Am I a Freemason?
Nor am I a member of the Orange Order, the Apprentice Boys of Derry, the the Royal Arch Purple, the Royal Black Institution, the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, the Irish National Foresters, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Opus Dei, the Former Tentgoers of Ballybrit, any golf club, any political party, any old school network, or any alumni association. In fact, apart from the church for whom I work, I’m not a member of anything. Being a Marxist of the Groucho variety, I would not wish to belong to any club that would have me as a member.
Being the most unclubbable person I know, it is odd that someone last night should wish to find out whether I was a member of the Masonic Order. I have a namesake nearby, but I do not think it was him for whom they were searching Google. They might just have emailed me and asked,
“Ian, are you a member of the Freemasons?”
“No. However, some of my friends are”.
Rolling up trouser legs and bearing one’s left breast, or whatever the procedure is, has never appealed to me. (You can buy a complete encyclopedia of Masonry if you are interested in such things). But twenty years ago, I asked a friend why he belonged to the Order. He had been a young bank clerk in the days when they would be transferred around the country at a whim; the Lodge provided him with friendship wherever he went. The Lodge for him was somewhere for convivial company.
Reading John Cooney’s biography of John Charles McQuaid, Catholic Archbishop of Dublin from 1940 until 1971, the Order took on a new light. On a number of occasions, McQuaid makes reference to “Protestants and Freemasons” when he wishes to denounce things that challenge Catholic authority and which threaten liberal trends.
The Masons always seemed a group of middle class, middle aged men, the embodiment of social conservatism; not a group that threatened to bring about a liberal society. But, as I read it, within the constitution of Masonry there is provision for freedom of religious conscience; people are expected to adhere faithfully to their religious principles, but those principles are not prescribed – one can have very different religious beliefs from one’s brethren yet still remain within the discipline of the Lodge. When the vision is for a monolithic Catholic state, freethinkers like the Masons, no matter how conservative they might be, are a challenge. Perhaps McQuaid disliked an organisation over which he had no control; but perhaps his deeper fear was the rise of individual conscience.
What has happened in Ireland with the collapse of the authority of the Catholic Church is not the emergence of individual conscience, but, too often the emergence of individuals without a conscience. Perhaps the Masons with their funny rituals and their odd ways and their old-fashioned values offer a much healthier way of living than the self-centred materialism that has taken over in a post-Catholic age. The values of brotherhood and charity, even if those are primarily within the Order, and living by one’s principles are maybe not such a bad rule of life.
No, I am not a Freemason.
(And, should any Masonic friends be reading this: no, I am not joining!)