Freemasonry- benign oddity or the seed of corruption?

freemasonry

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.

Touche.

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.

Burns day…

Today is Burns day.

For the uninitiated, this is a big day up here in Scotland. There will be many a haggis piped in and much raising of whisky glasses along with ceremonial readings of Burns poetry. It is possible that somewhere in this wonderful world that there are other great poets whose memory is celebrated by a national day all of their own – the poets of ancient Persia perhaps – but if so, I do not know of it. This fact alone singles out Burns as special.

(There is an interesting article in the Guardian today about William Barnes, a Dorset poet, also a farmers son who wrote in his own dialect.)

Burns was a man who packed an awful lot into his 37 years of life. Before he died in 1796 he had been a farmer, a book keeper on a Jamaican slave plantation, a tax man, a part time soldier, a song writer and (of course) a poet of power, subtlety and gifting who was able to speak with an authentic voice.

Burns personal life was no less colourful. Jacobite, Freemason, Socialite, Womaniser (who is said to have had many illegitimate children.) Lover whose poems immortalised Highland Mary, whose statue stands above her (and my) home town still –

Burns died young after living hard. He was a man of many contradictions; a supporter of revolution who collected taxes; a campaigner for liberty and justice who worked on a slave plantation; a socialite and friend of the rich and powerful whose wife and many children lived in real hardship, particularly after his death.

Why did his poetry endure? How did it become to be so identified with Scottish culture?

Burns was a fierce nationalist, and his Jacobite leanings had become very fashionable in the century after his death thanks to the Victorian romantic vision of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ and the reinvention of Highland heritage and regalia by Sir Walter Scott, who had known Burns. Although Scott, a Unionist, would certainly not have approved of this one;

The other force that propelled his on going fame was the establishment of Burns nights by friends of Burns shortly after his death. The huge popularity of Freemasonry at the time carried this tradition all around Scotland and into Northern Ireland, as Lodges began to celebrate Burns night with food, whisky and poetry.

Burns endures because his poetry capture something of what Scotland believes and hopes itself to be – fierce, proud, simple, direct, passionate, defiant, independent minded. The fact that he was a bit of a rogue does him no harm either.

But enough of this- time for some poetry. I confess not to find Burns easy but then how many of us read Shakespeare for fun? But occasionally something lyrical and beautiful breaks through. I tend to find myself drawn to the songs he wrote-

A Fiddler in the north

Amang the trees, where humming bees,

At buds and flowers were hinging, O,

Auld Caledon drew out her drone, And to her pipe was singing, O:

‘Twas Pibroch, Sang, Strathspeys, and Reels, She dirl’d them aff fu’ clearly, O:

When there cam’ a yell o’ foreign squeels, That dang her tapsalteerie, O.

 

Their capon craws an’ queer “ha, ha’s,” They made our lugs grow eerie, O;

The hungry bike did scrape and fyke, Till we were wae and weary, O:

But a royal ghaist, wha ance was cas’d, A prisoner, aughteen year awa’,

He fir’d a Fiddler in the North, That dang them tapsalteerie, O.

Tapsalteerie=topsy turvy. Work the rest out for yourself!

Then there is this beautiful song (with Dick Gaughan’s version of the lyrics below.)

Now westlin winds and slaughtering guns
Bring autumn’s pleasant weather
The moorcock springs on whirring wings
Among the blooming heather
Now waving grain, wild o’er the plain
Delights the weary farmer
And the moon shines bright as I rove at night
To muse upon my charmer

The partridge loves the fruitful fells
The plover loves the mountain
The woodcock haunts the lonely dells
The soaring hern the fountain
Through lofty groves the cushat roves
The path of man to shun it
The hazel bush o’erhangs the thrush
The spreading thorn the linnet

Thus every kind their pleasure find
The savage and the tender
Some social join and leagues combine
Some solitary wander
Avaunt! Away! the cruel sway,
Tyrannic man’s dominion
The sportsman’s joy, the murdering cry
The fluttering, gory pinion

But Peggy dear the evening’s clear
Thick flies the skimming swallow
The sky is blue, the fields in view
All fading green and yellow
Come let us stray our gladsome way
And view the charms of nature
The rustling corn, the fruited thorn
And every happy creature

We’ll gently walk and sweetly talk
Till the silent moon shines clearly
I’ll grasp thy waist and, fondly pressed,
Swear how I love thee dearly
Not vernal showers to budding flowers
Not autumn to the farmer
So dear can be as thou to me
My fair, my lovely charmer

And finally, a quote from Thomas Carlyle, speaking of Burns

Granted the ship comes into harbour with shrouds and tackle damaged, the pilot is blameworthy… but to know how blameworthy, tell us first whether his voyage has been round the Globe or only to Ramsgate and the Isle of Dogs.

Burns travels far.