West Ham Abbey was consecrated a full quarter of a century before the Great War. We are proud of our heritage and we strive to persue the original objective of its founding members – to assist the communities within East London by supporting various charitable causes in a sociable and enlightening environment.
Most of this is achieved by fundraising events like ‘black tie dinners’, curry nights etc. Occasionally someone will leap out of a plane or run a considerable distance, but on the whole, we’re an unremarkable bunch with a remarkable interest in common… Freemasonry.
Like most lodges, we meet four times a year, between September and April, where we have our official meetings. These are where our decisions on supporting and donating to local causes is made. We also use these meetings to welcome new members by conducting them through a series of ceremonies similar to ‘mini plays’ called Degrees. The ceremonies are crammed with symbolism and use allegory designed to demonstrate where the candidate has come from spiritually or philosophically. Moving onwards they lead the candidate on a path to encourage them to dedicate themselves to the pursuit of an ever improving moral disposition. Members are encouraged to love and respect all humanity as if everyone was their ‘brother’, to endeavour to relieve the suffering of the sick and needy, and to be an honest and moral example to the community. These three aspects are called the Three Grand Principles on which the organisation is founded. They are referred to as Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth.
So are the meetings secret? Well, no. They are private, just like your local golf club meeting or Parish Council meeting, but there is nothing subversive, immoral or contrary to any faith requiring a secrecy within them.
So Why All the Mystery?
Have you ever had someone tell you the results of the game that you wanted to watch? How frustrating is it to know the ending before you’ve begun! In the USA and other countries, Freemasonry is widely considered to be the cornerstone of their society.
But events here in the UK led to a different approach to our public image from our cousins in the US. Prior to the 1930s, masonic lodges proudly took part in local community events in their full regalia. Prominent masons were invited to open housing estates and lodges were a part of many a march or community celebration. They were pillars of the community. It is well documented that Hitler’s ideas of an aryenne race and the ‘final solution’ had no place for Jews, Ethnic Minorities, Homosexuals etc. But it is not often mentioned that Freemasons were also rounded up, persecuted and sent to the concentration camps along with the aforementioned groups. Conservative estimates suggest anywhere between 80,000-200,000 Freemasons were executed during the holocaust.
There was a real, genuine threat in the UK that our shores may be invaded if Hitler defeated the Allied Forces. Freemasons across Britain became acutely aware that their liberty, their very lives and the lives of their families were only precariously sheltered by 18 miles of sea in the English Channel. So Freemasonry was driven underground. Lodges disappeared from public view. There was a fear that being associated with Freemasonry could compromise the safety of families and who really knew what information could be gleaned by neighbours or acquaintances threatened with torture or death.
As time went on, it became easy to blame injustices and conspiracies on an organisation that failed to defend its good name. Members were not discouraged from keeping their membership quiet. Subsequent generations followed their fathers’ example and, ‘What does dad do? … Keep Mum!’ A euphemism for keeping quiet.
The impact of that silence remains today as people associate Freemasonry with the conspiracy theories and rumour that was never reproved in the years subsequent to the threat on their liberty. With this in mind, UGLE (United Grand Lodge of England) has made considerable steps in the last decade to redress this misconception. Freemasons are actively encouraged to talk about and promote the fraternity. Some habits die hard and some people would rather keep their membership quiet. We need to respect their wishes too. What is certain, is that their desire to remain private is their own choice rather than because of the content of our meeting or our organisation.
On The Level…?
Have you heard this phrase before? What does it mean to you? All things are equal, fairness, equality. Our membership spans a variety of professions and vocations. The beauty of Freemasonry is that it gives members from very differing backgrounds the opportunity to meet, chat and enjoy a comradeship that transcends faith or political ideals. How? Well because those two topics are strictly forbidden from discussion. This lends itself to objectivity, altruism and humility.