Past editor of Freemasonry Today, Michael Baigent was a successful author and influential mason whose writing sparked debate and created a loyal following. John Hamill looks back at his career
It is with real regret that we have to announce the death of Michael Baigent who was editor of Freemasonry Today from the spring of 2001 until the summer of 2011, when increasing ill health forced him into partial retirement. He continued as consultant editor until his untimely death from a brain haemorrhage on 17 June 2013 at a Brighton hospital.
Born in Nelson, New Zealand, in 1948, he was educated at Nelson College and the University of Canterbury, at Christchurch, reading comparative religion and psychology and graduating in 1972 with a BA. In later life he earned an MA in the Study of Mysticism and Religious Experience from the University of Kent.
After graduating, Michael spent four years as a photographer in India, Laos, Bolivia and Spain. Coming to London in 1976, he worked for a time in the photographic department at the BBC, which brought him into contact with Henry Lincoln and Richard Leigh, who were filming a documentary about the medieval Knights Templar. Their mutual interests and enthusiasm ultimately led to the publication in 1982 of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a controversial bestseller and still in print after more than thirty years.
Embracing the craft
The success of the book enabled Michael to concentrate on research, writing and lecturing. Writing with Leigh, he produced works on such diverse topics as Freemasonry, the Dead Sea Scrolls, magic and alchemy, the Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler and the Inquisition. His solo works covered the ancient mysteries, the early Christian church and the influence of religion in modern life.
Michael’s interest in the history of ideas and the esoteric tradition led him to the Craft, becoming a Freemason in the Lodge of Economy, No. 76, Winchester, near his then home. He later joined the Prince of Wales’s Lodge, No. 259, London, and was nominated by them as a Grand Steward and appointed a Grand Officer in 2005.
Freemasonry brought Michael to the notice of Lord Northampton, who invited him to become a trustee of the Canonbury Masonic Research Centre, which he was setting up as a focus for research into the more esoteric aspects of Freemasonry. Equally, Michael became involved in and greatly shaped the early years of the Cornerstone Society, which Lord Northampton had established as a forum for those interested in exploring the deeper meanings of the ritual. When the Orator Scheme was being discussed in 2006, Michael was the obvious candidate to draft the early Orations.
Leading from the front
When Michael became editor of Freemasonry Today it was still ‘the independent voice of Freemasonry’. He greatly extended its coverage beyond the Craft and Royal Arch and attracted a new audience to the magazine, including a growing number of non-masons. He not only sought out contributors and edited their pieces but was responsible for the page design and seeing the magazine through the presses. He employed his old talents and provided many of the photographs that illustrated the content. It was something of a departure for him when in 2007 the magazine merged with Grand Lodge’s then house organ, MQ Magazine, to become the Craft’s official journal. Yet he rose to the occasion and continued to produce a magazine that combined news with interesting, and sometimes challenging, articles.
Michael would have been the first to acknowledge that his work fell outside the normal run of academic historical research, but he believed completely in what he did. He was not writing for other academics but for the general reader, and he had a loyal following. Whether he worked on his own or with Lincoln and Leigh, Michael’s writing was never ignored and always provoked discussion – which is all any writer seeks.
His last years were, sadly, marked by increasing ill health, including an initially successful liver transplant, and financial problems caused by the unsuccessful case he and Leigh took against the novelist Dan Brown’s publisher, claiming that Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code was both a plagiarism and infringed the copyright of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. A gentle, courteous man, Michael was always a pleasure to meet and talk to and will be greatly missed by many. Our thoughts go out to his wife, daughters and stepson and stepdaughter.
How open should we be?
London's Kent Club continued its series of educational events with a visit to Kent Lodge No. 15, who were receiving a talk by the Grand Secretary, Nigel Brown, entitled: PR: How open should we be?
As this was a lodge meeting, the talk was preceded by work held over from the host lodge's previous meeting: a near-faultless explanation of the First Degree Tracing Board by W Bro Neil Ryce, which was received with great enthusiasm by the assembled brethren, and in particular by the three brethren who had been initiated at recent meetings.
The Grand Secretary then spoke, without notes, for around half an hour on this very important topic.
