THE OXFORD University Freemasons’ Lodge is at the centre of a national campaign to recruit undergraduates into the organisation.
The 'University Scheme', started by Assistant Grand Master of the Freemasons David Williamson, targets Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Durham, Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham, in addition to Oxford and Cambridge universities.
The scheme is the result of success by Oxford and Cambridge masonic societies in enlisting students. In a statement, the United Grand Lodge of England said, “Oxford and Cambridge have proved just how popular Freemasonry can be at universities. I hope we can help to make those same wonderful experiences available to more prospective masons.”
Geoffrey Bourne-Taylor, Secretary of the 'Apollo' University Lodge on Banbury Road and former Bursar of St Edmund Hall, said that the organisation took in huge numbers of undergraduates every year. “They come in droves, they're queuing out the door,” he said. “We can barely take in any more than we do already. Around 50 undergraduates join a year, seven to eight are initiated at every meeting.”
Bourne-Taylor said that out of 350 University Lodge members, around 30 were current undergraduates and between 50 and 100 were recent undergraduates.
“We have an awful lot from Brasenose and Christ Church, five to six members from Teddy Hall, and three from Pembroke,” he said.
Bourne-Taylor said that many prominent public figures were active members of the University Lodge, but could not disclose their identity. “I can think of a dozen household names who are still members, who don't come as often as they used to because of public commitments, but they take it [freemasonry] with them.”
To become a Freemason, members must profess a belief in a supreme deity and be prepared to have any criminal convictions scrutinised. Only men may join the University Lodge and be of good character and reputation.
Bourne-Taylor said that entry was open to all, but existing links to members were important. “If your father's a Freemason you've got a head start. If one joins, then the whole rugby team joins.”
The University Lodge allows special privileges for Oxford students, including the opportunity to join at an early age. “The qualifying age for Freemasonry is generally 21 years, but the Lodges of Oxford and Cambridge have the unique distinction of exception from this rule and may initiate members under this age,” its website states. “Members pay half of what normal Freemasons would if they're under 25.”
Chris Connop, spokesman for the National Grand Lodge of England, said that students were attracted to a number of the organisation's moral virtues. “Freemasonry is a positive force in society, it encourages members to be good citizens, to uphold the law, and encourages values of tolerance and understanding. It supports old-fashioned values as a lot of young people find themselves bored with current youth culture. The type of people attracted are usually traditionalists,” he said.
In changing times, it gives them something to get their bearings from. They love the formality, they love the dining, and they love the egalitarianism. Last Saturday we had 110 people at a meeting. It's very convivial, but I've never seen anyone drunk.”
Connop also emphasised the Lodge's charity work, which was undertaken to support the University. “We support the undergraduate hardship fund in the name of the lodge, giving up to £4,000 a year,” he said.
Jenny Hoogewerf-McComb, OUSU Vice-President (Women), said that the all-male nature of the Freemasons made them seem out-dated, but initiatives to involve students suggested positive future changes. “Personally, as a feminist, the concept of all-male networking clubs is a bit old fashioned. This shows that they're changing focus, and might one day admit women.”
Bourne-Taylor responded by defending the all-male nature of the University Lodge. “I think women don't like that sort of thing, it's as simple as that. I think men tend to gravitate towards clubs. There are two Grand Lodges for women, who are fiercely independent,” he said.
Britain has an estimated 270,000 Freemasons and there are around 11 million worldwide. The University Lodge claims to be the oldest University club, founded in 1819 at Brasenose College with the permission of the Vice-Chancellor. Prominent former members include John Radcliffe, Cecil Rhodes and Oscar Wilde. Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, and Prince Leopold were former members and Masters of the Lodge.
Obligations are those elements of ritual in which a candidate swears to protect the "secrets of Freemasonry", which are the various signs, tokens and words associated with recognition in each degree with. A person must achieve the title of Master Mason before he is entitled to participate in most activites.