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Giles Fraser: For the sake of a funny handshake

18 May 2011

I KNOW only a little about Free­masonry. And I am not much interested: it all seems a bit Dan Brown to me. I can’t quite see the point of secret societies with cryptic codes and silly handshakes, all looking after each other.

But the revelation that the next flying bishop, the Bishop of Ebbsfleet, the Revd Jonathan Baker, has been a Mason for more than 20 years, has got me wondering about the similarities between organisations such as For­ward in Faith and Freemasonry. Both are noted for dressing up in funny kit and performing obscure rituals.

Both also have “issues” with women. As I understand it, the United Grand Lodge of England does not recognise any lodge that admits women as members. Many Masons are made to swear “not to be present at the mak­ing of a woman a Mason”. Apparently, it is not traditional.

Perhaps I am making too many connections. After all, the Roman Catholic Church is absolutely clear that Freemasonry is incompatible with Christianity. Over the years, the papacy has issued several Bulls insisting that Roman Catholics cannot be Masons.

The current line, reissued by Pope John Paul II in 1983, is that “The faithful who enrol in Masonic associ­a­tions are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Com­munion;” and “the Church’s negative judge­ment in regard to Masonic associ­ation remains unchanged, since their principles have always been considered irreconcilable with the doctrine of the Church, and therefore membership in them remains for­bidden.”

I imagine that this is a bit of a problem for those Masonic members of Forward in Faith who have thought about leaving the Church of England for the Roman Catholic Ordinariate.

The position of the Church of England is different — although to describe it as a position is probably to make it sound too definite. Basically, we are uneasy about it, but we won’t ban it. In 2002, before he became Archbishop, Dr Williams said that he would not appoint a Mason to a senior position in the Church. Yet The Sunday Tele­graph reports that Fr Baker admitted to the Archbishop that he was a Freemason when he was appointed, and this did not seem to be a problem.

The fact that Fr Baker has now resigned his membership of the Lodge, and severed all links with the Masons, solves the problem for him personally. But questions still remain about the extent of Masonic in­volve­ment in the Church. To what degree does it involve mutual back-scratch­ing? The fact that Free­masonry is a secret society means that we will not get proper answers. That ought to concern us all.


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