Freemasonry in the Modern World
Food For Thought
FREEMASONRY IN THE MODERN WORLD
by John O. Rymer, Past Grand Chaplain
Emeritus Dean of Auckland, New Zealand
At the outset of this paper, I ask why we should be examining Freemasonry in the modern world.
The reasons are at least twofold:-
i. There are criticisms from various secular sources of the existence of an alleged secret society in their midst.
Secrecy always raises suspicion and when there is little communication from a 'sacred body' to those who criticise it, it tends to make for a greater cleavage between the two.
As distinct from secular criticism there is a religious debate going on which asks on the one hand whether or not Christians should be freemasons and on the other hand whether Freemasonry is a quasi religion.
ii. The second reason for raising the subject is that most lodges are concerned about falling numbers and a decrease in the annual supply of candidates for membership. This has resulted in a great deal of self criticism and evaluation by individual lodges about the nature and function of Freemasonry.
2. THE WORLD IN WHICH FREEMASONRY EXISTS
What can be said of the world within which Freemasonry now exists, as related to the environment of the 18th century? The following characteristics are significant in today's world:-
a. A scientific view
Since the Industrial Revolution of last century, the scientific way of looking at the world has been indissolubly linked with progress. Science is seen as trusted knowledge and applied science as the way by which society can control nature and to a certain extent determine destiny by the practice of technological methods.
None of us is in any way separated from the thinking and inventions which science supplies.
It can be so often assumed wrongly that the only valid knowledge is scientific knowledge because it alone can be verified by the visible facts of the world.
b. An intellectual view
In modern Western society it is implicitly and sometimes explicitly stated that we live in a post-Christian age. If there is a God, he is seen as not relevant in the affairs and decision-making of men. The Bible as God's revelation of Himself is not any longer at the centre of the home or of the government or of the decision-makers in the market place. One could say that the Bible is an optional extra for mankind, to be read and followed by the more sentimental and unenlightened members of the community.
Under the pressure of scientific culture, the number of adherents within the Church is growing less. The place of religion and religious knowledge in schools is now being more and more relegated into the wings of a curriculum.
Culture can often be described as an obvious sign of the way that groups think about themselves. There have been those periods in history when the culture has illustrated spiritual needs and focused on those places giving spiritual satisfaction. At other times, the culture shows the savagery that is in man as he endeavours to dominate peoples and tribes among whom he lives. It is true to say that in particular the art and the literature and the music of our contemporary Western culture says a great deal about the egocentric directions of 20th century men and women. There is little that is uplifting. There is a great deal that reveals the dark depths and the loneliness and the frustration of today's men and women.
With the erosion of the sacred society, an immediate result was a growing suspicion about objective moral standards and an evident desire to depart from them. Thus today we find writ large the expression of a morality that invites all of us to do what we want to when we want to and the major sin is to be found out. The days are gone when moral demands could be imposed upon a community.
As a young man, I was of the opinion that with the decay of religion there would he a lowering of moral standards. At that time I was not aware that with the watering down of these moral standards there would be a laissez-faire attitude towards law and a blatant disregard for authority. Little did I know that this whole movement would then express itself in a violence which respects neither God nor man nor property. This is the situation in which many Western nations now find themselves.
One could look towards the government for help. However, if you face in that direction, you find that its members are influenced by the worst elements within society. Instead of adopting principles that could inspire the community they respond to the loudest protest voices which may threaten their continuing life in parliament. Thus legislation is determined, not by reason but by conformity to pressure groups.
If this is continued for any great period of time, each democracy will collapse and the only hope for the future will be control by a benevolent dictator. History will show that benevolent dictators are rare, as when they assume positions of power they gather around them like-minded people whose power soon corrupts them. This corruption then filters down into the community.
Our modern world is very much like the person who jumped on to his bicycle and rode in all directions at once. In fact he was going nowhere. A world without belief in God looks to no definite end in history. This nebulous outlook creates fear and in such fear men fight one another as they seek security. For them, the only security to be trusted is that which is built upon power and backed by wealth. Such a social atmosphere does not allow for freedom nor does it create peace.
In this society there is no recognised way for all to live together. It is an amoral community, owning no generally accepted obligations towards others.
In such an environment, the greatest casualty is the family which has no sacred or secure position. Unfortunately, the break-up of the family, the respect for individual persons quickly disappears. Each person is seen as a valuable cog in an economic machine or as one to be used for our own advantage.
It was the author of the book, Ecclesiastes, who in looking at his time said, 'All is vanity, all is vanity, all is striving after wind'. In the midst of his depression the only certainty for him was that everyone is born to die.
