I believe that it is time that we, as English Freemasons, re-examined our roots and the things we do. In our dealings with individuals and organisations we need confidence in explaining and commending ourselves. There is either the danger of being too simplistic, thus carrying no real conviction in a world where so much else competes for a young man’s attention; or, we can come over as too defensive, confirming the myth that we have something to hide, or that we are ashamed of what we do in our temples and act out in our ceremonies.
What is beyond debate is that by the early eighteenth century men were meeting in Lodges throughout these Islands to see how they could best build communities united in a desire for true godliness, a good moral life and a passion to serve their fellow men. They attempted to do this by enacting rituals based on the building of King Solomon’s Temple. They were all believers (at the very least nominally) within the Christian tradition, but represented the denominations that made up the churches in Britain at the time, many at enmity with one another. The Lodge, therefore, became perhaps the only place where thinking men could sit down in true fellowship and harmony with one another. But the effect of that influence for good in eighteenth-century Britain has yet to be fully appreciated. Nevertheless, the resolve to be outward looking and serviceable to their locality and country soon took concrete form in the foundation of the great Masonic Charities.
Our early Masonic forebears were both pragmatic and realistic; they knew only too well that human nature is flawed, tending to self-absorption and selfishness.
Thus, I believe, pure Antient Freemasonry soon took its next and last crucial step: the creation of the Royal Arch. Using the historic stories garnered from the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah they enacted the story of the rebuilding of the Temple thus reinforcing the fundamental message of starting again, rebuilding communities, and this time refocussed on the name of ‘the True and Living God Most High.’
Freemasons seek in no way to override or subvert the religious beliefs of an individual ... nor do Freemasons seek to offer some alternative way of salvation.
Life in eighteenth century Britain was perilous and fragile. There was schism within the churches, enemies within and without, and a dire lack of moral behaviour which on one hand was the shame of the leaders and the wealthy, and on the other the consequence of the appalling poverty. This is the context of our Masonic forebears’ attempt to introduce that sense of the necessity of rebuilding our society and culture, the rebuilding of the temple of the body politic, the rebuilding of people’s lives. These I believe are our roots; from all this flow certain convictions which I hold dear: First, it is absolutely essential that we establish beyond doubt that pure Antient Freemasonry constitutes the Craft and the Royal Arch. No more, no less.
Secondly, in our negotiations with, for example, religious institutions we must be mindful of what I have called our godly forbears. And by that I stress the fundamental and unifying belief in the Supreme Being, thus giving a context and a background to an individual’s way of life as he seeks to live it out. Beyond that, Freemasons seek in no way to override or subvert the religious beliefs of an individual and, even more importantly, nor do Freemasons seek to offer some alternative way of salvation. Speaking personally, I am happy to witness publicly that for me Jesus Christ is ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life.’ For others it will be by the means of the Torah, or the Message revealed to the Prophet, or by means of the Sacred Vedas and so on. As an individual attempting to be a Christian, my Freemasonry simply complements all that I believe and how I seek to live.
Thirdly, and speaking now of the importance of the Royal Arch, I would wish to reinforce this principle of rebuilding. We too live in perilous and fragile times. Never has there been a greater need for the rebuilding of communities and for the bringing of harmony and unity to the world.
Drawing Unity from Diversity
Just as our forebears, coming from such varied backgrounds and traditions were able to sit down together in our Holy Royal Arch Chapters and act out with sincerity and conviction the story of the rebuilding of the Temple, so today we can show the world that there are ways and means for men of different and divided religions, cultures and philosophies to sit down together in unity. Freemasonry is one of those ways and means. I really believe that this tolerant acceptance is one of our highest vocations as members of the Royal Arch And lastly comes my conviction about our being attractive as Freemasons – giving that ability to draw other men to enquire, explore and join us. That is how I became a Freemason; that is how ‘recruitment’ will happen at its best. It places a huge responsibility upon each and every one of us if we are in any way concerned with the survival and future of what we hold dear. Does Freemasonry promise a distinctive happiness? We know that it does in principle, but if we live it out in our Freemasonry, it will happen as though by osmosis; and that will ensure that recruitment will happen naturally because we are living examples of true and faithful Brothers and Companions.
One day a rabbi asked his students, ‘How can you tell that night has ended and the day is returning?’ One student suggested, ‘When you can see clearly that an animal in the distance is a lion and not a leopard.’ ‘No’ said the rabbi. Another said, ‘When you can tell that a tree bears figs and not peaches?’ ‘No’ said the rabbi. ‘It is when you can look on the face of another person and see that woman or man is your sister or brother. Because until you are able to do so, no matter what time of day it is, it is still night.’
The Very Revd Canon Neil Collings, Dean of St Edmundsbury, is the Third Grand Principal in the Grand Chapter of the Royal Arch.