Freemasonry describes itself on its website as the “UK’s largest secular, fraternal, and charitable organisation”. So why does the new Archbishop of Canterbury think it is a secret society with dubious spiritual credentials?
And why does Dr Rowan Williams also believe that Church of England ministers should not belong to the Brotherhood, an organisation he describes as incompatible with Christianity?
His views will be greeted with astonishment by the significant number of senior clergymen and Christians who are members of the 350,000-strong Craft, who have organised a slick media campaign to counter bad publicity.
The Freemasons of England now have a website – www.freemasonry.net. The United Grand Lodge of England says that it is not a “secret society”, but merely holds private meetings.
“Freemasonry does not try to replace religion or substitute for it. Freemasonry requires a belief in God and its principles are common to many of the world’s great religions,” it says.
“There are elements within certain churches who misunderstand Freemasonry and confuse secular rituals with religious liturgy.”
It adds that many of its members are Anglicans and Catholics and would be “dismayed that the churches should attack Freemasonry”.
But some observers believe that at the heart of the Craft – and known only to those who reach the highest levels – there is a sinister quasi-religion based on a composite Masonic God, known as Jah-Bul-On.
In his 1984 book The Brotherhood, Stephen Knight turned the spotlight on the inner workings of the Masons. “I have spoken to 57 long-standing Royal Arch Freemasons [one of the most senior groups], who have been happy to talk to me.All but four lost their composure when I said, ‘What about Jah-Bul-On?’,” he wrote.
A spokesman for Dr Williams said yesterday that many Christians believed that Jah-Bul-On was considered to refer to the “incarnation of Satan”. He added that the Masons promised in the 1980s to drop any reference to Jah-Bul-On because of the offence it was causing.
In a letter to Hugh Sinclair, a man who for years has been investigating the Brotherhood, Dr Williams said: “I have real misgivings about the compatibility of Masonry and Christian profession.” He later said he questioned whether it was “appropriate for Christian ministers to belong to secret organisations” and expressed “anxiety about the spiritual content of Masonry”.
He also raised the issue of “back scratching” and the possible debt clergymen may feel towards fellow members of the Craft.
The relationship between Freemasons and the Catholic and Anglican churches has been a complex and at times a fraught one.
Dr Williams’ spokesman said: “From the end of the 19th century a lot of Anglican clergy got involved in Freemasonry. In the 20th century a number of very senior clergymen were Masons. In the 1960s people started turning against the idea of secret societies and a number of Anglican ministers saw it as possibly Satanically inspired.”
The influence of the Brotherhood within the Church of England has continued and the Freemasons acknowledge that many clergymen and Anglicans are members.
Leading Mason Church of England clergymen of the past include the former Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher, who headed the Church of England from 1945 to 1961. He held the senior post of Grand Chaplain for the United Grand Lodge of England.
Robert Milburn, the former Dean of Worcester, held the same senior Masonic post as the Archbishop.
John Habgood, the former Archbishop of York, told the General Synod that he believed Freemasonry was a “fairly harmless eccentricity” and later expressed the view that he did not see any conflict in being a Mason and a Christian.
In July 1987 the General Synod, the governing body of the Church of England, ducked the issue when bishops endorsed a report looking into whether being a Christian and a Freemason were compatible.
A working party concluded that Freemasons who belonged to the church did not think there was a problem, while non-Masons thought there were difficulties. The issue has not been debated since.
At one stage Catholics were banned from being Freemasons, but the two are no longer seen as incompatible providing Catholics belong to a British branch of the Masons.
Critics believe this is partly due to the influence of members of the Brotherhood within the Catholic church.