So intense has been the public criticism of the secrecy surrounding freemasons that the United Grand Lodge of England is now eager to demonstrate its openness by encouraging academic interest.
The Canonbury Masonic Research Centre in Islington, north London, is negotiating accreditation for the first Master of Arts in freemasonry, to begin in October 2000. The negotiations are at an advanced stage, but the name of the university involved is being kept secret until the deal is finalised.
Students will be able to learn about the origins and significance of such rituals as the masonic handshake, the traditional form of recognition first used by freemasons in medieval times to prove their identity in meetings. The research centre will also be open to members of the public who want to access information about freemasonry from its database, which will include material from around the world and from the Grand Lodge library.
However, educational bodies such as the Association of University Teachers fear the centre will become a propaganda vehicle for the masons and will stifle academic freedom.
The six lecturers who have been enlisted to run other courses from the medieval building are not masons, but its trustees include high-ranking masons such as Lord Northampton, assistant grand master of the United Grand Lodge; James Daniel, its grand secretary; and the author Michael Baigent.
Lord Northampton is providing part of the funding and the rest will come from course fees and donations.
Dr Leon Schlamm, a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Kent, has been appointed academic director of the institute and is establishing the MA course, which will also include modules in ancient Egyptology and mystical philosophy.
Snezana Lawrence, the centre's director, says it will be independent from the Grand Lodge and aims to encourage research into freemasonry to make the public more informed.
"This is a big part of history which has not been explored," she said. "There has been a lot of adverse publicity about freemasons which has come out of ignorance. We will be looking at the tradition of freemasonry worldwide and encourage research and study by coordinating information on one site."
The centre's launch coincides with a recruitment crisis for the masons, of which there are 350,000 in England and Wales. Although about 11,000 new members registered with the United Grand Lodge last year, many left "the craft" after an inquiry by the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee called for masonic membership lists to be made public.
The United Grand Lodge believes that the centre will help to overcome prejudice against freemasons. "We are a force for good in society and if we were as powerful as people say we are then no one would have been able to attack us like they have," said a spokesman.Reuse content