I outed myself on Facebook last night. No, not that - I mean I announced that I was a Freemason. Mind you, I haven't ever made any particular secret of it - I just don't tend to go around festooned with squares and compasses. Why would I do such a thing? Because the Sunday Telegraph decided that they were going to have a go at the recently appointed Bishop of Ebbsfleet because he was a Freemason, and in doing so give any number of talking heads an opportunity to slander an organisation of which I am proud to be a part, and which I think is a powerful force for good.
I suppose I had better start by trying to address the conspiracy theories. First - Freemasonry is a heretical religion that worships its own god. Not true. You have to believe in a God if you want to join - one of the first questions you are asked is 'In whom do you place your trust', and the expected answer is 'In God' - but Freemasonry is open to anyone who can, in conscience, make that statement. That does mean, of course, that as a Mason I have to consider that someone else's faith is valid for that person, just as they must accept that mine is for me, but that's a whole different argument. I am indebted to a friend of mine for the analogy, but if Freemasonry is heresy then so is Alcoholics Anonymous, or any other twelve-step program. Secondly, Freemasons worship the Devil. Apart from the fact that there isn't any sort of worship going on, because we're not dealing with a religion, this is just plain comical. Or at least it would be, except for the fact that it is also a classic blood-libel sort of smear that is virtually impossible to counter. It's very difficult to prove a negative - especially to a conspiracy theorist's satisfaction. All I can say is that in nearly twenty years of membership, after a great deal of research, and with the benefit of access to plenty of people who really would know, I have never encountered anything like that. Ever.
Third, Freemasonry is corrupt, and people join it so that they can 'get on'. I have no doubt that some people join for that reason, but there aren't many of them, and they don't stay. For a start, one way to get yourself kicked out is to be convicted for any crime except a minor motoring offence. Also, the reaction of any Mason to being given a handshake and a 'nudge nudge, wink wink' would be to think 'what a plonker' follwed by 'that one certainly won't get the job'. Would you prefer to use a plumber, a mechanic or a solicitor that you knew? Probably. You could just as easily know him from that hotbed of satanic iniquity known as the Village Bowls Club as from your local Lodge. That's pretty much the limit of the networking opportunities, I'm afraid.
Fourth, it's a secret society. Well, it isn't. If it was, I wouldn't be writing this. When I joined, I made a promise to keep three things secret in each ceremony - namely a sign (of the 'I'm a little teapot' variety), a handshake and a word. I can tell you that they exist, but not what they are. It was only a promise, not a solemn blood oath, but it is something to be taken seriously nevertheless. You could torture it out of me, I suppose (actually a swift sight of the thumbscrews would probably be enough), I would break the promise in a court of law if the alternative was to be found guilty of contempt, and if it would save a life I'd tell you in a heartbeat, but otherwise - I made a promise and I intend to keep it. Just as I hope you would if I asked you to. Society with secrets? Yes. Illuminati? No.
So why did I join it? The same reason as many people do, I think. I got to know some people who were masons - and Jonathan Baker was one of them - found them to be good people whom I admired, and decided to join myself. I am immensely glad that I did. I don't think I have gained any material benefit from it at all - quite the opposite, in fact - but I have no doubt at all that I am a better person for it. The reason for this is that although Freemasonry most definitely is not a religion, it does provide a rule of life. The best way to illustrate this is to suggest that you read some of the ritual for yourself. If you click here you will find a Google document, containing a speech that is given by one of the members of the Lodge (from memory) to a relatively new Mason. The conceit is that as you move up through the three grades, starting off as an apprentice, you get progressively more complex tools to learn how to use. These are the ones for the second degree. Give it a read, and then please tell me what you find morally objectionable or incompatible with Christianity.
This post was originally titled ...Part 1. Part 2 was supposed be an attempt to deal with the other objection that people raise about Freemasonry, namely that it is actively damaging. This Twitter post from a priest in the C.ofE. is an example of what I mean: "I've seen and experienced the sinister side in my ministry. The threats, the spiritual ties, and the spiritual fallout in lives" The person that I am quoting protects his tweets, so I haven't linked to him, but I had hoped that either he or anyone else with a similar experience would be able to reply to this post and let me know about their experiences. The conspiracy stuff with which I began is really a side-issue - it's the perceived damage that I would like to engage with - especially since it seems to run counter to everything I know about Freemasonry in general, and my experience of it in particular. Unfortunately, I haven't heard anything back (as of 8th July 2011). The offer still stands, though...