We live in a world adrift, floating heaven knows where. There is no secular permanence that can be trusted and no institution can be certain of its continuing life, for the society, instead of being built on rock, is built upon sand.
In many ways this is a very depressing picture of the world. There are undoubtedly great advantages in living in this world, but the growing depersonalisation of all of us is the greatest threat to the existence of our civilisation and to the fulfilment of our personal hopes.
3. WHAT IS FREEMASONRY?
The traditional answer to the question is that 'it is a peculiar system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.' This is a theoretical statement and it must be linked to the history of Freemasonry since the 17th or 18th centuries.
From the beginning it was seen as one secret society among other secret societies. Thus its existence was generally recognised and the freemasons themselves publicly presented a view of the Craft - for example, in processions of masons in regalia, often on their way to church.
The local community saw visible evidence of the existence of Freemasonry in the lodge rooms and knew those who entered the buildings and held meetings within. They also heard of lodges, Grand Lodges, rituals and regalia. They knew that it was a totally male organisation which was bonded together in a brotherhood that influenced the daily life of the freemason.
Communities soon knew about the signs and tokens of Freemasonry and from 1723 onwards there were 'a series of exposures of the rituals and secrets of the Craft'. It was known that sacred words were once used by medieval stonemasons to prove their status as experienced craftsmen. Naturally, suspicion was aroused with the populace heard something about blood- curdling oaths and dire penalties.
From the beginnings of Speculative Freemasonry it was known that there was a link between the recognition of a Supreme Being and the acceptance of those morals which stemmed from the Great Architect.
4. THE CHURCH AND FREEMASONRY
In recent years, there has been a growing public interest in questions raised by the Church about Freemasonry.
This has been increased by the adoption of a Report on Freemasonry and Christianity: are they compatible? The Report was prepared for the General Synod of the Church of England in 1987.
Following the debate, the Synod stated that certain aspects of Freemasonry were blasphemous and it questioned the compatibility of the Craft with Christianity.
In the debate, perhaps the best contribution was given by the Archbishop of York who said that the Synod members were taking the matter too solemnly. For him, Freemasonry was a 'fairly harmless eccentricity'. He recognised the value of ritual and friendships within the Craft, and even saw some value on the privacy of lodge meetings. For him, they were 'harmless pleasures'. However, he felt that the total secrecy did not assist the masonic cause, as it created so much suspicion. He also pointed out that the Church itself ought to be careful, as its own history showed that a judgemental attitude is not helpful. To use words like 'heresy' and 'blasphemy' about another body is to judge by standards which contradict what it sets itself out to be.
There were five grounds on which Freemasonry was criticised:-
i. The charge of Syncretism
It was asserted by the working group which presented the document to the General Synod that in the Royal Arch, the use of the word 'Jahbulon' for the name of God was a composite word made out of the names Jahweh, 'Baal' and 'Osiris' (the Egyptian fertility god). This raises the question of blasphemy. It is a very serious charge against Freemasonry, as it accuses the Craft of trying to unify or reconcile different religions through a new name for God.
In the early history of the Church, a group called Gnostics proclaimed, among other beliefs, that they could be brought to God by a system of knowledge. This secret knowledge they alone knew.
The accounts given of Hiram Abiff, although accredited as biblical knowledge, have no place within biblical writings. Does this mean that Freemasonry has some spiritual knowledge that is distinct from the Hebrew/Christian tradition? If it does, there is a gap between the Christian tradition and Freemasonry.
In charging Freemasonry with being Deistic, the report registers that the God of Freemasonry, whilst he may have made the world, does not act within it. Thus, Freemasonry emphasises a natural religion, one of commonsense, which is indifferent to the claims of Christianity and somewhat discontinuous with it.
This was an early heresy in the Church, by which people were saved from the evil one and liberated towards God by their good works. In other words, every man and woman could lift themselves up to God by their own shoe strings, so long as they did what was right and good. The heresy was condemned by the Church Fathers for they were positive that salvation within the Christian religion is not to be found by doing good works but by the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.
The Report criticises Freemasonry as modem Pelagianism. If the charge is true, then theologically there is a gap between Christianity and Freemasonry.
In the early history of the Craft, specific references to Christ were removed from the literature and the rituals. Yet formal prayers from the Prayer Book were included in such rituals without acknowledgement of Christ. This reveals a movement away from Christian commitment.
5. ISSUES FOR DIALOGUE
i. Freemasonry and the beliefs of the Church
The General Synod has said that whilst it recognises that the Great Architect may be identified with God, and chaplains may read prayers directed to God, there is little family relationship to be ground between Christianity and Freemasonry. There are ideas and practices which are not compatible with the traditional life of the Church. The demand that one should not reveal beliefs before they are known by the candidate, or to recite outrageous penalties for non-compliance, is seen as contrary to the spirit of Christianity.
