A few years ago, some friends and I put together a festival of art and worship in and around our home town. We brought together all sorts of music, visual art, prayer rooms, poetry. The final event was a worship concert led by a worship leader/song writer from England, who shall remain nameless- suffice it to say that he is of a prophetic bent.
The final concert drew a lot of people- the festival had been rather successful in gathering together our rather disparate and sectarian denominational groups. Sadly, not many people stayed to the end. The worship leader was used to lashing up a Holy Ghost storm, and when the response was more -shall we say – West of Scotland Presbyterian, he switched into Spiritual Warfare mode. It became a train wreck, and I am still wincing as I write this.
The rights and wrongs I will not debate fully here, but one of the issues that the worship leader thundered about was Freemasonry. His declaration was that it was the work of the devil, and the reason for all the spiritual oppression that held us all back from worship, and prevented God from working in our area. I always thought this to be wrong in both theory and application, and even years and years later, there are people in my town who regard Aoradh with great suspicion because of this event.
But what of Freemasonry? I was reminded again of the weirdness of it all whilst reading this article. It is an adventure into Co-Masonry, an order that welcomes men and women alike, but points out that all forms of Freemasonry in the UK are in decline, and have an aging membership.
At its postwar peak, membership of a fraternity that began as a sort of union for medieval stonemasons was boosted by returning armed service personnel as well as some of the most powerful men in the land. George VI, who died in 1952, is the last British king to be listed on the official UGLE website, which also includes Winston Churchill, an Archbishop of Canterbury and a surprisingly long list of celebrities from Nat King Cole to Peter Sellers. The royal connection continues today with the Duke of Kent, who is the current grand master of the UGLE.
Freemasons have long denied suggestions that it is a pernicious old boys’ network, arguing that it is a sort of gentleman’s club, concerned with moral and spiritual growth. Although in the UK the sense that freemasons are no longer the force they once were has given rise to jokes about suburban middle managers prone to rolling up their trouser legs and doing funny handshakes, there are signs elsewhere that membership confers preferment. The collapse of Propaganda Due or P2, an order that linked Silvio Berlusconi to the Italian central bank and the heads of all three secret services until it was closed down in the 1980s, did little to end suspicions.
Given this double whammy of conspiracy and mockery, it is no surprise that all parts of the fraternity are looking for a rebrand. Or the fact that Co-Freemasons want to disassociate themselves from the main branch, employ a PR company and launch a “recruitment drive” specifically aimed at attracting younger women.
A quasi-religion in decline? No surprise there- after all most Christian denominations have shrunk considerably over the past few decades in the UK- we have moved into a phase of individualised fluidity, when anchoring ourselves to clubs with Victorian rituals has really gone out of fashion for all but a few weirdos (like me.)
That is without making any mention of the scandals and controversies around Freemasonry. They are at the centre of more conspiracy theories than just about any other group, and quite frankly I am not interested. Neither am I that keen on categorising a whole group of people as ‘evil’ or corrupt just because of the clubs they belong to.
I simply do not know enough about it all to label people like this. I can attest to the fact that two of the nicest blokes I know- people active in their community, people who live and work with integrity and humanity – are also masons.
I do confess however to some prejudice. This from the same article;
There has been a long and often bitter history of mistrust between organised religion and freemasonry. At its most benign it led to a spat between freemasons and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, when he suggested their beliefs were incompatible with Christianity. He then got into trouble for appointing a freemason to be bishop, thereby proving many avenues are open to freemasons but still closed to women.
The worship leader earlier mentioned was right in one sense- Argyll has long been a stronghold of Freemasonry. Each of our small towns has its own Lodge.
There is also, from local gossip, a strong link between our Council and the local lodges. Argyll has had one of the few ‘independent’ led councils- although the SNP currently lead the coalition. There was a time when some of the senior council officers and the political leadership supposedly shared a common, yet secret brotherhood.
But of course, this is speculation- how can I know for sure? It is after all a secret organisation. If it is true, then no matter how good, how honest the people involved, then this kind of alliance has no part in a democracy. There is quite enough secret use of power even without a quasi religious overlay. We need greater openness, not a shared secret ritual for the chosen few.
So- the question- benign oddity or corruption? I suppose the answer is that Freemasonry can be both, even at the same time. Charity can go hand in hand with the promotion of mutual interest. This can happen equally in churches, cricket clubs or mosques. The difference is the secrecy – can Freemasonry survive without all the ceremonial mystique?
The spiritual side of all this, unlike the worship leader, I am happy to leave to God.