talking to

Grand Master of Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons (Freemasonry for Women)

Photo Credit: Caitlin Chescoe

Following the principle of “we can reach the light through various paths” we realised this interview because women need to feel recognized and empowered, and Freemasonry can certainly make women confident, aware and self-assured because it is essentially a system of morality and guidance that guides you to lead a better life.
More visibility is necessary for women’s Freemasonry because it is important for society to know that women’s Freemasonry exists, and that it is not something occult, and represents a system of moral guidance and education, characterized by allegory and symbolism, and which allows its members to follow a common purpose and involve themselves in the good of society.

Good morning, Christine! We have the honour of hosting today an interview with the Grand Master of the Honorable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasonry (also known as the Freemasonry for Women), Mrs. Christine Chapman. Welcome, Christine!

Thank you, Mirela, thank you very much! It’s a pleasure to be here.
Thank you! It’s an honour for us. Many people have heard of Freemasonry, but associate it with men, perhaps because the women begin to have a voice in society quite late. For someone who only now hears about its existence, is Freemasonry different for women than for men, keeping in mind that the same values are promoted and respected? Why do you think women were not accepted or involved in Freemasonry when men formed it over 300 years ago?

Firstly let me say that there isn’t a great deal of difference between men’s Freemasonry and women’s Freemasonry except one of size: men’s Freemasonry is a huge organization and women’s Freemasonry, by comparison, is much smaller. The reason why women weren’t allowed to join – or even thought about joining – in those early days is because in society women were very much second class citizens, they were not even considered to have a brain. They were considered quite inferior creatures, purely there for the purposes of having children and doing the work. I’m afraid that’s the answer why! And remembrance of that attitude towards women carried on right through the late 19th century, which is when women began to find a voice for themselves and struggled to gain suffrage. They fought for that, and that’s why many suffragettes were members of the early Masonic movement which included women.

Do you think that even today it is difficult for women’s Freemasonry to impose itself in society – dare I say in a society still belonging to men?
Yes. Because of the size of our organization we don’t get heard very often, but we certainly are making our voice heard within masculine Freemasonry – in the UK, anyway. They listen to us and they take our opinion very seriously and they work with us.
As Grand Master, you are a public person with a lot of exposure. How are you regarded by society, both women and men?
Disappointingly, nobody outside of Freemasonry knows who I am and therefore I carry no influence! Nobody recognizes me in the street, I can’t go to my local supermarket and demand to go to the head of the queue! I am a secret to most people, they look at me and don’t realize what is behind me, they just see a woman of senior age. I don’t disabuse them of that, because it isn’t really relevant to modern living – it’s only when it comes up in conversation that I’m able to tell everybody about women’s Freemasonry.
We have to work to change this!

You were initiated in 1976 which, incidentally, is also the year when I was born. From a personal perspective, I know what it is to live for 46 years – please tell us now what 46 years of Freemasonry has meant to you, what motivated you to ask for initiation and what has been your journey up to this point, as Grand Master.
I was motivated by the fact that my mother, who was herself a Freemason, invited me to join her Lodge. I had the examples of my late father and my late husband in front of me and I could see they really enjoyed their membership, and my mother enjoyed her membership. That’s why I thought I should join this. I already knew a lot of the people involved in that Lodge, and that is why I joined. I didn’t actually ask to join, I was asked to join.

It was a family tradition! What have been your objectives for the leadership of the Grand Lodge since your election as Grand Master? Has your Masonic leadership program been easy to accomplish up to this point?
When I took over, my objectives were to expand the Fraternity, to modernize its practices and generally to bring it more in line with modern society, because it was quite an old-fashioned organization. Therefore, that’s what I considered to be my goals. Most of that has been achieved, but I’m afraid Covid knocked us all a bit sideways. We have lost quite a few members not through death, but through the fact that they were at home for many, many months and they lost the motivation to come, especially the older members. Now they have an age, they don’t particularly want to mix again with large numbers of people. But, strangely enough, we have received hundreds of inquiries from younger people throughout the lockdowns and this pandemic, asking about Freemasonry and asking to join. Most of them now are beginning to join, so that is our hope for the future – to bring it to a much younger membership and to extoll its virtues amongst the wider population.

