FOR decades, the public has been fascinated by the closely guarded rituals of the world’s oldest social network, the Freemasons.

Freemasonry is a secular fraternal society made up of men concerned with moral and spiritual values and is built on three core principles – brotherly love, relief and truth.

Its members are taught these principles through a series of ancient ritual dramas, which use stonemasons’ customs and tools as symbolic guides.

But with its arcane initiation ceremonies, archaic terminology and ‘secret’ handshakes, plus a whole raft of conspiracy theories about its inner workings, the 301-year-old society has long been shrouded in mystery and viewed with suspicion.

According to Cheshire’s Provincial Grand Master Stephen Blank, the bad press the society has received over the years is partly of its own doing, but he is determined to transform its impenetrable image.

“I think it’s largely our fault and it stems from the Second World War when dictators took against the masons and they were subject to persecution,” says Stephen.

“People feared what might happen to them and so they hid the fact that they were a Freemason. When the soldiers came back from the war they continued to hide it.

“When you look back at our history, that had never happened before. Freemasons were always very open about what they did in the community.”

In 2017 the society celebrated its 300th anniversary and a conscious decision was made for the movement to be more open and proactive about its work and, where necessary, reactive to criticism too.

By promoting transparency Stephen believes this approach will allow the organisation to survive in modern times. The Province of Cheshire Freemasons has taken to Facebook and Twitter to promote its work, and there are plenty of videos of Stephen talking about his role and experiences on the organisation’s website.

“We can no longer carry on in the fashion common after the last world war when Freemasons kept their membership to themselves and where they never spoke publicly about their activities or their giving to charity,” says Stephen.

The experienced accountant wants to show how the masons are still relevant as Britain’s most altruistic club. In Cheshire alone hundreds of good causes have benefited from almost £1million donated by the group.

The society has also donated around 12,000 teddy bears to hospitals as part of its Teddies for Loving Care (TLC) appeal.

“The Freemasons is not a charity, and we don’t collect money from the public, however every lodge makes collections from its members for charitable use,” he explained.

And he is also keen to dispel the myth that the society is for older men and encourage a new generation of members to join up.

He said: “Freemasonry means different things to each of those who join. For me, I was headed into and academic career before I decided to go into business. I suppose you could say I was a bit of a geek and my father, who was already a mason, thought it would be good for my development.

“It offers younger men a way to meet people from all backgrounds, races, and faiths, and where the subjects of politics and religion is forbidden.

“In recent times we have established a University Scheme Lodge in Cheshire, which has proved to be very attractive to students who are joining in significant numbers each year.”

One of the main things that fascinates people so much about the Freemason’s is the initiation ceremony, and it’s the one area that Stephen remains politely tight lipped about. Not for any sinister reasons – but because he says the experience makes a very powerful impression and he doesn’t want to break the fraternal bond.

He said: “There are two reasons, really. Firstly, we take an obligation to keep that part private and I don’t want to break that obligation. Secondly, because these ceremonies have such a big impact and really make an impression on those who experience it so it’s more powerful if it remains unknown.

“Yes, of course people could look it up on the internet, but then that’s a bit like reading the back page of a detective novel and spoiling the entire plot.”