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Oh Brother!

Oh Brother!To St Margaret's again for the (now annual) Shrove Tuesday 'Oxford Union' style debate.

Always an interesting and pleasant experience. Formal dress, respect for tradition and procedure, civilised but challenging debate and logic. Our sort of event really.

And the one thing you can't accuse Rev Hodgson (who organises the debates) of, is choosing an easy or timid subject.

His debates deal with big issues (Is Marxism dead? Should we leave the EU? Should Scotland have full independence? that sort of thing).

And this year was no exception. The motion was....

"This House believes that Freemasonry and Christianity are incompatible"

When we saw that on the ticket we thought of cats being amongst pigeons, and we thought how brave he had been to choose that as a subject.

In the lead up to the event, we were party to a few informal conversations with friends of Masonic persuasion where the topic of the Shrove Tuesday debate arose. It was clear it had registered on their radar as being something of interest and perhaps even of significance. We thought that augured well for a good debate, and we were not disappointed.

We arrived early for the 7:30 start. A lovely string quartet (The Cameo String Quartet) was playing in the background and there was the gentle sound of popping corks as the bottles of fizz prepared to fill the champagne glasses that had been set out (alongside the orange for the drivers).

Our generous hosts for the reception and drinks were The Lord and Lady of the Manor of Lytham, Mr James Hilton and his wife Penelope.

Even by a quarter to seven there were a handful of folk standing about. This was going to be a busy evening. We didn't recognise any of the other 'early birds' but we did notice they all seemed to be chaps on their own.

This was one of the few of the Shrove Tuesday debates we approached with a completely open mind.

On some of the others we confess to having had a preference when we arrived, but we were willing to have it tested in the thrust of debate. However this time, we had no preconception other than perhaps to say an appropriate description of our status would be that of a non-mason and a bit of a lapsed Christian.

By the appointed hour the church was packed. Probably the fullest we have seen it for one of these debates, with about 200 people present.

We hadn't noticed the connection before, but we did half expect to hear the evening start with a line from the Evening Prayer - the one that begins 'Dearly Beloved Brethren'... and this gave us our first inkling of the similarity in nomenclature which - in this instance - sees the term 'brothers' used to describe both some orders of monks and freemasons.

In fact the evening started with the Town Crier who began with "Lord of the Manor, Mayors, Aldermen, Councillors, Lord Bishop, Esteemed Cannons, Members of the Clergy, Freemasons, Ladies and gentlemen....." Illustrious company no less. It's a long time since we heard an introduction list that long.

The first speaker was the  Venerable John Hawley,  Archdeacon of Blackburn. He opened the batting to propose the motion that Freemasonry and Christianity were incompatible.

Admitting that he knew little about freemasonry, but had researched it to prepare for the debate, he said he had found people who has spoken passionately on both sides of the argument. He said the Grand Lodge of England seemed to be going through a re-branding exercise in order to overcome some of the long-standing charges that had been levelled against it, as though to make it more attractive to today's society.

We thought he spoke sensibly and sensitively, not wanting to alienate whilst, at the same time, trying to explain why he thought there was incompatibility.

We were surprised (although we recognise we shouldn't have been), how much he (and his fellow pro-motion speakers) were deeply and personally immersed in their faith, and this was the first note that eventually became a compelling symphony for us. He said he had been baptised as a child and had given his life to Jesus when he was 16 years of age. He said 'There are those for whom Christianity is merely a moral code, or part of respect for religious tradition. But for me, as for the early disciples, they left all to follow Jesus and that is what I believe our Lord asks us all to do as Christians"

He spent quite some of his allotted time emphasising the benefits of Christianity rather than highlighting the areas of incompatibility. He did however, pick out a couple of gentle differences, such as secrecy, and the Masonic rule that prevents religion being talked about in the lodge which. He said this also required the removal of the word Jesus from any text or prayer or hymn as is done in freemasonry rituals etc.

He said he had been surprised at the number of churches and religions that had formally decided that Freemasonry was incompatible with Christianity, adding that this was also the conclusion of Church of England report in 1985 (albeit that had not been voted on). He said "So in Christianity, God calls us to the total surrender of our lives to him. That loyalty to him has to be first and foremost. That's why we call him The Lord." He concluded that on a personal level, he saw too many conflicts and believed that Freemasonry and Christianity were incompatible.

Next to speak was the captain of the team opposing the motion,  Dr Stephen Reid , who is well known in medical and golfing circles.

He began by saying he had been looking forward to the debate for some time/ He became a freemason 40 years ago and had enjoyed the intellectual stimulation it provides, together with the warm uncomplicated friendship it offers without heed to class or creed. He said when he had spoken to other Freemasons in advance of the debate they had all said to him - "do try to find out what the problem is".

