Freemasonry: From Craft to Tolerance


FREEMASONRY: FROM CRAFT TO TOLERANCE



Freemasonry has again come under attack from those who do not like our
Fraternity. This response by Bro. M.B.S. Higham, R.N., Grand Secretary
of the United Grand Lodge of England talks about our Fraternity in a
very straightforward and informative way.




It's sad to note that from the end of the Second World War until two
years ago, individual members of the Craft progressed from what might
have been a becoming reticence about their Masonic affairs to an almost
obsessive silence. This attitude allowed Freemasonry's critics free
rein. No answer was taken as an admission that allegations were true,
and Freemasonry's reputation suffered - to put it mildly. It is time the
record was set straight, and I am happy to say that in the last two
years we have begun to do something about it.

Now what is Freemasonry? It is for most of us a spare time activity but
above all it is FUN. After joining for various reasons, we stay
Freemasons because we enjoy it, and we really do, in spite of the heavy
things I shall have to say in a moment about morality and so on. It
demands that we put something into it, and as in everything else in life
worth doing, we get something back - not materially; mostly sheer
enjoyment.

Some scholars claim that Freemasonry's antecedents run through the
mediaeval guilds back to the builders of King Solomon's Temple.
Certainly much of its basic mythology comes from the Old Testament, but
it is impossible to prove definite links to times of enormous antiquity.
It is, however reasonable to see in modern Freemasonry many links, which
may be direct, with the ancient craft of the free-stone mason.

These masons were skilled men who had learned their trade (or craft) in
a long apprenticeship and assembled in Lodges to build castles or
cathedrals and a variety of other buldings in stone. They guarded their
trade secrets with prudent care, partly for the good reason, which will
be recognized now, of protecting their jobs, and partly because they
were proud of the standards of workmanship they could achieve and wanted
to maintain them. To guard their trade secrets and the plans of their
work they may well have had their own passwords and other means of
recognition, and I expect they were, to unqualified strangers, a pretty
exclusive bunch, intolerant of outsiders. They looked after their fellow
craftsmen, and were bound to give a qualified journeyman a day's paid
work or the means to reach a neighbouring Lodge which might offer him
more lasting employment - a primitive form of charity. We might guess
that as respectable craftsmen they tried to ensure that the members of
the Lodge were law-abiding citizens, and they would generally have done
what they could to avoid political trouble - as any sensible person did
in mediaeval times. Religious strife until the Reformation would have
been easy to avoid: one Church - no problem.

If modern Freemasonry's roots are indeed among the operatives, there was
then a transitional stage in the 1600s when non-operative men were
admitted to operative lodges as honorary members or as patrons - and
then gradually took over the lodges, using the stonemason's customs and
tools as a basis for teaching morality.

Lodges in nearly the modern form were working at the end of the 17th
century, for in 1717 four London Lodges, whose origin is charmingly
claimed as of 'time immemorial' and therefore must then have achieved at
least some antiquity, formed the original Grand Lodge of England. The
Grand Lodges of Ireland and Scotland followed in 1725 and 1735, and from
these three Grand Lodges have sprung all the other Freemasony which we
accept as regular in the world.

Having dealt with history, we now turn to Freemasonry as it is. Modern
Freemasonry has not changed much from its original non-operative form.
There are some differences, which I shall mention, but the basic,
essential qualifications for membership are unchanged. To be admitted
and to remain a Freemason, a man must believe in the Supreme Being - a
God (and to stifle Manichean questions the God must be a good one). To
begin with in Masonic ritual this God was treated (if that is not too
disrespectful a word) in Christian terms (although this did not prevent
Jews from being Freemasons from very early times). In the English Craft
in a process which started in the middle 1700s and ended in 1816,
Christian references were removed from the ritual to enable men of
different faiths to take part without compromising their own beliefs.
This is practical tolerance, and one of Freemasonry's great strengths.
It enables men of all faiths (who might 'otherwise have remained at a
perpetual distance') to meet in ordinary friendship. Without interfering
in the way in which they practice their religions, it shows how much
they nave in common.