Most of us know that masonry is becoming more open, but it was good to hear the reasons why masonry had gone underground and become so secretive. And to see the contrast with the late nineteenth century when The Telegraph and other newspapers had their own masonic journalists to cover events on a constant basis as masonic news.
Bro Brown pointed out that that whilst there had been difficulties for some masons with their employers in previous years, Grand Lodge had gone to court to make sure that discrimination would not be tolerated. Questions on application forms, or other singling-out of brethren which could imply discriminatory intentions against masons, had been found by the court to be illegal. He went on to explain that the courts had not only ruled that Freemasonry was not a secret society, but also (in an earlier judgement) ruled that it was not a religion.
He urged us to assist in placing Freemasonry back at the heart of the community, by dispelling myths and incorrect assumptions.
Bro Brown cited an example of a typical conversation between friends and acquaintances at a dinner party where the question of Freemasonry might come up. Yes, he said, the conversation might start off with laughter about rolled-up trouser legs and talk of us being a secret society, bent on world domination or other nefarious objectives, but if these views were politely but firmly challenged, then it might very well end with those in the conversation revealing that their grandfather or uncle had been a mason, and how impressed they were with the tremendous fundraising done by masons!
This brought him to a further point regarding our strong charitable giving: he emphasised that whilst it was of course "blind" and that we did not expect to get anything in return, it was both fair and proper that we should be thanked for the difference our money was able to make and thanked publicly.
Part of engaging with the non-masonic world and being more open is engaging with the media, both traditional and social - and with the example of official tweets being sent from Quarterly Communications, he underlined that UGLE has embraced technological change.
He went on to say that all of the Provincial and Metropolitan Information Officers had been on training courses to equip them for the requirements of the post, including specific television/media training for those who might be called upon to act as spokesmen for masonry. He also disclosed that the title Information Officer was to change to Communications Officer to reflect this change and to underline our openness.
Diverse questions followed from members of all ages and ranks, including how to deal with unspoken disapproval of Craft membership from more senior colleagues being experienced by some junior professionals; whether the reintroduction of public processions in regalia would continue to be encouraged; how to tackle public misconceptions caused by those amongst our own members who themselves appear to be propagating poor information or pandering to sensationalism; and whether the Orator scheme could be developed as an adjunct to openness.
The questions were answered with the same warmth and wit as the delivery of the speech itself, with the underlying theme that we should be as open as we can (although without nullifying the appropriate mysteries of the Craft), thereby helping to overcome mistakes and negative opinions by setting the record straight. In particular, the Grand Secretary agreed that some Brethren had good reason to keep their membership confidential, explained how it is planned to build further upon the success of the public procession at the Lord Mayor’s Show, emphasized that some masons should be more careful not to endorse nonsense, and announced that the Orator scheme is currently being restructured for greater relevance and effectiveness.
The Grand Secretary sat down to prolonged applause, and afterwards joined the Brethren for a fine dinner with good cheer and traditional formalities.
Because this Quarterly Communication has included the presentation of the Rulers’ Forum Mentoring Project and the meeting of the Grand Charity, I will keep my remarks brief.
I am pleased that the legislation has been passed enabling the appointment of Provincial and District Grand Orators. This means that we can now start the Orator Scheme in earnest. I have asked for intended orations to be approved before they are delivered and the Orators will now be fully briefed on the procedure for this.
In January you will have received your copy of the new Freemasonry Today. I was impressed with all the work done on this first issue and I know that it will become a valuable tool for promoting a better understanding of the Craft and Royal Arch as well as wider topics of interest. The next issue will be with you at the beginning of April.
Since the last Quarterly Communication the Deputy Grand Master has installed the District Grand Master for Gibraltar and the Assistant Grand Master inaugurated the new District of Northern India before installing the District Grand Master. He also attended the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Combermere Lodge in Melbourne, Australia.
The lunch after Quarterly Communication is restricted to Grand Officers. I am minded that from the June Quarterly Communication this should be extended to include anyone who is qualified to attend Grand Lodge. In order to control the numbers it is likely that, at least initially, applications should be made through Provincial Grand Secretaries or the London Office or alternatively Grand Officers will be allowed to invite guests who are qualified to attend. The Grand Secretary will be explaining how this will work in practice when he sends you the usual form.