He said from the perspective of Freemasonry, there never has been and never would be, incompatibility with Christianity or any other of what he called "the great faiths." He acknowledged that as far as public relations was concerned, freemasonry had been "a total and complete disaster."

He gave the history that "in the 14th to 16th centuries stone masons had built the great cathedrals of Europe. They had a system of secret signs and words which protected their employment. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, their men were part of the age of reason and the age of enlightenment to construct a system of speculative freemasonry in which men could gather together away from a society rotten with conflict, and they could explore ways of improving themselves morally doing that which is right and good - there's no incompatibility there."

He said They saw both politics and religion as subjects on which men could never agree. In that period, a man's religious or political allegiance could bring either advantage and wealth, or isolation and poverty depending on the prevailing monarchy at the time, and that was why these topics were banned. Later changes saw men of other faiths being admitted to Freemasonry.

He then gave some examples of where Freemasons had been, if not persecuted then at least disadvantaged, by Christians, including a treasurer who had been summarily dismissed when it had been found that he was a Freemason because his particular church opposed Freemasonry, and he had had do join another branch of the church he had served for many years.

But he concluded by saying that Freemasonry and Christianity had always been, and would always be, compatible.

We thought he's rather shot himself in the foot with that one.

Next was  Rev Tony Webber  who is Chaplain to the Bishop of Blackburn. He spoke for the motion and began by saying they'd "...just heard Freemasonry explain it was not a religious organisation, it has no specific religious beliefs of its own, but is open to all good people - or rather all good men - who believe in God and commit to the fellowship in order to enjoy the uncomplicated friendship that we've heard about"

He noted that to become a Freemason men had to go through initiations, and looking at them he was sceptical that he could accept the assurances within them in terms of his own personal religious commitment.

Like the first speaker for the motion he referred to Christian enlightenment coming directly from God and Jesus, (whereas 'the enlightenment' is often taken - usually by non-believers - to mean the period where science and reason begin to dominate the thinking of mankind, and the influence and importance of faith, receded)

This hit quite a strong chord with us, as we hadn't previously appreciated the dichotomy that exists over the use of the same word (like 'Brother').

He went on to describe the circumstances of a candidate for the first degree of masonry, saying "This is how one mason described it - I remember the wave of nausea as I stood as an initiate outside the Masonic Lodge and heard myself referred to as a poor candidate, in a state of darkness, seeking the light..."

We immediately guessed where this was going and imagined the next words from Rev Webber would be "I am the way, the truth and the light". He didn't say that, but he did make similar points.

He went on to make other Masonic / Christian links we had not previously heard of - the ritual of the first two degrees stressing the importance of "attaining those immortal mansions whence all goodness emanates." He went on to explain that "more emphasis on death and the hereafter comes in the third degree ceremony interestingly referred to, I believe, as 'the raising' of the candidate to the degree of Master Mason" where he may have the hope of "ascending to the Grand Lodge above where the world's Great Architect lives and reigns for ever"

Not having known about the content of these rituals before, we were quite surprised at the similarities between the expressions used in both religion and freemasonry, and we could see the point (or rather the implication) that Rev Webber seemed to be making - that whilst professing itself to be de-Christianised and having no religious beliefs, there were aspects that seemed to sail very close to the wind.

Next up (against the motion) was  Rev Nancy Goodrich , of Holy Trinity Church Bolton-le-Sands. She's a regular at these debates and has a particularly colourful lilting presentational style that you don't forget. We wondered if it was a clever move by the pro-Freemasonry side to include a woman on the team (given the potential for jibes about it's being a men's organisation). But perhaps that wasn't the intention.

She said that her grandfather who was a mason for 70 years and who had crafted a beautiful stone arch from splitting and dressing blocks of raw stone, was dismissive of people who called themselves masons but couldn't wield a chisel. Freemasonry had honourable roots in the past as a support for stonemasons like her grandfather. But he had not had that support because he was a mason not a freemason.

She then said she knew absolutely nothing about freemasonry apart from what she'd learned from reading books by Dan Brown (laughter) So therefore, anything to do with freemasonry had to have a conspiracy theory, and tonight's conspiracy was that she was vicar of Holy Trinity Church, and her Parochial Church Council was applying to a Freemasonry charity for funds toward disabled access at the church.

She said she thought Freemasonry was very boring, but "as a support network for masons it made space for other faiths, and it did this before the institutional church made space inter-faith convictions, and that caused a historic tension. And it's an old tension" She claimed it was not incompatibility.

She said there were many freemasons who had a deep Christian faith, who are disciples of Jesus Christ, and they have eyes that shine out with obedience, humility and faithfulness, who want to make Jesus known to others. Deeply committed Christians who are also Freemasons.

