By Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, Past Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory.
Various religions have had problems with Freemasonry. In Australia, most often it was the Anglicans, but occasionally other denominations. There were periods when Catholics were warned against the craft, though the Vatican stance has now softened.
The arguments against freemasonry differ from place to place and from time to time. It is too religious for some who think it should leave Biblical imagery to the official religions. It is not religious enough for others, who allege that it is too accommodating and open-minded.
The Masonic view of religion derives from the early 18th century when a Grand Lodge was established in London. Asserting that in ancient times Masons “were charged in every country to be of the religion of that country or nation”, the tenets formulated by James Anderson in 1723 stated that now it “was thought more expedient only to oblige them to that religion in which all men agree, leaving their particular opinions to themselves”.
The philosophy of the time was deism and the view that there was “a Supreme Being who can be conceived of by any rational being… It was assumed that this religion of reason was at the root of every historical religion” (Jacob Katz, “Out of the Ghetto”, 1978).
Anderson’s principles were tested when Jews sought to become Freemasons. If Jews were accepted, the movement would be effectively dechristianised. In the end Jewish membership was approved, and there were even so-called “Jewish” lodges.
In some areas, there were still christological elements which limited Jewish participation and sat uneasily with Anderson’s principle of toleration. Yet as time went on Masonic broadmindedness endorsed a candidate’s use of his own Scriptures, and this is now the accepted rule.
But is this “religion in which all men agree”, and is there really any such thing? I personally have been part of this discussion in a number of contexts, for example in the debates in NSW about religious instruction in State schools, hinging on whether there is a “general” religion which can be taught in the classroom, and in the Defence Department, where national events and commemorations raise the issue of whether there is an across-the-board religion in which both Christians and non-Christians, and indeed various brands of Christians, can share.
Some cite the slogan, “Judeo-Christian tradition”. It is true that Jews and Christians both talk about God, the Bible, human dignity and ethics, but as Churchill said about the English and the Americans, it is two peoples divided by a common language.
However, neither of these two examples is a useful analogy for Freemasonry. Unlike State education, the craft is not concerned with teaching religion. Unlike national commemorations, the craft is not concerned with acts of worship. All that the craft requires is that members have a belief in a Supreme Being, but there is neither a Masonic theology nor a Masonic style of worship. Freemasonry is not a religion. We do utilise Biblical events and terminology in our procedures but in a neutral way and without doctrinal or exegetical implications.
True, today’s Australia has increasing numbers of faith groups for whom Biblical material has no cultural resonance, but the small numbers of Masons from these groups do not seem to have raised any objections. Presumably they view Biblical references as part of the Australian ethos, like Eureka, Gallipoli and the Dismissal. Some such groups, though religious, have no room for God, but they do not seem to object to the letter “G” in the lodge room.
Like every movement, we have our folklore (I use the word in a non-pejorative sense). If we leave out the traditional “folklore” content, Freemasonry is unrecognisable – but if we leave it in, the craft is not universal.
Is Freemasonry an impossible dream? My answer is no. Freemasonry is a system of ethics which it illustrates by means of allegories with a Biblical connection. The allegories fascinate the antiquarians and academics, but it is the message which is the main thing.
For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.