What is it about these chaps in aprons that so upsets the Government?
Comdr Michael Higham may go to prison for keeping secret the lists of Freemasons. BRIAN BRINDLEY investigates the 'craft' and finds parallels with the history of Catholics in Britain WE COULD SEE, on television, Commander Higham, Grand Secretary of English Freemasonry, 'being quizzed about the membership or otherwise of the Craft of a large list of men. When he refused to answer he was threatened with imprisonment for contempt of Parliament and we were shown the little cells in the Clocktower, beneath Big Ben, where this would be carried out. (Ironically, the cells were last occupied by Mr Bradlaugh, a Victorian atheist who got elected to the Commons and then refused to take the Oath.) Was I alone in being reminded of Popish recusants in the days of persecution, being interrogated in the Star Chamber before being hauled off to prisons dark and the scaffold? Of course, we live in more polite days, and there is no threat of the rack or the rope to Commander Higham; but he can hardly have supposed, when he exchanged active service in the Royal Navy for the important job of Grand Secretary, that he would one day find himself in such a situation; he vras after all becoming the chief servant of an organisation of the highest repute, under Royal patronage, and definitely part of the British "establishment".
English Freemasonry, the oldest there is, dates back to round about 1700, when groups of gentlemen began meeting for a convivial supper (the Festive Board) attached to a Friendly Society. Each meeting was preceded by a ceremonial adapted from the activities of the mediaeval "operative" stonemasons, (who built, for example, our cathedrals, and set up "lodges", with secret marks of recognition for membership,) though there is no real community between the two organisations. "Speculative" masonry flourished, and within no time at all there were noblemen as Grand Masters, and even Royal Dukes. Simultaneously there sprang up on the Continent genuinely secret and subversive societies called "Grand Orients', papal condemnation of these was swift, and to this day it is not possible for a Catholic to be a freemason even of the English variety.
Freemasons have only themselves to blame for much of the suspicion that attached to them, and especially for hostility to the childish "bias phemies" of the oaths (sworn on the Bible) and bloodcurd1Mg penalties attached to them. in truth, these disfigurements are those of the age in which they were devised; though it passes understanding how men like Archbishop Fisher of Canterbury could bring themselves to utter them. Since he became Grand Master (both the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales having displayed a marked lack of interest in Freemasonry) the Duke of Kent has laboured tirelessly, and is still labouring, for the removal of all features that make the Craft unacceptable to Christians and not to Catholics alone.
FROM ITS VERY beginning, Freemasonry has been subject to infiltration by those who seek to turn it to their own ends. First came the spurious "historians", who provided the Craft with a rich and imaginative past, "Adam the first free-mason" was the blunt assertion of an early official account ; and various books have appeared ever since in which everyone of interest in history is dragged into membership. Grand Lodge very sensibly discourages any assertions of any history prior to its own foundation; but there are still many masons who think they belong to some very ancient
society, with links with the Pyramids and Solomon's Temple and Stonehenge and so on. Books, lavishly produced, taking this line still appear regularly; they are, presumably, bought by masons, though they do not have the approval of Grand Lodge.
A second infiltration has been by those who have attempted to turn Freemasonry into a Mystery Religion: this goes with tarot cards and Meister Crowley, Pyramidology and the lost city of Atlantis. It has nothing really to do with the craft administered by Grand Lodge; it flourished particularly a hundred years ago, and is Likely to enjoy a renaissance as we approach they year 2000.
The third infiltration, and that which has brought Commander Higham into conflict with the House of Commons, is by those who wish to make use of Freemasonry for their own material advantage. Of course, at a very humble level, this has always gone on and will go on: the employment of a fellow-mason's son in one's office, the preference for awarding a contract (in private business) to a brother mason, being indulgent in allowing credit to another mason in difficulties these are just the kind of thing that happens when people get together in a society; the golf club, the local party, even the local Catholic (or other) church, these are natural for such (harmless, really) bias. (Many, may years ago I was invited to join an ancient and distinguished masonic lodge; my would be-be proposer, now a respected judge, hinted to me that I might expect to find my bank manager more understanding.) From time to time one encounters men who are convinced that they have not prospered in their chosen occupation, or been invited to join clubs, or get on in society, solely because they were not masons; all too often they give the impression that they would not have done well whatever organisations they had belonged to.
UCH MORE SERI
ous are the allegations that, in this or that part of the country, or in this or that public service the police, the judiciary, local government, professional bodies progress and promotion are granted to masons and denied to others. Unfortunately, much of the evidence is anecdotal, and much of it proves, on examination, to be paranoid. It is important for us to face the charge that, in this or that part of the country, similar accusations can be brought against members of the Catholic Church; if it be true, then we should devote or energies to changing it. But we should not care to have our Bishop, or his secretary, asked to supply lists of local Catholics, or to tick them off on a list of suspects. Though we we are inclined to dismiss Freemasons as "the enemy" or secretly to rejoice at their discomforture, our sympathy at this moment would be with a persecuted minority, as we were once a persecuted minority ourselves.
If Commander Higham is wise he will pack his toothbrush and pyjamas in a small suitcase and be ready to be committed to prison for contempt. Only one hundred years ago, six Church of England clergymen were imprisoned by the courts for the way they conducted their services.
They won immense public sympathy and, before long, their controversial practices were widely adopted. Public opinion just now is more suspicious of an over-mighty Parliament than it is of a few harmless old buffers in aprons; perhaps we are about to witness a purified Freemasonry rising in public esteem and one day, (who knows?) to be reconciled to the Catholic Church.