She then spoke strongly about goodness and love and personal commitment to Jesus all of which, she implied, showed that the aims of Christianity and Freemasonry were the same.

We were less convinced, and we began to draw a distinction between the purely 'theological' arguments which had argued for incompatibility, and the 'goodness and love' which - as she had so eloquently put it, showed that there was no incompatibility. It seemed to us we were being asked to compare apples and pears.

Finally, for the Motion that Freemasonry and Christianity are incompatible, was  Rev Dr Simon Cox,  Archdeacon of Blackpool and a member of the General Synod. He began with "Bishop, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Others", pausing for effect after 'Others'.

He said "I'm here to talk about men, in skirts, of a dubious antiquity, engaged in arcane rituals - but enough about the church" (laughter)

He said "Why would I say that Freemasonry and Christianity are incompatible? Well, Jesus specifically commands his people to engage with the world" adding that "He claims a feudal lordship - I'll say that again - a feudal lordship, that's an absolute sovereignty over our lives, over his disciples who must yield their *full* loyalty to him. This is the Christian faith as revealed by Jesus. And if I wanted to be a Freemason, I would have to know whether I am promising things that compromise this loyalty".

With more 'fire in his belly' than anyone else who had spoken (but still not a lot) he launched into a critique using the Masonic Constitution published by the United Grand Lodge of England, saying arguing that amongst other things a mandatory belief in a supreme being was required, subsequently he said this was revealed as the 'GAOTU' which (although it was not explained) he believed meant the 'Great Architect of the Universe' a title nowhere to be found in the Bible, and yet obviously sharing some of the characteristics of God.

The Constitution also said that whilst the bible was open for oaths, you could replace it with your own sacred text which, he believed, degraded the status of the Bible and, as a Christian, he could not accept that.

Here was proper old-fashioned preaching. No knockout blows, but body punch after body punch landing and scoring.

He concluded "By its nature, I can't know what I will promise on joining Freemasonry. I can't know the nature of the Great Architect of the Universe before - or even after - as we're not allowed to discuss religion. So I'm asked to sign up to something that is undefined, sounds like it shouldn't be there, in one sense, and I yet I can't ask any questions about it"

Then we had the brimstone to go with the fire.

He said "My God has revealed - in what THEY call the volume of sacred law - [the Bible] that he is a jealous God. And I've heard the word tolerance used with interest, because that is not one of the primary tenets of the Christian Faith. God doesn't talk about tolerance, he talks about righteousness, holiness and being right with him. And in the context of the good Samaritan (which Rev Goodrich has cited), we actually find it's the two laws - and the Good Samaritan is describing the second of the two laws. The first law is the undying law - Thou shalt worship the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your strength. This is the first commandment and there is no other commandment grater than this! The second commandment is that thou shalt live they neighbour as thyself. A secondary commandment based on the first Commandment. the fact that there is tolerance between God and man is relatively low...."

He said the first four of the ten commandments brook no 'look-alikes', but he simply could not know whether he would be worshiping an idol. But God says he must know - because he must not do it.

He said Freemasonry seemed to be based on 18th century deism which offers a thin and distant God who inspires a moral code. The Christian faith offers a full-on sovereign Lord and a self sacrificing saviour who wants a full engagement and participation in my life, and who offers not just moral guidance, but forgiveness and life.

His invective seemed to be less about intellectual argument to win the debate. It was more about passion and faith and the winning of souls.

We were impressed by his rhetoric.

Finally, we had  Bill Hembrow , a Reader at St Margaret's and also their Treasurer. He said he was a committed Christian and was proud to be a Freemason. He said "I see no problem between the two"

He said everyone had heard from Stephen (Reid) what freemasonry did, but he was going to tell us what it does.

He said "At the start of our meetings we call upon God to assist us in what we are doing. But I must make it absolutely clear that this is not - no matter what other may say - this is not an act of worship. This is similar to a prayer at the beginning of a Council meeting. Worship is what we do in church, synagogue or mosque. Ritual and ceremony is what we do in the lodge. The State Opening of Parliament is not worship, it is ceremonial"

But after another minute or two of reasoned argument like this, he said "...our values are based on integrity, kindness, honesty and fairness, and we support a huge number of charities". He then launched into a huge list of charitable works and spent ages saying how much they had given to them.

We don't doubt that charities benefit substantially from the generosity of Freemasons, but this wasn't the point. We were not debating whether they were a good or charitable organisation or not, we were looking at whether there was a conflict between principles of Freemasonry and Christianity (both of which have charitable aspects) that meant they were incompatible. If you narrow the aspect to charity, there may well be no incompatibility between the two.