The HFAF was founded in 1913, having a history of more than a century. Can you share with us its journey over the years to this point?
Well, it was founded as a result of an argument between the older movement – which had broken away from the Co-Masonic movement, but it’s all very complicated so I’d better go back at the beginning. In 1882, Marie de Rhein was invited by a French Lodge to join them – the first woman ever to do so. This actually created the movement which caused a huge schism in the French Masonic movement and resulted in Co-Freemasonry, which is men and women together. It was brought in the UK in 1902 by Annie Besant, another social reformer. That was fine until about 1908, when yet another group belonging to that decided they wanted to be more traditional and work along the lines of UGLE, so they broke away. In 1913 our founders, who were members of that second organization, wanted to practice the Royal Arch Degree and were refused permission to do so. They decided to break away and found a third movement, known as the Honourable Fraternity of the Ancient Freemasons. That is how we came into existence. It started in a small way with three Lodges and slowly grew over the years. It was restricted because of lack of numbers, we couldn’t have hundreds of Lodges, it just didn’t work that way, but we managed to introduce various degrees along the way – what we call “progressive orders” – and so here we are today, working with UGLE in many aspects, especially the university scheme. We are also very much into a joint PR message.

How many Lodges and how many members does the HFAF have? What rituals does it practice, do you have any appendant bodies – York Rite, Scottish Rite? If so, I assume the governance is separate from the Craft ranks.
As I said, we’re still a very small organization, we’re only about 700 members at the moment. We did have more maybe when I joined, but we never knew whether they were accurate in their counting in those days. We have 35 Lodges at the moment and they’re active – obviously, over time, some Lodges stop working and become inactive. We have several Lodges or side orders, units with side orders. The first one to be introduced was the Royal Arch Degree, that was the cause of the split, followed by the Rosecroix, the 18th Degree of the Ancient and Accepted Rite. We use the Ancient and Accepted Rite in the 18th and 30th Degree, but in the Craft degrees we use a ritual based upon universal working, which is a UK ritual promulgated by the men. The leadership of some of the other orders is independent of the Grand Lodge, but it all comes under the umbrella of Freemasonry for Women, however the Royal Arch and the Mark Degree and the Royal Ark Mariners is all governed with the same three Grand Masters.

We would like to approach the international relations of the HFAF. How many international recognitions do you have? Do you have relations only with women’s Freemasonry or also with mixed ones? Have you – like men’s Freemasonry – exchanged grand representatives with foreign jurisdictions?
We have no official recognition. To be recognized, in the UK Masonic terms, means that you could visit. Since we are a single-sex organization, that doesn’t work. The UGLE acknowledges us as regular in our work, in our Lodges. There is a very subtle difference, a play on words – there’s a difference between acknowledgment and recognition. We have no formal recognitions with any other overseas Lodges, we have informal approaches made to us. When we set up new Lodges overseas we are often helped by the Grand Lodges that are already in existence over there.
I know that HFAF also has Lodges abroad, in the US, India, Romania, Spain and Gibraltar. What were the criteria when you selected the countries? Do you intend to open Lodges in other countries in the future?
The criteria for us to set up a new Lodge in a new country is that there should be a sufficiently large number of women interested, and wherever possible – because we are such a small organization – we prefer if they could come to the UK to take their degrees. In some instances, such as India, we went out with a party of us and we literally initiated, passed and raised a large number of Indian women on our trip out there and we consecrated the Lodge. It must be that they work the ritual in English, they must work in English and follow our constitutions. We have plans for Lodges in Brazil, in Germany, ­hopefully in Ireland and we’re just about to reopen one in ­Coventry. As they approach we try to help them, but we can’t do everything. I think Africa is certainly beyond us at the moment. We get lots of requests from Africa but they don’t have enough members sufficiently interested, and the geographical ­distances between everywhere is too large. The same goes for Australia. Australia has some Order of Women Freemasons, there are some OWF Grand Lodges out there. If we get inquiries, we tend to send them to the OWF. If the OWF receive inquiries from America, they send them to us, because they know we have a Lodge in Washington, D.C. It swings in roundabouts between us.

You told us earlier that you share the same university scheme with UGLE. Is this a success? Have you recruited young people? What is the average age of HFAF membership?
The university scheme is a moderate success because it takes a long while to establish amongst universities. We do this by attending so-called fresher’s fairs, which is when the new students go to the campus and there’s lots of people there, offering their wares, marketing clubs and societies. We take a stall along with the men and we have to do this maybe several years running before they start to realize we are a serious organization. Yes, we do recruit from there, it’s a very small number at the moment, but it raises our profile considerably. I would say the average age used to be between 50 and 70, but it’s slowly coming down now. I would say it’s more like 30 to 50, thank goodness!
The English-speaking men’s Grand Lodges are losing members lately.
They’re not! I have to disagree with you there. UGLE said last year that their numbers were actually rising. It’s true they have had many years of losing members. In the past they were definitely losing members, but they’ve started to increase again.
That’s good! Is the same happening in women’s Freemasonry?
Yes, we were just rising again, but then Covid came along and now we have to build it up again. But it’s going up again. There is a big demand for it, believe it or not.
Do you think the world needs Freemasonry nowadays as in the past? If so, why?
The world needs Freemasonry, no doubt about it, particularly younger people. They are floating in a society which concentrates so much on material possessions, on instant gratification and social media, I’m afraid, although it’s good in many ways for us, it helps us to promote ourselves, is very bad at times and causes feelings of insecurity amongst people, and loneliness, surprisingly. Online friends are not the same as real friends, and with Freemasonry there is an ac­ceptance once you get in, a belonging to a Masonic family. There is also a lot of teaching, how to be a better person and to incorporate that into your own life. I think people need help nowadays.

