Behind the scenes at the Sussex Freemasons' annual meeting

The Sussex Freemasons held a public parade for the first time in more than a century ahead of their annual meeting on Monday.

Our reporter went along to find out more...

The annual meeting of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Sussex

The annual meeting of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Sussex

Ornate aprons embroidered in gold, compass-shaped medallions dangling from mayoral-style chains and tall ceremonial staffs.

Residents passing by the curiously-dressed parade outside Worthing Town Hall on Monday may not have realised it, but they were witnessing the first public procession of Freemasons in Sussex in more than a century.

The Provincial Grand Lodge of Sussex, which includes around 5,300 members belonging to 161 lodges across the county, held its annual general meeting at the Assembly Hall in Stoke Abbott Road.

For the first time, the fraternal society invited the press along to watch both the public procession in Chapel Road – the first in Worthing since 1912 – and the opening of the meeting.

The public parade

The public parade

It marks a significant opening up for an organisation which admits it has been viewed ‘with a certain amount of suspicion’.

“We just thought, what is there that is private,” said Maurice Adams, a member of the provincial executive at the lodge.

“One of the problems over the years is there have been those who say we are a bit shadowy and we are a secret organisation.

“The answer is actually, we are here. If you want to, you can tour our headquarters.”

Grandmaster Christoper Moore

Grandmaster Christoper Moore

The Provincial Grand Lodge of Sussex is one of 47 grand lodges across England and Wales, administered by The United Grand Lodge of England, based in London’s Great Queen Street.

Around 1,000 Sussex members attended the meeting on Monday – from the worshipful masters in charge of the individual lodges across the region to the executive members, the stewards and ordinary masons.

These members come from ‘all walks of life’, said grand officer Colin Dann.

“You’ll find builders, doctors, solicitors, electricians, plumbers, taxi drivers...it’s open to all,” he said, adding: “We are trying to be far more open to attract younger people.

Members of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Sussex

Members of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Sussex

“We do need to encourage younger people.”

A report from 2017 found the average age of Sussex members to be 42, though anyone over the age of 21 can apply – as long as they do not have a criminal record.

Mr Adams explained: “It’s about standards. Freemasonry has honour and integrity at its heart.

“If I was charged and found guilty of a crime, I would no longer be a member.”

Only men can join a lodge. While separate, women-only lodges exist in Sussex, they are not linked to the provincial grand lodge.

Men of any religion are permitted to join but belief in a supreme divine being is a must. Atheists cannot apply.

But why become a Freemason?

Mr Adams said: “Part of it is the camaraderie. We have our meetings, we go for meals, we have socials.”

Charity is also a very important part of the organisation.

Lodges raise money for many Sussex charities including Riding for the Disabled, Chestnut Tree House and the air ambulance.

Between 2010 and 2017, £3.6million was raised for organisations in Sussex.

Teddies for Loving Care, a Freemason initiative, has donated more than a million teddy bears for children admitted to Accident and Emergency in severe distress around the country.

Raising money for multiple worthy causes was one of the biggest attractions of becoming a Freemason, member Ryan Heal said.

He said: “It’s the charitable giving, being able to make a difference to so many different causes.

“I constantly hear that we are one of the largest fundraising organisations in Europe.”

Mr Heal said the charitable element of the organisation was often overlooked. He said: “Sometimes our fundraising can be forgotten.

"But it’s always at the heart of what we do. That’s part of the attraction, being able to make a genuine difference.”

He also said it was a myth that lodges only give to masonic charities. “A lot of what we give is to non-masonic organisations,” he said.

A sense of history and ceremony is also a key element of belonging to a centuries-old organisation whose traditions are rooted in the fraternities of stonemasons.

“There is so much symbolism in what we do,” said Mr Adams, pointing out the architectural symbols – squares, levels, blocks of stone – which are placed around the hall.

Yet while these symbols are openly on display, there are other elements to being a Freemason – such as the legendary handshake – that are, as Mr Adams describes them, ‘private’.

However Mr Adams denied suggestions that the group’s secrecy covered a network of influence, in which members holding positions of power in society favoured other Freemasons, as some critics have said.

“Because we are private, it is what is said,” he said. “But if we were to find people who had done that, we would take disciplinary action against them.”

The days of having to know someone in order to join a lodge were over, he added.

“We have a membership officer and if someone wants to join us they can contact us,” Mr Adams said.

While the public procession in town proves that many masons are more than happy to acknowledge their membership, there are some Freemasons who choose not to disclose this fact.

Mr Adams said it was a private matter for each member to decide. “It’s entirely up to them,” he said, adding: “Though we would say it is something to be proud of.”

After the public parade, members in the hall stand while – to a cheerful tune played on an organ – senior members of the lodges march into the room and up to the stage to take their seats.

Along with general committee reports and end-of-year accounts, appointments and promotions will be made at the meeting.

It is a particularly significant day for Mr Adams, who is due to be appointed deputy grandmaster of the provincial grand lodge.

At the end of the procession, Grandmaster Christopher Moore enters to a round of applause, led by a sword-bearing assistant and followed by two men carrying flags.

He takes his seat centre stage behind a small table on which sits the ‘volume of sacred law’.

The meeting is about to commence and visitors are quietly ushered out of the room – our unique and historic insight into the world of Freemasonry has come to an end.