The Masons in Britain are, apparently, open to anyone who believes in a God and donate huge sums to charity. So what did Breivik see in it?

Among the bizarre photographs that the Norwegian mass killer, Anders Breivik, displayed of himself on the internet, posing in different uniforms, was one in which he was wearing the characteristic Masonic apron. It appears that sometime during his twisted career he had become a Freemason. Was this because it made him feel important, he liked the idea of a secret society, or because Masonic views about Muslim immigration accorded with his own racist views?

These questions came into my mind as I was accompanying my very elderly mother to an event on Saturday that she loves (but which I find irresistibly dull): the Oxfordshire County Show. To sneak a book along with me, to read as she watched prize cattle parading past, would have been a social solecism of the highest order in my mother’s eyes. There was momentary relief when I was ordered to go and find her a glass of wine from somewhere. It meant I could do a quick trawl of the stalls. And among the leatherwork, farm equipment and suchlike, I caught sight of a stall advertising the local Masonic lodge.

Slipping in behind the backs of the officials manning it, I grabbed all the literature I could find: free pamphlets with the titles: “All about Freemasons: interested?”, “Freemasons: a partner’s guide”, “Our History” and “Charities”. At least it was printed matter. I duly scanned these offerings surreptitiously while my mother sipped her wine and watched the show jumping.

All I knew about Freemasonry I had gleaned from a book I had read at my convent boarding school – egged on by a school friend who spoke of its fearful rituals and oaths – called Darkness Visible: A Christian Appraisal of Freemasonry, by Walter Hannah, published in 1952. If I remember, these oaths included agreeing to have your tongue torn out and being buried up to your neck in sand at low tide if you gave away Masonic secrets. This might have appealed to a person like Breivik – but what was this stall doing at a quintessential rural English occasion like a country show?

It seems I was quite wrong in my prejudices and assumptions: the pamphlet called “Interested” talked about the clubbiness and conviviality of the Lodge meetings; “Freemasonry is not a secret society”, it declared. OK, there are a few secret signs and passwords used by Masons to identify one another, but these are simply ceremonial. The “Charities” leaflet showed the enormous sums donated by the Freemasons to the victims of hurricanes and tsunamis, local hospices and other worthy causes.

The Partners’ Guide (a very PC phrase) showed pictures of wives and children and again reassured readers that it was not a secret society with secret rituals, but open to men of all religions “who share a concern for human values and moral standards” and who “strive to live by the fundamental principles of integrity, good will and charity.” It also declares that “While every Freemason must hold a personal belief in a God as a Supreme Being, there is no separate theology. Any man who believes in a God, from whatever Faith, will be comfortable with all that Freemasonry is, does and teaches.”

The last pamphlet, “Our History”, puzzled me slightly. I had thought the Masons were sure they could trace back their lineage to King Solomon’s temple and a chap called Hiram Abiff, apparently King Solomon’s chief architect; here I read that “it is generally accepted to be connected with the Stone Masons who built the great medieval cathedrals and castles”. So deeply Catholic origins, then? There seems to have then been a gap until the 18th century when it flourished mightily in Protestant England. Yes, there are funny handshakes but these are only used at Lodge meetings.

It’s amazing how interesting an agricultural show becomes with literature like this on hand. But I still have questions. Why was someone like Breivik attracted to Freemasonry when “it admits all men regardless of race, creed, colour, faith or nationality”? Why are Catholics forbidden to join? What happened to the horrible oaths used in the degree ceremonies and why were they allowed in the first place? What links can there possibly be between the devout Catholic masons and craftsmen of, eg Chartres or Durham cathedral and modern Freemasonry? Oh – and why does the Masonic Hall in Brecon not have any windows on the ground floor?