Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

On the square


Fr Ray Blake recently had a judicious post on Freemasonry, and in particular its relationship with the Catholic Church, which you can read here. In 2009 Fr Ashley Beck wrote an article setting out the Catholic critique in detail for the Catholic Herald.

I have never seen the attraction of Freemasonry. I remember seeing a television programme about its rituals as a schoolboy and thought them risible. My maternal grandfather was a Mason, but did not, I gather, consider it very important - it was part of the cursus honorem of an interwar market town for a councillor and business man like him.

I recall the General Synod's discussion of it, and how one Anglican priest pointed out that, in his experience, Freemasons could be very good at fundraising in your parish, but that he had found that they would have nothing to do with any attempt to discuss and promote spiritual growth.

As an Anglo-Catholic in Yorkshire all the influences I encountered there were opposed to Freemasonry. There was a story in my home parish of how years before when a former churchwarden and Freemason died his body was brought into church and of how, with the church locked up, the local Freemasons 'danced' around his coffin the night before his funeral. I do not know if the story was true, but most things turn out to be possible.

One Anglo-Papalist priest I knew always refused to enter a chapel in the crypt of Sheffield Cathedral because it had been furnished by the Freemasons of South Yorkshire and included Masonic symbols on the the altar frontal. Another had only one question when interviewing a prospective church organist: Was he a Mason? If he had he would not have got the post. Anglo-Catholic clergy were against Freemasonry and that was that.

When, on the one occasion I was asked if I might be interested in joining the local Lodge, I politely declined.

Coming to Oxford I was surprised to find how many Anglo-Catholic clergy were active in Freemasonry, and made no secret of it - their northern brethren would have been shocked by their involvement.

Within the University there has, in recent years, been an active recruitment drive drawing in not a few young men who obviously join as one more means of getting on in the world. There is an element of snobbery and elitism which attracts members. For some its rather fey all-male milieu appears to have an appeal. Of those who join a few are Catholics, and plead, inaccurately, that "the Cardinal" had obtained or issued a dispensation. The answer to that is the letter from the CDF. When members reappear in Oxford for a meeting of the Apollo Lodge or some other such group I usually enquire if they are sacrificing babies or goats that evening. This is usually met with a somewhat pitying look.

I think Freemasonry's rituals artificial for the most part - I am prepared to concede there may be elements that do derive from real medieval masons' guild practice in some parts of the Craft - but otherwise specious, silly and, basically, dressing (or undressing) up games for grown ups who should have grown out of such things. Building Noah's Ark once a year in a converted North Oxford villa strikes even some of the Masons as silly - though their sense of humour does seem blind to the implications of the address of the local headquarters which is situated at 333 Banbury Road. Half way to what, one might ask?

Whilst I recognise that Masonic charities are generous, I do wonder how much influence a self- serving secret society exercises, and if its influence is a good thing. There are relatively few exposes of their activities and less attention in the media to their activities. Compare that with some contemporary attitudes to the Church for example. What does that suggest?

Of course if I get bumped off or fail to get employment that may mean that I have been blacklisted for writing this piece - but will I ever know that is the reason. (Different rules apply I suppose if I am bumped off, but you take my point).

Whether Freemasonry is a direct threat in this country or in the English speaking world to Christianity may be doubted by some, but as Fr Blake points out, its essential ideas are not supportive of the Church's vision and message. Freemasons may not actively plot over their dinners how to do the Church down, but their ideals reinforce post-Enlightenment attitudes and ideas that are not conducive to revealed Catholic Christianity. The formal emphasis on secrecy makes concealment seem to be acceptable.

Freemasons here are, so to speak, 'in communion' with some whose attitudes were and are not Catholic. How can that be reconciled with communion with Catholic Christianity? Some people do appear to regard it as a religion or belief system that transcends all others. That is inimical to Catholic belief.


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Smasher of Stonecutters said...

Freemasonry is of hell, and participation in its dark rites should be an imprisonable offence.