Masons' sign of the times

(First Edition)

THE COMPUTER age has penetrated most of society's crevices, but now there can be no doubt that it reigns supreme: members of the fraternal order of Freemasons, the world's largest secret society, have begun bonding with their brothers worldwide via electronic mail.

Masons from Britain, America and elsewhere are tapping into a US-based computer database to spend hours poring over their personal computers swapping information about their ancient rites and the contemporary state of the craft.

The debate has unearthed some surprising differences within the brotherhood, which is better known for its medieval titles, secret passwords and strange handshakes than for its swift embrace of new technology. In particular, English masons have found that their American counterparts are a lot less clandestine than they are.

Lodge members from the United States have described how they openly wear masonic rings and pins - a practice which tends to be frowned upon in England. A customised numberplate is even being driven around America by an enthusiastic member hoping to attract new recruits: '2B1 ASK1'. (This tactic is unlikely to work in England, where a mason can only propose an outsider for membership if they have known one another for 10 years). Some lodges have signs outside their buildings that light up during meetings.

American masons, who include a large number of police officers, have spent 'on-line' time discussing what to do with their guns during meetings, where they are banned. In Memphis, Tennessee they are collected by the 'tyler' and locked up in an office, until proceedings end. Members from California, referred to jokingly as 'surfer masons' or 'worshipful dudes', are particularly garrulous.

But perhaps the most surprising revelation in the debate, on the Ohio-based CompuServe network, is a claim that President Bill Clinton joined the Chapter of DeMolay in Hot Springs, Arkansas, a masons-sponsored organisation for boys aged 13-21 which has its own secret vocabulary of signs, passwords and modes of recognition. He did not go so far as to roll up the trouser leg and don the apron - mindful, no doubt, that becoming a fully-fledged freemason would not have gone down well with his female constituency.

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