Commander Michael Higham, the grand secretary of the United Grand Lodge of England, and John Hamill, the curator of the Grand Lodge Museum, painted a picture of Freemasons as spending most of their time at meetings, in complex rituals - "one act plays" - and in raising pounds 13m per year for charity.
Giving evidence to the Commons Home Affairs Committee, which is examining the role of Freemasonry in the police and judiciary, Cder Higham said that Masons had to be of good character, to believe in God, be over 21 and to have the ability to spend the time and subscription, about pounds 30 per year, on Freemasonry. He denied that the Freemasons had ever been a secret society.
He explained that until 1939, Freemasons had been quite open about their membership, but during the war, secrecy became the norm. However, in 1984 the policy changed, and "we've been talking to the public for 12 years to anyone who listened."
Cder Higham stressed that public concern about Freemasonry "comes from misunderstandings. Freemasons start from the basis that they are good citizens. If they fall foul of the criminal law, we invariably expel them."
Until the mid-Eighties, he said, Freemasonry had been self-policing and miscreants resigned without being asked to do so. Between 1946 and 1986, there were only 12 expulsions, but since then there have been 277.
Chris Mullin, a Labour member of the committee, asked whether this change of heart had resulted from increased public interest in Freemasonry. Cder Higham denied this, saying that the change in procedures followed a case in which two armed robbers went straight back to their lodge after serving six years in jail.
Earlier, Cder Higham said there were 8,650 lodges in England with 349,213 members, and membership was declining. Rules had been relaxed to ensure that it was easier for people to be asked to join, but he stressed that no one was coerced into becoming a Freemason.