A buzz of expectation filled the church of St Margaret of Antioch, St Anne’s on Sea, as parishioners, Freemasons and visitors crowded the pews for the sixth annual Shrove Tuesday Debate
The motion before the meeting was: This House believes that Freemasonry and Christianity are incompatible
The event was preceded by a fine reception and drinks provided by the Lord and Lady of the Manor of Lytham, Mr JC Hilton and Mrs P Hilton JP. Introductions were ably managed by the master of ceremonies Colin Ballard, who is the Town Crier to both the Manor of Lytham and St Anne’s, Attendees enjoyed music provided by the Cameo String Quartet.
Once the reception had concluded the master of ceremonies brought the house to order and introduced the chairman for the meeting The Rt Rev Geoff Pearson BA, Suffragan Bishop of Lancaster, he in turn introduced the teams. Speaking for the motion were John Hawley, Simon Cox and Toby Webber – all of whom are in Holy Orders. Those against were Past Senior Grand Deacon of the United Grand Lodge of England, Dr Steven Reid, Rev Nancy Goodrich and local Freemason Bill Hembrow.
Opening the debate John Hawley focused on the requirement for Christians to focus their lives on Jesus. He voiced his concern that by allowing candidates to take their obligations on their own holy books, that seemed to imply that Freemasons worshipped several different gods. In his view, there is only one holy book which is the Bible.
In response Steven Reid set out to explain what Freemasonry is. He spoke of Freemasonry as being a warm and uncomplicated organisation, which was based on ancient stonemasons' lodges, where the signs and passwords were used as protection of their livelihoods. He explained that the subjects of politics and religion were banned from masons' meetings as they were subjects on which nobody can agree and were likely to cause conflict and disharmony.
Toby Webber then spoke for the motion, quoting at length from masonic degree ceremonies, but making the point that there was no evidence that any degree ritual made any reference to Jesus or his teachings. However, he showed such a grasp of the meaning of the ritual that several masons afterwards personally congratulated him for the obvious amount of work he had put in to understand the meaning behind the words.
In response Nancy Goodrich spoke about people she knew who were both devoted Christians and committed Freemasons. She told of her grandfather’s 70 years as a stonemason and how this had affected his life and health. She also spoke of the works and deeds of the late Past Provincial Grand Master of West Lancashire Colin Penty Wright. She assured the audience that he was a man who had been seen to successfully combine Christianity and Freemasonry into one very honourable and useful life.
In conclusion, she acknowledged that masonry doesn’t compare to the life of Jesus Christ but added, '…it was never meant to.'
Simon Cox was the third speaker in favour of the motion and told the meeting that he had spent that day looking at the United Grand Lodge of England website in preparation for this debate! From this study he concluded that he wasn’t sure if the Great Architect of the Universe was the same god that he worshipped. Nor did he believe he was allowed to ask that question before he took his obligation. He also held that because masons of different faiths were allowed to take their obligations on their own holy books, that this somehow diluted the validity of that obligation because, as he said, '…in his life as a devout Christian those other books were not equal to the Bible!'
The following speaker was Bill Hembrow, a Reader and the Treasurer of St Margaret’s parish. Bill opened by telling his audience that he would tell them what Freemasons do. He explained that meetings open with a prayer in much the same way as a council meeting or Scouts' camp. This prayer is not an act of worship as would be appropriate to a church, synagogue or other religious building.
What follows is ritual, or ceremonial. He said: 'We are not conducting a religious service, our ceremonies are like one act plays, designed to promote candidates through the different levels of the organisation, during which a candidate is asked to take an obligation to observe the rules and regulations of the Order.'
He continued: 'Candidates are asked to place their hands on either the Bible or the sacred manuscript of whatever religion they follow, in the same way as witnesses do in a court of law. He added that Freemasonry was an ethical rather than a doctrinal organisation.' Bill continued by saying in general though, what we do in our meetings is routine, we deal with minutes, accounts, correspondence, people’s progression and there is normally a collection for charity. He went onto describe the meals after the meeting, where members could meet and enjoy the company of like-minded people. There would be a raffle where again the proceeds would be donated to charity. Bill expanded on this theme by enumerating the many charities supported by Freemasons at national, regional and local levels.
In summing up for the noes, Steven Reid alluded to the frequent and vitriolic attacks and bullying often dished out in '...episodic swipes at Freemasonry...'
He said it seemed quite alright to attack Freemasons in ways that would be unacceptable towards minority groups and the disabled. More positively, he told of the very warm welcome he received when giving cheques on behalf of Freemasons to many Christian based charities. He urged the house to reject the motion.
John Hawley summed up by stating that, contrary to Steven Reid’s allusion to Freemasonry’s religious toleration, his god was an intolerant being who didn’t suffer any dilution of commitment in his followers. A comment which raised a few eyebrows! He continued by reiterating many of the points made by his team members and the question was put.
The results of the vote were as follows: Ayes: 25, Noes: 13, Abstentions: 20.