PS Review of Freemasonry

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voltaire writing
"If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?"
- Voltaire, Candide, Chapter 6
Bro. Gerald Reilly
Summer 2008

by Bro. Gerald Reilly


“…and thereby challenged the intransigence of the aforementioned status quo.”


Not long ago, and on behalf of the United Grand Lodge of England, a speech was made that stated that the basic principles of Freemasonry were refined over 150 years and codified in 1929 and 1938. This codification, it is claimed, defines regularity; the speech advises that regularity is an “absolute” and that these basic principles are above and beyond change and reinterpretation. The same statement proscribes masons in masonry from being explicitly involved in matters such as the social progress of the new Europe and it stipulates that “Freemasonry has no role outside of Freemasonry”.


These following few impressions are respectfully offered with a view to indicate some difficulties that may be implicit in the two propositions. The first may seem to challenge the “legitimacy” much of what is understood to be Freemasonry, before and since 1717; the second may seem to deny the role of Freemasonry in civil society.


It is an absolute that football was created in England around 1717; the rules were formalised in 1723, corrected in 1738 and codified in 1929 and 1938. Therefore, football is England’s game and can only be played, with regularity and recognition if in accordance with the English rules – anything else is non-football. Obviously, it is forbidden to outperform or even - the unthinkable - be responsible for a defeat of the English side. Yet inexplicably, both Continental European and Continental South American national football teams have out-performed the English one.  These two spheres of influence have changed the way the game is played, achieved more, and have thereby challenged the intransigence of the aforementioned status quo.


“What is the difference between re-writing the rules or keeping the rules as they are but re-interpreting them….”


In common with many other sustainable organisations within civil society, the original English football rules have been reviewed and regularly up-dated by supra-national management bodies. This indicates that the game is being played in ways, and with rules, not contemplated by its originators in London’s taverns and coffee houses.  Is nothing sacred? Hmmm! Perhaps local absolutes are not sustainably transportable across the globe. Possibly they might gain an initial foothold, hang on in there for a while until the indigenous people take a position and then:- insurrection, sedition and worst of all - change.    What is the difference between re-writing the rules or keeping the rules as they are but re-interpreting them in ways that would have been beyond the imagination of the originators? Perhaps the former is more transparent! To suggest that rules of an organisation can have remained either unchanged or free from re-interpretation since 1717 is perhaps a tad romantic.


The view may well be taken that English speculative Freemasonry took its rise in the late 17th Century milieu. During that period were slain two dragons – that of the divine right of kings and that of the uniquely authoritative influence of the Church on the legislature – both the prime manifestations of absolutism. This reduced faith groups to being but a part of civil society at the time when, the view could be taken, that Freemasonry was beginning to create a role in civil society. Surely it is the case that Freemasonry, both Anglo Saxon and Latin, is characterised by a denial of absolutes and a toleration of values and experience that are different – diversity writ large! Given that the historical enemies of Freemasonry have been totalitarian regimes and fundamentalist sectors within various faith communities, a claim that Freemasonry’s principles are absolute may appear odd. On which part of the sky are they written, on which tree are they grown, on which tablets of stone were they inscribed or on which plate of gold were they found? Perhaps Freemasonry is best understood as being truly liberal in essence - tolerating anything except intolerance. Though hardly a liberal, Edmund Burke wrote, “A nation without the means of reform is without the means of survival.”  


“…convergence of recognition yet a divergence of regularity…?”


Sadly, the evidence is not in the rhetoric but in the practice. It is documented that the English Freemasonry of post 1717 was open to members of faith communities other than Christian and that they did indeed become members. In light of this, it must be inferred that a Freemasonry that is not open to faith groups with a supreme being is in non-conformity with the absolute, is not regular and is not eligible for recognition.  However, it is the case that there are grand lodges, which enjoy recognition by UGLE and yet whose membership is exclusively open to professing Christians. Similarly, there are grand lodges recognised by UGLE whose membership  to those other than of the Caucasian race is excluded. Surely they cannot be “regular” when measured against UGLE’s absolute basic principles is this perhaps leading to a convergence of recognition yet a divergence of regularity?


Such impressions apart, there are layers of implication underlying the claim of unchangeable absolutes that reasonably could give rise for concern. It seems very odd that an organisation, invented by humans for the cause of humanity could claim that any of its tenets were “absolute”. Can we call to mind any other human organisation that similarly claims such authority? Surely the values of human organisations are relative to their particular time and economic, political and social milieu. Obviously revealed religions, claiming the possession of a textual corpus, breathed by Deity, will necessarily contend for the possession of absolutes. But surely it must be the case that a human organisation, devoted to the cause of humanity, is interpreting contemporary needs and aspirations and would reasonably evolve and develop in order to meet new situations and needs.