In your opinion, what is the most difficult problem facing Freemasonry in general, and women’s Freemasonry in particular?
The biggest problem for us is to raise awareness. We are very small, so trying to raise our profile more and more, to make more people aware of us, to make more people aware that they can join us. It’s something that will benefit them spiritually, we hope.
Men’s Freemasonry has become more of a charitable society in recent decades in various parts of the world. What is your view on this and what advice do you have for returning Freemasonry to what it was?
I think you’ll find that the reason why charitable purpose is focused on is because it receives a good press. There was such a bad press for Freemasonry in the 60’s and the 70’s, particularly in the UK, and that carried forward in the public consciousness for decades. So they continue to promote the fact that they’ve raised all this money for whatever purpose and they have pictures of checks being handed over. It’s fine, but it’s not the ultimate purpose of Freemasonry. It’s a benefit of belonging to a Lodge, to a Masonic organization that you are encouraged to give charity and to support charity, but the main benefit is to yourself, to make you a better person. Yes, men’s Freemasonry has appeared to concentrate on that, but behind the scenes it has also introduced lots of programs of Masonic teaching and education which are quite wonderful. They have some wonderful online resources now, one of them is called Solomon. It is recognition that membership is more than just paying your fee and having a ceremony, going to the bar, going home and that’s it. It’s much, much more than that. We have ­education, we’ve had lots of Zoom education sessions when we were locked down, and that has continued on, because it was very popular. We have mentors – individual mentors and Lodge mentors –, who all the time to continue to educate our new members as they reach different Masonic degrees. I think you have the same in Romania, the 1st Degree, 2nd Degree and 3rd Degree, that is the Apprentice, the Fellowcraft and the Master Mason, in the Ancient and Accepted Rite. As you know, we’ve had several members from Romania. We had our own Romanian Lodge, and then several members from another organization decided to join it. It’s become a much bigger Lodge now, which we’re quite pleased about. We continually believe in education and teaching as part of our duty as Freemasons.
How do you see the evolution of the women’s Free­masonry going forward, considering that woman was made by the Great Architect in a relationship of equality with man and, at least for this reason, it is natural that she be able to stand on equal footing in any field?
Well, I agree with the general principle there, very much so! But society took a long while to catch up to the idea of women being equal to men, as you probably realize. If you look back even a hundred years, it was very different for women. So Freemasonry for Women and other female Grand Lodges are probably working with their corresponding masculine Grand Lodges much more. In the UK you can join a ­Co‑Masonic Lodge, which is men and women together, or you can join single-sex Freemasonry, which is men only or women only. People have a choice in the UK. A lot of women actually prefer to be in a women-only environment – and actually also men prefer it. Unless and until there is a huge demand from the membership of both sides for it to become mixed, it’s unlikely to happen on a large scale.
Finally, having taken stock of your impressive Masonic journey, please give us some highlights of your life outside Freemasonry.
Because Freemasonry has played such a huge role in my life for many years, I have a very low-key outside life now, especially as I’ve got older. I take pleasure in simple things like my garden, which is sadly neglected at times because I have so little free time. As I live in a coastal town, by the seaside, I very much enjoy ­taking a walk by the sea and stopping for a ­coffee on the beach, which is a very simple pleasure, but it’s half an hour of communing with nature if you like, just relaxing. The cares of running an organization are lifted slightly from my shoulders. But I do retire from this position at the beginning of 2024, so I will have a lot more free time after that. I like reading as well, and that’s also curtailed a lot because I’ve always got my head doing e-mails or something to do with the organization, or even – in the early days – learning ceremonies as I progressed in office. It will be nice to be able to relax and just take pleasure in the simple things in life. I will always be a Freemason, it’s in my heart now, but I will be able to relinquish the burden of responsibility for the organization, although I will always be there to give advice.
Thank you very much, Christine. We’ve come to the end of our interview. I think that women’s Masonic voice should be heard more and more intensely within the Craft.