This requirement of belief in the Supreme Being, and the fact that
Masonic ritual contains frequent prayers, does not make Freemasonry a
religion. Freemasonry offers no sacraments. If a Christian wants
spiritual grace, he must go to church. Similarly, if he wants salvation
he must seek it in the practice of his religion. Freemasonry may teach
or encourage him to do better, but it does not deal in religion or in
religion's ultimate, salvation. Religions have doctrines. Freemasons are
forbidden to discuss religion in their Lodges, and so no Masonic
doctrinal system is possible. A belief is required, but there is no
attempt to prescribe how the belief is to be exercised.

There is no Masonic God - if a Freemason prays to the Great Architect of
the Universe (or to the Supreme Being by any of the other respectful
Masonic vocatives) he knows that his own belief will translate and
direct that prayer to the God he worships. Prayer alone does not make a
religion. If it did, some might say that Parliament was religious.
(Others might say, 'better if it were'.) Prayer was commonplace when
Freemasonry began, and modern Freemasons are very faithful to the old
ways.

Freemasonry teaches morality. By this, I mean it encourages men to try
to be better, to discipline themselves and to consider their relations
with others. In this, again, it is not a religion. Religions encourage
morality, too, but they refer it to God. Freemasonry, if you like, deals
with morality at ground level, religion takes it upwards.

Freemasonry teaches its moral lessons in a series of ritual dramas -
one-act plays, if you like - each with two scenes; first the story or
action and then the explanation. The ceremonies of Freemasonry are
intensely satisfying to take part in; always different because those
involved will change from one time to the next; demanding in that words
and actions have to be memorized and deeply impressive to the candidate,
because he is the focus of attention of a room full of men who work
together to get a message across to him and because the message itself
is of compelling interest.

As part of its teaching of morality, Freemasonry invites its members to
consider their place in society. It encourages them to practice plain,
old-fashioned loyalty to their native country and to respect the law. It
is interesting in this context that in the late 1700s after the two
Jacobite rebellions and when the country was still racked by political
disturbance, Freemasonry was expressly excluded from legislation which
proscribed seditious societies. Perhaps we were better understood in
those days.

A Freemason is very strongly discouraged from using his membership to
promote his own or anyone else's business, professional or personal
interests. He knows that the principles of the Craft not only do not
conflict with his duty as a citizen or as an employer; or his relations
with his local government authority as Councillor or contractor; but
should actually improve his performance. Not many associations in the
country invite their members to consider their priorities in this way,
as Freemasonry does.

"What happens to the Freemasons who cannot maintain high moral
standards?" you may ask. Freemasons are human, and are subject to
pressures and tensions and may sweat and sin like other people. We take
the view that remedies for crimes or civil wrongs or matrimonial
differences (all of which may involve morality) lie in court. After
this, Lodges are a sort of family in themselves, and like families can
and sometimes do exclude those whose moral transgressions make them no
longer acceptable. Higher Masonic authority can reprimand or suspend
errant Freemasons. Grand Lodge can expel from the Craft. Among all these
administrative penalties there may be mercy, not to condone
reprehensible conduct, but admitting that there may be another,
mitigating side of the story.

Although it is not directly relevant to the main theme, Freemasonry's
social side should be mentioned for completeness, and because it is an
important part of a Lodge's activities. Most lodge meetings are followed
by a meal in varying degrees of formality; many lodges are the basis for
informal gathering of their members and families, and as such, are
another facet of society.

Super-tolerant, if you like, or prudent if you are more cynical, but
Freemasonry takes no part in politics. The discussion of politics in
lodges is forbidden (they have plenty to occupy them anyway with Masonic
ceremonies and the ordinary business of running a small association) and
Grand Lodge will not express any opinion on political matters.

You might wonder why I've said nothing about secrecy. My unspoken theme
is that there is very little secret about Freemasonry. Its internal
affairs, like those of many associations, are private - and there is
nothing wrong with privacy, however unfashionable it may be. There is,
however, a great deal that any individual Freemason could tell about the
Craft.

Freemasonry is founded either directly or by imitation, on
craftsmanship, which is technology to a high standard and gives the
modern Freemason a basis of moral stability, which he can add to the
spiritual support he draws from his religion.

Freemasonry has a useful place in modern society. We know that we are
likely to learn more about ourselves if we talk about Freemasonry so we
welcome ordinary interest as a way of helping us explain ourselves
better.