The most vocal critics are those who are called 'born again' Christians. They hold that they cannot be Christians and freemasons at the same time because there is a conflict in loyalty to the truths of Christ and to the practices and beliefs about God and man that are enshrined within the language and ritual of Freemasonry.
The Church of England is not alone in criticising Freemasonry in this way. The Methodist Church in England in 1985, in a report urged 'resignation of masons and a lodge meetings ban'. Earlier this century, General Booth demanded that no officer of the Salvation Army should join such a society as Freemasonry. The Roman Catholic Church over the years, has stood out against Freemasonry as it believes their own doctrines 'are incompatible with international Freemasonry.'
ii. Freemasonry as a religion
In the face of these criticisms, I find myself moving towards agreement with the Archbishop of York. If Freemasonry states that it is not a religion, it is not for any church to judge a lodge as though it too were a church.
At the beginning of this paper I took the standard definition of Freemasonry as a system of morality, not a religion. Because God is recognised and His name invoked, this does not mean that Freemasonry is a religion.
Even in sporting fixtures or in civic functions, God's name may be mentioned and a prayer for blessing asked of Him, but this does not mean that all the adherents would see the activity as religious. I find it very strange that the Anglican report should endeavour to make a Freemasonry a religion and then challenge it according to Christian criteria.
Further, the working group should have known that members of other world religions and their sacred books are present when the meetings are held amidst those cultures.
iii. Freemasonry as a system of morality
As Freemasonry endeavours to maintain a high standard of morality in a secular world, surely the churches should do all they can to encourage such moral living in what is becoming a violent and a moral world. There was no mention of this in the report.
iv Freemasonry and secrecy
It is my contention that one cannot sensitively and responsibly criticise any group within society unless it has communications with that group s to what its self understanding is. The matters of secrecy and violent penalties are to my mind insignificant as matters for criticism by such an august body as the General Synod.
In a recent trip to United Kingdom I did hear a talk-back programme on the BBC about Freemasonry in which criticisms were levelled at the Craft for the disintegrating effect on family life by the divided lives that masons had through being members of the Craft. One woman asserted that her divorce was caused primarily by her husband's conflict of interest between the family and his lodge. Secrecy did not allow for any communication that could bridge the two. To my mind, this is a sociological, matter and not a religious one.
v. Freemasonry and the world religions
Sometimes one can say that people in glass houses should not throw stones. The attempt of Freemasonry to embrace other world religions is not dissimilar to the inter-faith services that are beginning to appear in the religious life of our world. A cutting statement in the report reads as follows:-
`Only last year, the Bishop of Rome (sic) was himself in Assisi praying for peace alongside Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews and the medicine men of North American Indian tribes. When he listened attentively to their prayers, was he joining in them or unobtrusively dissociating himself from what was going on? Was the whole affair, in which the Archbishop of Canterbury was himself prominent, just an exhibition of spiritual sleight-of-hand, or ecclesiastical hypocrisy?"
The Archbishop of York's reaction to this was that it was unworthy of a Church document. He asserted that 'we badly need good contexts in which people with different religious convictions can work together without abandoning those convictions or without ignoring them.'
From this it follows that if the Church struggles mentally to join with members of other religions, then it is quite likely that within Freemasonry there will be similar difficulties.
A fine philosopher once said that there is no logical answer to an illogical situation. In today's world, the wider ecumenism between the world religions will put great stains on integrity and commitment to statements of one's belief, but I believe we must continue to meet together in such contexts if we are to create a family of mankind built upon truth and love.
vi. Freemasonry and common ground with the Church
If the Church will be true to itself, and Freemasonry similarly true to itself, they should be able to walk hand in hand and not raise questions of compatibility. Both recognise a Supreme Being; both look for high standards of living; both talk about brotherhood within the body; and both are urged to give of themselves in support of the world community.
Finally, both look forward to life with God in heaven as the next stage of their service to Him on earth.
6. THE RESPONSE OF FREEMASONRY TO THE MODERN WORLD
Because the world is modern, it does not follow that it is the best conceivable world that there could be. To my mind it is not. Nevertheless, we have to recognise that nothing stands still. We live in a world of change. If all aspects of life were altered we would repeat mistakes in every generation. There are some values that will be permanent, whatever changes happen in societies. It is these values that we must preserve, whether we are the Church or civic authorities or Freemasonry.
It is for Freemasonry to discover in its own self understanding that which we must never surrender. Belief in God is necessary for any civilisation to continue. High moral standards accepted by a community are necessary if people are to live together. The respect for the value of individual persons is obligatory if individuals are to release their potential. It is the commitment to these beliefs and values that Freemasonry must always uphold.
