MANY consider it a secret society shrouded in mystery, but Oxfordshire’s Masons say nothing could be further from the truth.

While many of the society’s practices – such as its famous secret handshake – are destined to remain undisclosed, the Oxfordshire branch of Freemasonry – which has around 2,000 members – is hoping to shed a little light on what it is.

Stephen Dunning, the Provincial Grand Master for Oxfordshire, says a lot of what is said about Masons is “bunkum”.

He said: “I am saddened by the misunderstandings, not frustrated about them because often I find that the people who come out with these theories don’t want to find out the facts.

“The charities we raise money for have no problem with the fact that we are Masons.

“They are incredibly grateful for the support.

“I believe we are part of the community and I would like the community to have as much information about us as possible.”

Mr Dunning, 61, who lives in Bampton, near Witney, and joined in 1984, was introduced to Freemasonry through his father-in-law. He said most of the organisation’s “secret” rituals are published in books available from mainstream bookshops.

Former police officer and Witney resident Roger Hampshire, the Provincial Grand Charity Steward, said: “The main reason people join the Masons is friendship and having somewhere to meet like-minded people and some of them are very keen to know about the charitable side of it.

“I joined Thames Valley Police in 1972 and I became a Mason because it was just a way of socialising with my colleagues.”

One of the best-known myths about Freemasonry revolves around its use of the so-called “all-seeing eye” in its iconography.

Some claim that the eye’s appearance on the Great Seal of the United States shows the Freemasonry’s influence in the country’s founding.

But Mr Dunning said: “One of the key things about becoming a Mason is the belief in a supreme being and the all-seeing eye is just a representation of that.”

Which religion that Supreme Being comes from is irrelevant.

Mr Dunning says Oxfordshire’s Masonic lodge has members who are Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh.

Mr Dunning, a lawyer, said: “We have got lots of people of different faiths.

“Nobody is surprised when you tell them you are a Mason. I have a magazine called Freemasonry Today which I leave in my office. I am very proud to be a Mason.”

Mr Hampshire added: “Nowadays it seems quite normal.”

Origins lost in history and the myths that followed

Freemasonry is a fraternal organisation, the precise origins of which are unclear. However it owes its creation to the loose organisation of medieval stonemasonry.

Membership is restricted to men aged over 21 who believe in a “supreme being”.

The United Grand Lodge of England – whose Grand Master is the Duke of Kent – estimates that there are around six million Masons worldwide.

There are around 8,000 lodges in England. They are grouped into Provincial Grand Lodges, of which Oxfordshire is one, roughly equivalent to the country’s historic counties. These make up the United Grand Lodge of England.

According to the United Grand Lodge of England, Freemasonry instils in its members a “moral and ethical approach to life”, of which charity work forms an important part.

Famous Masons include Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Peter Sellers, Sir Alf Ramsey and, locally, former Oxfordshire County Council leader Keith Mitchell.

Myths about the Masons include:

MASONIC bible – Masons have been accused of using their own mysterious bible in their rituals and while a bible does feature in the society’s ceremonies it is actually just a King James Bible with some Masonic decorations on the front.

SECRET handshake – The famous secret handshake does exist – and like many Masonic traditions owes its origins to medieval stonemasonry – but is rarely used outside of the society’s rituals. Mr Dunning said he had never knowingly received the handshake outside a Masonic setting.

SYMBOLS – Many of the symbols Freemasonry uses are ubiquitous, such as the all-seeing eye, and have led to conspiracy theories that Masons are behind world events such as the American Revolution but many of these symbols are older than Freemasonry and have been given “occult” meanings relatively recently.

County lodges

The Oxfordshire Provincial Grand Lodge was formed in 1837 with Lord Henry John Spencer Churchill – the fourth son of the fifth Duke of Marlborough – as the first Provincial Grand Master.

There are nine Masonic Centres around Oxfordshire, including in Witney, Thame, Banbury and Bicester but Oxford’s Masons are currently searching for a home.

Before moving to Summertown, Oxford’s Masons were based in High Street.

50 High Street, opposite Examination Schools, was rebuilt by Magdalen College in 1901 and the Masons moved in six years later.

They were based there for more than 50 years until the Temple at 333 Banbury Road was dedicated.

However last year the hall, which was also used as a conference centre, was closed and sold off because of a lack of conference trade.

It has since been purchased by development company Homespace which wants to turn it into 17 homes.

Oxford’s Masons are currently meeting in temporary accommodation while they search for a new base.

Charity work

In 2012 the lodges which make up the Oxfordshire Provincial Grand Lodge donated £58,000 to 138 charities including Thames Valley & Chiltern Air Ambulance, Maggie’s Cancer Centre, Helen and Douglas House and Oxfordshire Domestic Abuse Service.

The Province itself donated £18,450 to some 25 charities including Sobell House Hospice, Bicester Food Bank and Oxford University Development Trust.

Every year Oxfordshire’s Masons pay for a group of disabled and disadvantaged children to go to a panto – this year Aladdin in Henley.