On Rowan William's Distrust of Freemasonry

I wanted to comment on this article because I believe it gets much right about why Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is hostile to Freemasonry, and yet it also misses the point in its very first paragraph.

"Why is Rowan Williams suspicious of Freemasonry? For the same reason, surely, that almost everyone else is: it is a secretive society with links to mystical gobbledegook that may or may not have a whiff of Satanism. A Christian leader should be particularly careful not to be associated with such stuff, for he wants the Christian faith to seem open, accessible, reasonable – utterly distinct from such cloak-and-dagger Harry Potter stuff."

Let's unpack that a bit. First of all, the author argues that almost everyone is suspicious of Freemasonry. That may be the case in the UK, but not here in America, where the lodge is a valuable part of many communities, and charities like the Shriners' Hospitals do quite a bit of good.

I'll skip over the "secretive society" bit and go straight to the main contention here. Does Freemasonry really have links to "mystical gobbledegood," with a whiff of "Satanism?" Several great books that examine the historical underpinings of Freemasonry, including "The Origins of Freemasonry," and "The Masonic Myth," explode the arguments that Freemasonry is somehow linked to ancient magical or mystical rites. There is simply no historical progression. Furthermore, I have seen no "cloak-and-dagger Harry Potter stuff," in the Lodge. If there was, I'm sure Masonry would be doing a much better job of recruiting young people.

"Freemasonry may have links with ancient magic, but it also has links with modern reason. I think that this is what Williams really dislikes about it. Not the funny handshakes and creepy initiation ceremony, but the implicit claim that the rationalist God of the Enlightenment is an improvement on the limited Christian one. In the 18th century, Freemasonry spread among middle-class men who felt that religion should modernise; it should be about rational moral progress, and it should unite people rather than keep old divisions alive."

As an American and Freemason, I see the historical non-sectarianism of the Lodge as a major plus. The principles of the Enlightenment gave us western democracy and freedom of religion, and these principles of self-determination and freedom of conscience are assets for Masonry, not a threat to Christianity. The fact that a lodge brother can worship God as he sees fit does not restrict my ability to do the same as I see fit. Perhaps what Williams is really concerned about is the historic lessening of the control of the Church of England over modern British society, to the point that the UK has been called a "post-Christian" nation. Thus he lashes out at anything that does not shore up the Church of England's former dominance in society, in this case, a society of men encouraging morality and not imposing any one religious creed.

"It is therefore deeply associated with the ideology known as deism, an ideology whose greatest triumph was the American Revolution."

I would argue that the evidence that deism was a driving force behind the American Revolution is tenuous at best. Many of the Founders were non-dogmatic about their faith, and embraced religious tolerance, but this does not make them all, or even most of them, true Deists. In fact, one of the defining theories of Continental Deism was the concept of the Watchmaker God who created the world, set it in motion, and stepped back. However, most of the Founders expressed their fervent belief that the hand of God/Providence was directly responsible for their success in the fact of overwhelming odds.

Mr. Hobson continues: "Williams' suspicion of this tradition goes to the very heart of his theology. It is of a piece with his suspicion of the Enlightenment, and of "liberalism". The essence of liberalism, in this view, is its claim that the rational good of humanity has superseded any particular religion, including Christianity."

This is a very interesting contention. Anglicanism/Episcopalianism has long been considered to be a rather liberal version of Christianity. Sitting Anglican vicars have published books denying the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection, and other doctrines of Christianity. Perhaps the Archbishop would do better to address the serious doctrinal schisms forming within his church, rather than trying to persecute an external organization which can and does contain many good Anglicans.

The spiritual "liberalism" that Hobson is denouncing is at the very core of what makes a non-religious group like Masonry successful. It is not a "Christian" organization anymore than it is Buddhist, Jewish or Islamic. As such it must tread the middle path of not forbidding or encouraging specific religious practice, and I believe it does so very well by forbidding discussion of religion in the Lodge. This kind of accepting attitude would be an asset to the Church of England, not a threat. Religion in the Church, and Tolerance in the Lodge is a perfect compromise.


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