincial Grand Master hinted at the process itself, and revealed as is often suggested when talking of Freemasonry, that new members are blindfolded and have one trouser leg up. He said; “You are blindfolded when you come in.

 

“This is in order to symbolise the notion of being blind and then seeing the light, as you gain greater understanding. It is a journey of self discovery as a human being.

“You then recite a play, by heart.

“It is very formal, and something that has a strong sense of history, of 300 years. Something we want to keep and maintain.”

yH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7 - What really goes on in a Freemason's Hall?

The raw unpolished stone which symbolises a new member of the Freemasons (Image: Bristol Post)

Charitable works

Every Freemason is expected to give money regularly to charity. In Fact the Freemason’s are one of the largest charity giving organisations in the UK.

In Bristol they are connected to three charities: the Bristol Masonic Benevolent Institution which holds a fund of £100,000; the Bristol Masonic Charities a smaller fund, and the Discretionary Fund, where individual’s make donations. 50% of all charitable donations by Freemasons go to the public and charities outside the Masons.

yH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7 - What really goes on in a Freemason's Hall?

Open day at the Freemasons Hall on Park Street. Richard Lewis deputy Provincial Grand master, Hugo Clark (Consort to the Mayor), Lord Mayor Jos Clark and Jonathan Davis Provincial Grand master (Image: Bristol Post)

The Provincial GrandMaster stated: “It’s important to be ever more transparent and make sure we have effective governance in the area of fundraising.

“This is something I have worked very hard at ensuring we are achieving. In this era of austerity cuts, we feel we have a strong role to play in supporting those less fortunate in Bristol.”

yH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7 - What really goes on in a Freemason's Hall?

Charitable stalls at the Freemason open day (Image: Bristol Post)

Who can join?

Traditionally joining the ‘brotherhood’ was through recommendation, by a friend, colleague or family member by an existing Mason. There was a strict criteria that one would have to fulfill.

The Provincial Grand Master said: “There are three key things. Firstly a belief in a supreme being, secondly the need to be of strict morality and strong judgement, and thirdly make the decision to join by own free will and not for personal gain.”

 

This belief in a supreme being is essentially God. Religious people of any persuasion, Christians, Muslims , Jews, are all welcome. You can also be non-religious and believe in a higher power. But you cannot be an atheist.

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Open day at the Freemasons Hall on Park Street (Image: Bristol Post)

If you have a criminal record its unlikely that you will be accepted as a Mason, but there are exceptions. The Provincial Grand Master explained: “Yes there are restrictions on criminal offences, but anything violent, burglary etc you wont get through. But we do take it on a case by case basis. I

“So if someone has had good conduct and the offence was while ago, then I go to London to the headquarters to make the case, and we review it.”

But is it only men? Well this particular lodge is, but there are now separate lodges for women. And the United Grand Lodge of England in line with 2010 Equality Act, states ‘should a person who has undergone gender reassignment then his application must be processed in the same way as any male candidate.”

Today there is an open application process on the website.

Criticisms

Freemasonry has received some criticism historically for its membership, lack of openness, and even accused of being a cult. The Grandmaster Provincial Master feels this is unfair and something that needs challenging. He said: “I think part of the problem is because we haven’t had a a public voice.

yH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7 - What really goes on in a Freemason's Hall?

Freemasons have been criticised for being a secret society (Image: Bristol Post)

“In a sense for years and years we just allowed criticism to foster without reacting. Criticism has come in a few ways.

” I think the whole ‘we are a strange cult’ thing, started to happen in the 60s and 70s when there were lots of cults popping up. We kind of got lumped in with that, falling into a secret society label.”

 

Nepotism is something that Masons have been accused of, where decisions are made in the membership that are deemed undemocratic. The Grand Provincial Master explained: “I think the whole’ I will scratch your back if you scratch mine’ criticism is unfair, as its no different than outside the Mason.

“This goes on anywhere. In the pub if someone asks for a painter and decorator and you know someone you will recommend them. Its no more sinister than that.”

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Freemasons ceremonial sword (Image: Bristol Post)

One major criticism has been the perception that the Freemasons are full of police and judiciary, and being a member can sometimes get people out of tricky situations in the law. The Provincial Grand Master said: “It’s true there are a high amount police and we have some judges here too. But I think you need to see the context.

“Traditionally the Masons has been seen as a safe space for the police. Many don’t socialise in the city they police, so to come here where there is a bar, where we have regular social dinners, is a place they can unwind.

“But you aren’t protected from the law and things like that because you are a Mason. That’s complete and utter nonsense.”

Modernisation

A key objective for the Provincial Grand Master is modernising the Masons, and the open days are a part of that process.

He is mindful of the perception of the membership as being very male, of a certain age, and perhaps being seen as old fashioned. He said: “We have progressed in this regard, and the new CEO Dr David Staples has challenged the old guard to a degree . Challenged us all to modernise.

yH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7 - What really goes on in a Freemason's Hall?

Tours at the Freemason Hall are all part of a new forward facing Freemasons (Image: Bristol Post)

“Life has moved on from how we did things. The world, and indeed the city of Bristol, is more diverse and we want to reflect that in membership, and in the charities we support.”

There are now Dunckerlys, which are Young Masons for people aged 25 to 45, and they are proactive in recruitment of people from minority backgrounds. “A strong emphasis since I took this role has been round modernising what we do, and becoming more connected to the city and is crucial to us moving forward.”

 

The Freemason’s polarise opinion, so what do you think? A force for good or a shady secret society? Let us know.

If you want to find out more about the history of Freemason Hall , the Provincial Grand Lodge of Bristol, and about Freemasonry in general then go to the website here.

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