Surely, we are back to the philosophical challenge of the Irishman’s Broom.  To be sure, this is the same one that has given good service over twenty years; albeit, with four new heads and five new handles! That is to say, how much can an organisation change and yet remain what it was? Talking of which, in Paraguay, a South American county not overly well known for its football team, had a Roman Catholic Bishop. He decided that the Church was addressing insufficiently the needs of people in terms of social justice; he left the Church and, just recently, has successfully stood for President of the Country!   “Free” masonry is polite, “liberation” masonry might not be! 


Geoffrey Fisher served the English post WWII generation as Archbishop of Canterbury. The thrust of his ministry was Canon Law and the Liturgy; there was a retreat from social and political connection. Fisher was a Freemason and stunningly this same period is characterised by English Freemasonry’s retreat from the public sphere into the Constitution, ritual and the private world of personal self-development. In the late 1980s the then UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, advised the Assembly of the Scottish Church that their role was not social reform but the spiritual growth of its individual members! This led to the decimation of the Conservative Party in Scotland, the formation of Scotland’s own Parliament and increasing demand for withdrawal from the UK.    


“..why…..Because I am a Freemason…..”


This of course brings us on to the claim that Freemasonry has no role outside of Freemasonry. In earlier Candide’s Columns we have considered whether or not Freemasonry is a system of morality. One has to be a good citizen, upright etc. to be eligible for initiation and the view is taken that this is an outcome of a belief, prior to petitioning, in a supreme being; and, it seems to be implicit in Freemasonry that a person does have a religion. If this is the case, the role of Freemasonry is to add to that dimension which is termed “spiritual” in a manner complementary and/or supplementary to the religion. Hence the claim that Freemasonry makes a good person into a better person. This is fine but in so doing, Freemasonry has added to that person and outside of the lodge he is no longer what he was before; however, it must be asked, by whom and by what means is obtained a definition of “better.”


It could be the case that on becoming a Freemason a person may acquire an increasing awareness of need and deprivation:- locally, nationally or internationally. As an outcome of this, he or she may not only wish to re-distribute some of their own material surplus but to actively address what might be understood as the causes leading to unequal distribution and deprivation. If someone was to ask why the person is doing this, would it be legitimate to reply, “Because I am a Freemason”? Perhaps it is not clear how Freemasonry in the USA is contributing $ Million a day to good causes, including providing hospitals and care homes for those without the means of payment, and not be a part of civil society? Surely it is not the intention to secretise the Freemason, in exclusion and isolation, within the confines of the masonic centre - a form of institutional schizophrenia – a mason within the lodge and no more than a good citizen outside of it?  


If Freemasonry is a peculiar system of morality the view can be taken that it informs behaviours throughout all aspects of life. Might not the view be taken that what a person is and does outside of the lodge is inextricably ethically linked to what is acquired within the lodge – and that he or she is one and the same person. What is the point of claiming that George Washington was a Freemason if it is not to have a recognisable bearing on his actions outside of the lodge?  Perhaps he should not have been wearing his apron at the laying of the National Capitol’s Cornerstone?


The challenge remains to identify and develop the characteristics that unite Free masons around the globe - perhaps a clue is in the word “Free”.


Surely it is the case that Freemasonry, as spread around the globe, is not homogeneous; and, just as characterised by the spread of religions around the globe, it has evolved and been adapted to be relative in economic, political and social space and time. These impressions are intended to appeal to the practicing Freemason to stamp the “R” of Relevance across the use of his or her time, mind and money. If a GL wishes for a Freemasonry to be an organisation primarily for the influence of the private sphere - the outcome of which is defined by better citizenship and charitable giving - then fine; it can be recognised as such and respected.


However and firstly, it may not be worthy to suggest the existence of absolute principles that circumscribe Freemasonry into an imperialism of regularity and recognition. Secondly, it may not be worthy to deny history and condemn into exclusion and isolation the Freemasonry of those grand lodges who seek an involvement by masons in masonry in economic, social and political reform.


Freemasonry has been an energy that has liberated so many people and causes. There is a gaping void at the heart of so many communities that masons in masonry can so worthily fill. The challenge remains to identify and develop the characteristics that unite Free masons around the globe - perhaps a clue is in the word “Free

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