Pope John XXIII, when he called the Vatican Council in the 'sixties', used a word to justify the gathering together of the Bishops. The word was aggiornamento. By this he meant that the Church must bring itself up to date in the modern world.
It is for those who direct the destiny of Freemasonry to eliminate from its language and from its ritual that which does not communicate well to serious minded people in contemporary society.
Language of the past is only valuable when it includes within itself eternal truths about God and man. The Book of Common Prayer, in its elegant language does much to encourage us to appreciate God as much in the 20th century as it did in the 17th century. However, within it there are certain accommodations to the cultural prejudices and ignorances of its time which are now being abandoned in modem prayer books.
We need as freemasons to consult very carefully about the possibility of eliminating the language of penalties in our current practice. In saying this, I am not in any way devaluing tradition or an appreciation of ritual. I applaud a language within the Craft that is slightly different from the language that we would find in the streets. I would also contend that regalia is invaluable to maintain the memory of our history. Further, tradition should not be thrown lightly aside, as it is the means by which the mind of one generation is handed on to the next.
We must use the very best of the past, accept what is valuable from the present, and hand on the essence of Freemasonry to forthcoming generations. Thus, we must not sit still and be a ghetto in the midst of contemporary culture.
A world famous theologian, Paul Tillich, said of the Church that in the midst of confusion and change 'it must be the Church'. It would follow that the same could be said of Freemasonry. It must be what it really is and all authorities have an obligation to see that this is done in lodge meetings and in the general understanding of what it is to be a mason.
Any caricature of the Craft does irreparable harm when the author uses evidence that comes only from the worst elements as a tool to condemn the best.
Further to this, it is possible for members of the Craft today to live on the capital of the past. The history and the nature of Freemasonry should be known by every member so that this generation can express the quality of the brotherhood wherever they work or live.
Above all, Freemasonry must not conform to the standards of an ungodly world.
The object for concern should not be falling numbers but a greater commitment to the life within Freemasonry.
7. THE RESPONSE OF FREEMASONRY TO THE CHURCH
Some critics have maintained that the Church has made judgements about Freemasonry which are not sound or true. Freemasonry, through its accredited offices, should communicate a refutation of such errors to the responsible decision-makers within the Church.
As there has been much ambiguity as to whether Freemasonry is a quasi religion replacing Christianity, the assurance that it is not a religion and is not seen as a religion by its members should be rigidly adhered to and communicated.
We should emphasise more that we have over the years, that members of other faiths have been able to settle comfortably within the Craft.
In the light of the fact that it has recently been reported that in the United Kingdom there are more people attending mosques on Fridays than attend parish churches on Sundays, the need for wider ecumenism becomes more and more acute. The Church in particular cannot be off-hand with the representatives of other faiths and must enter into dialogue with them.
The fact that Freemasonry has accepted a good mixture of Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and others, has left us with some deposits of worthwhile experience, insights and meanings and these should be shared with the Church in particular.
Some disturbances can be used to great effect when they cause a group or an individual to ask the questions, 'Who are we?" 'What are we here for?'; Where are we going?.
The secular world, within its prejudice and pride, does not like other groups to be different and it demands conformity. In no way do I believe that Freemasonry is duty bound to accommodate itself to this demand.
On the other hand, if it is to be an oasis in the midst of the and secular life, it must make certain that its waters are pure, rich in life-giving properties, and as a result, highly desirable.
Any changes made within Freemasonry must aim to throw out what is lacking in quality and replace it with that which is beautiful and true. There must be no conformation to the baser elements in the environment that surround it, and it must trust that quality anchored in integrity will alone be able to outlast 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune'.
Likewise, Freemasonry need not conform to the half-verified criticisms of the Church--If the criticisms made by the Church are true, they must be examined and applied to the life of the brotherhood throughout the world. If the criticisms are not true, either the inconsistencies within the critical statements or the scanty evidence leading to the judgements, must be noted and communicated to the right ecclesiastical authorities. At no time should the Craft, through either irritation or impatience, fail to keep the avenues open for dialogue.
The Craft aims to uplift the world and it must link hand with all bodies that support high moral standards. Thus, it should never lose its association with the Church, whatever* criticisms that body may direct at it.
It is not likely to be easy for the Craft in the next forty or fifty years. The response to fear or apprehension is surely not to pull down the flag but to fly it bravely and to ask the Great Architect of the Universe to keep us always in near sight of the flag, and enable us to live in its shadow.
SOURCE: Vol 6 No 10 Waikato Lodge of Research