But the field is much wider and, as Rev Dr Cox showed, there are aspects of Christian scripture that do appear (at lest to us) to be incompatible with some of aspects of the Masonic culture that were outlined.

Mr Hembrow's contribution brought the debate to an end, and the audience was allowed a short question time.

The first question was about the nature of Freemasonry in England and in Europe. He said we'd been very anglo-centric this evening but he believed that in Europe Freemasonry has, an various times, had a deeply political agenda and anti-Christian one and it was undeniable that there had been a conflict between the two.

Dr Reid replied that different forms of Freemasonry emerged in different places. He said Garibaldi had used freemasonry to ferment and plot revolution, whilst the captain of the pro-motion team noted that the Roman Catholic Church had been very strongly against Freemasonry at various times. Dr Reid agreed but noted that the number of catholic freemasons rose and fell according the issuance of Papal bulls.

The second question was more of a comment really, and a personal one at that. He said he could only speak for himself, but he'd been a committed Christian for almost seventy years, and from his point of view, with Masonry and religion, he had never found any incompatibility. He emphasised the point about the charitable works that freemasonry does. He said he had detailed knowledge of one particular charity and his heart beat every day for the good work they so, and this was from ordinary working class men. He said Freemasonry cared about people. Again, like the last panel speaker, we thought he was missing the point a bit.

Then we had our lightbulb moment.

It seemed as though some of the people present were personally affronted that anyone should hold a view in support of the motion that Christianity and freemasonry were incompatible. (perhaps in a similar way to Rev Dr Cox who had appeared, at least, to preach fire and brimstone for the opposite side). These good people seemed personally offended by the suggestion that there was incompatibility, and thus they were unable to separate out the intellectual / technical theological arguments as to whether it was so or not. For them, it was not about the respective 'rules of the game' - the (undeniable) fact that Freemasons did good works overrode everything else.

Thought provoking. - As these debates always are.

The third speaker was a shock to us. It was Cllr Edward Nash, in full Mayoral regalia, and attending as Mayor of Saint Anne's on the Sea Town Council. He said "I was born in St Annes. Christened in the Parish Church. And was brought up as a committed Christian. Still attend church most Sundays. I was also brought up by my grandfather who was a mason. My father is a mason still and he's a committed Christian, he's a churchwarden in Southport. Last weekend in this very same chain, I went to the Masonic Hall in St Annes which has been opened up to all the community in St Annes to use for good. I believe Christianity is the greatest force for good that there is. But I've never been told, I've never felt certain, I've never actually been spoken to by any cleric, if I may say that, or any rabbi, or any religious body, to tell me why I shouldn't be a Mason. And there's no Mason ever tells me why I shouldn't be a Christian"

He concluded "So can I ask the clerical trio up here tonight why does no priest avoid being a mason if its incompatible with my committed faith?"

The answer came from the Venerable John Hawley who said of course, there were a number of people who were Freemasons and within the church, and of course, they tried not to criticise or challenge, because people are free to be Freemasons if they wish to do so. But a deeper analysis showed there were issues that separated them. However the church's official view was that it was up to individuals and their consciences.

We said earlier that we were shocked, and we were.  Not at the answer, and not so much at what Cllr Nash actually said.

What we were shocked about was that he was there formally as the Mayor of St Anne's on the Sea, but he spoke in a personal capacity and in a partisan way. In doing so we thought he damaged the respect that should be accorded to what should be a wholly impartial and neutral office of the Town Mayor, and he diminished and demeaned that office by doing so. In our view, he should not have spoken at all whilst wearing the Mayoral chain.

The team captains then gave their five minutes summing up before the vote, which the house rules call for people to vote for or against the motion or to abstain.

We were pretty sure that (given the unusually large number of people there) that the result was never going to be in any serious doubt, and - because we had been convinced mostly by Rev Webber, and particularly by Rev Dr Cox - we were going to be in a small minority in voting that there *was* incompatibility between Freemasonry and Christianity.

When the vote for the motion was taken, just a few hands (including ours) went up. The teller walking past us said (sotto voce) "This isn't going to take very long."

The vote against the motion was called and veritable forest of hands went up.

Finally the abstainers were called and a few more hands went up. We were pretty much impressed that Fylde's Deputy Mayor and Mayoress voted to abstain (thus protecting the integrity of the Fylde Mayoral office), and we thought we saw Cllrs Nash vote to abstain as well - which we thought redeemed his position a bit.

The actual result was - "This house believes that Freemasonry and Christianity are incompatible"

  • For 25
  • Against 146
  • Abstain 20

an overwhelming rejection of the belief by those present.

Perhaps the scale of that result tells us something.

Dated:  24 February 2015


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