From the New York Times

January 8, 2010

The Not-So-Secrets of the Temple


IN the final days of a year dominated by repeated — and mostly unheeded — calls for full disclosure on the part of Wall Street banks, pharmaceutical companies, the N.F.L. and any number of other organizations, transparency arrived out of the blue from an unlikely quarter if ever there was one: the Freemasons.

Thanks go not to Dan Brown, whose latest novel, “The Lost Symbol,” focuses on the notoriously mysterious fraternal order, but to Tom Sturgeon, a career law-enforcement officer, who was installed as Right Worshipful Grand Master for Pennsylvania on Dec. 28. His ceremony, in a break with centuries-old Masonic tradition, was held at a convention center here and open to the public. “We need to make Freemasonry more contemporary,” Mr. Sturgeon told me, “to make it reflect 2010, not 1910 — or 1810.”

Nonetheless, the audience of about 1,200 people seemed to consist primarily of members and their families with a sizeable contingent of Masonic dignitaries from 13 other states and Canada. Many had come in full regalia, sporting tailcoats, purple moire or black velvet “collars,” satin aprons embroidered with esoteric symbols, white gloves, swords — all telegraphing distinctions of rank legible only to insiders.

Freemasonry in America is organized by state — there is no higher governing body — and Pennsylvania is the largest Masonic jurisdiction in the world, with a spectacular temple in Philadelphia, completed in 1873, as its headquarters. Mr. Sturgeon was sworn in reciting the same oath, or “obligation,” Benjamin Franklin recited 275 years ago when he took the same office.

If the ceremony at the convention center was any indication, it appears that not much has changed in the interim, although the torches around the altar are now electric and the musical repertoire has been updated to include “Beer Barrel Polka” and “No Man Is an Island.” Membership has been declining (currently 120,000 in Pennsylvania, down from 260,000 when Mr. Sturgeon joined in 1965) and the median age has been steadily climbing (now 68).

“Brethren, ladies and friends,” Mr. Sturgeon greeted the audience for his installation. “The 21st-century Masonic Renaissance starts today!”

The “renaissance” is Mr. Sturgeon’s agenda for reform, jump-starting a membership drive with a new strategy that permits “selective invitation,” replacing the old “To be one, ask one” policy that forbade Masons to proselytize. He also decreed a lifetime dues exemption for any Mason over 60 who brings in two new members under 30. Like other Pennsylvania grand masters before him, Mr. Sturgeon designed a necktie, to be distributed as a token of appreciation. Typically, the ties are a vehicle for the Masonic insignia; his is more in the style of Jerry Garcia, something he thinks younger guys might be more inclined to wear.

In his most radical move, Mr. Sturgeon has mandated that the ritual be published in book form. In Pennsylvania, since the order’s beginnings, each Mason has learned his obligation from another Mason, one on one. The ritual had never been written down. For the two lowest ranks of Freemasonry it lasts 30 minutes or so; for the third and highest degree it takes roughly an hour and runs to some 8,000 words. “It might take a man away from home maybe 50 nights to sit and learn it,” he said.

Though candidates will still be required to perform the ritual from memory, the printed text allows them to learn it on their own. Mr. Sturgeon assured his fellow masons that photocopying will be prohibited, that all copies will be signed out and strictly audited. Even so, this announcement met with silence, a response he had foreseen. “Many Masons will tell you that one of the great bonds of this fraternity happens when I meet with you 40 times to go over this work, and I become your mentor,” he said. “Now, that’s true. But for the greater good, we have to make a decision.”

Not a secret society but “a society with secrets” is how the protagonist of “The Lost Symbol” describes the Masons. Has that secrecy served a purpose? Is the famous Masonic bond based, at least to some extent, on shared information that nobody else knows? If that was once the case, it seems safe to say that it isn’t any longer, now that detailed accounts of the Masons’ procedures have been posted online, including YouTube videos of the secret handshake.

The drama seems to be in short supply. Any Dan Brown fans who came to the convention center in Pittsburgh expecting daggers pressed to bare chests or red wine drunk out of a skull surely left disappointed. Mr. Sturgeon says that he thought Mr. Brown made that stuff up until a friend reminded him that in one ceremony they attended for a branch of Masonry called the Scottish Rite there had indeed been a skull; he is, however, quite certain that he didn’t drink wine out of it. And if there is a pyramid with Freemasonry’s highest secrets inscribed on it, as “The Lost Symbol” purports, he has yet to hear about it.

Some Masons may regret losing the mystique — though surely not as much as the conspiracy theorists, who now have less room for speculation about the order. While it’s hard to put much store in allegations that Freemasonry is Satan worship or a plot to dominate the world when its membership has included such disparate characters as Count Basie, Daniel Boone, Winston Churchill, Paul Revere, Clark Gable, J. Edgar Hoover, Mozart, Colonel Sanders, Peter Sellers, Cy Young, Pushkin and Brad Paisley, those suspicions thrived nonetheless. The conspiracy theorists, it seems, needed the Masons’ secrecy even more than the Masons needed it themselves.

Holly Brubach is a frequent contributor to The New York Times.