Far from being the frightening, united conspiracy that so many theorists believe, Freemasonry is in fact a highly divided calling – one that cannot truly be thought of as a single organisation at all.
At the simplest levels, everything is quite straightforward. The core keystone of the Masonic organisation is the Grand Lodge (alternatively, some are called Grand Orients). This serves an administrative function, bringing together four or more Symbolic Lodges and providing them with a common set of rules and regulations. In most cases, the members of a Grand Lodge have formerly served as Master of one or more of its constituent Lodges. These Past Masters tend to have no specific duties in their home lodge, and the ones who serve at Grand Lodge possess enough spare time to donate themselves to helping with central administration and other clerical services as required. It is expected that their years of experience in the regular Lodges will give them enough insight to be in a good position to help steer the group.
The key thing that every Grand Lodge has in common, in theory, is its adherence to the ‘Landmarks’ of Freemasonry – the guiding principles that make up the very heart and core of the craft. Unfortunately, there tend to be as many different opinions as to what the Landmarks actually are as there are Freemasons. Noting the potentially divisive nature of the issue, some Grand Lodges specifically do not attempt to define the Landmarks at all (although, informally, they have a pretty close idea). So, in fact, the only absolutely common ground is that each Grand Lodge agrees that there are Landmarks which define the Craft.
For the most part, Grand Lodges tend to be organised territorially. In countries with a relatively light Masonic presence or a comparatively compact landmass, there may be a single Grand Lodge than serves the entire nation. If the country’s Lodges are numerous enough and distant from each other however, then the country may be divided up into regions, with each territory or state having its own Grand Lodge. It is not always that simple, of course. In many cases, historical events leave Grand Lodges with territories that may overlap, even within the same strand of Masonry. However, each Symbolic Lodge is attached to – and follows – just one Grand Lodge, so even in an area in which two or more Grand Lodges hold sway, any given Freemason will be under no confusion as to which body he is linked to.
In addition to the basic structure above, some regions are large enough that the Grand Lodge cannot easily represent all of its membership. In these instances, a middle layer of Provincial (or District) Grand Lodges is put in place. These, as the name suggests, are junior offshoots of the Grand Lodge responsible for a part – a province – of the Grand Lodge’s territory. Where a Provincial Grand Lodge is in place, a local Lodge will typically deal with its Provincial Grand Lodge, and the Provincial Grand Lodges will take business on to the Grand Lodge proper. To further muddy the water, some Grand Lodges are referred to as United. This is most commonly the case when two or more competing regional Grand Lodges have put aside their differences and merged back into one single body, but it can also indicate that a Grand Lodge has made use of a network of Provincial Grand Lodges beneath it.
Each Grand Lodge is its own sovereign power. It is as simple as that. There is no higher body or structure; once a Grand Lodge has been formed, it is free to do as it wills. In practice of course that means that it follows the general needs of its Lodges, because there are always opportunities for a Lodge to break away from one Grand Lodge and attach itself to a different one – or to gather some other groups and form a new one. However, setting aside the membership’s right to vote with its feet, a Grand Lodge is answerable to no-one. It can choose to modify which forms of the standard ritual its Lodges may perform, it can set membership policies, raise or lower dues, alter the structure of Lodge meetings, and generally tinker as it sees fit. Most, of course, stick with the rules and regulations that they inherited from their founder Lodges.
In addition to directing general policy with regards to the specifics of the way Freemasonry is practiced by its Lodges, a Grand Lodge also takes care of a number of other central functions. Each Lodge donates a certain amount of money a year to the Grand Lodge, in the form of assorted dues and fees towards equipment, tokens of initiation and so on. That money is budgeted at the Grand Lodge’s annual general meeting by members’ vote, and typically goes towards paying any full-time central administrative staff (reception staff, security and so on) or professionals (ie lawyers and accountants) as may be needed, maintaining such properties, museums and other projects as may be on the books, organising occasional all-member social events, preparing member newsletters, and so on. The greatest single budget item however is almost invariably the collected charitable causes.