Wednesday, May 26, 1999 Published at 14:22 GMT 15:22 UK
The organisation is perceived as a pseudo-religion
For many people in the UK, the word "freemasonry" is shorthand for shady goings-on and secret agendas.
The strange apparel, mythological terminology and role-playing ceremonies - all important elements of The Craft - have long fuelled perceptions of the organisation as a pseudo-religion or cult.
Suspicions of masonic "networks" covering up for members within professions, including the police and judiciary, have most recently led to a well-publicised inquiry and subsequent report entitled Freemasonry in Public Life.
Yet its perceived status as an underhand group of self-serving white middle class males - as well as a determination to "out" members - persists.
With a history claimed by some to go back to the reign of King Solomon, it has, according to members, only been Freemasonry's secretive practices of the post-war years that have lead to bad press.
Following persecution suffered by Freemasons under the Nazis, and the accusations that were levelled at the organisation, it decided to "go into its shell".
Spokesman for the United Grand Lodge of England and serving magistrate, Chris Connop, said Freemasonry was now "completely open".
Lodges across the UK now hold open days to encourage members of the public to see what the Freemasons do, he said. One area has even advertised in the local press for members.
The Masonic Hall and its museum in London's Covent Garden are open to the public for guided tours.
"Freemasonry went into its shell and shut out the outside world after the persecution of Hitler and general bad feeling after the Second World War.
"The problem is that some people fear they will be discriminated against if they reveal that they are a member," he said.
Masonic applicants have to be proposed and seconded by existing Lodge members. That done, they are interviewed by a panel of masons before they are allowed to join.
"One of our most important criteria for joining is that an applicant has no criminal record," says Mr Connop.
Lodges generally congregate four times a year in Temples. Meetings are formally opened, the minutes of the last meeting are read and then business commences.
Ritualistic ceremonies - which are, say Freemasons, nothing more sinister than morality plays - are acted out and last about half an hour.
The origins of Freemasonry are obscure, but they go back at least 400 years.
It is generally accepted that the organisation evolved from travelling stone masons who made the medieval cathedrals and castles.
They would meet in lodges and hold initiation ceremonies for apprentices. Modern paraphernalia still includes aprons and tools.
But despite the organisation's protestations that their practices are not secretive, they are not keen to divulge the exact nature of these ceremonies, saying it would be like telling a potential movie-goer the outcome of a film.
"Freemasonry is not a religion. Belief in a supreme being is a pre-requisite for joining, but it does not matter which supreme being that is," said Mr Connop.
"Freemasonry actually explicity forbids discussion of anything to do with religion or politics, which is what makes it such an enjoyable hobby for so many people," he added.
The UK's 340,000 Freemasons - there are also lodges which are made up exclusively of Lady Freemasons - are also expressly forbidden to promote their own interests through membership.
Mr Connop said: "Maybe a few bad apples have soured the public's perception of us, but using Freemasonry for your own ends is, in our terminology, a 'foul'."
He added: "We have a disciplinary procedure which is most frequently used when a member has been found guilty of committing a criminal act, but it is used for masonic wrongdoing as well."
Seeking promotion on the grounds of being a freemason, for example, said Mr Connop, was an offence which could lead to exclusion.
"The organisation aims to help members improve themselves as human beings. It is all based on building, and the principle is to build a better person inside oneself.
"We see the inquiry as a witch hunt," he added, "Everyone accepts that business deals are made on golf courses, but golf clubs are not required to reveal their members' names.
"We are being discriminated against in a way that is quite unjust and a breach of the European declaration of human rights.
"We are not corrupt, we do a great deal of work for charity. The way we are regarded is insulting and deeply wrong."
Whether that position dispels the continuing suspicion remains to be seen.