For almost 25 years I am trying to understand the biggest paradox(es) in Freemasonry…
In mid-2016 the Grand Lodge of Scotland warned that the increasing number of people turning backs on religion could affect the future of Freemasonry1 – since it is requiring belief in a Supreme Being. The reference to “Godless” population brought back bitter memories from my Masonic journey.
For almost 25 years I am trying to understand the biggest paradox(es) in Freemasonry, and I am still struggling with this…
On one hand, I am a proud Mason and a diligent student of all things Masonic: I am writing Masonic articles and presenting lectures; and I read even more books, studies, essays and works about our Craft. Everything tells me that we are the fraternity of good men that can be described only by superlatives: the oldest, the biggest, the greatest, the most tolerant, the… the one that has on its flag the most noble ideals of mankind – freedom, equality (BTW, this was the name of my mother lodge!), brotherly love, truth, charity.
On the other hand, the worldwide structure and fragmentation (schism) absolutely doesn’t reflect those ideals. Let’s get into the middle of it: for about 140 years the universal(?) Freemasonry is divided in two competing groups, leaving now aside the many spurious fake groups. On one side are the Anglo-American Masons, who call themselves – since 1929 – the “regulars” and on the other side are the “French” Masons (also known as Continental or Latin type of Masonry). They sometimes call themselves “liberal” or “adogmatic”. Since it would sound stupid if they followed the regulars and called themselves “irregular”.
The issue is the Great Architect of the Universe (GAOTU) – as Masons like to call the Supreme Being or Deity… In your church, they may refer to this deity simply as God.
Regular Masonry doesn’t ask about the specifics of your god/God or details about your religion. All they require is that the candidate should confess his belief in a Supreme Being – whatever/whoever that is in the candidate’s faith. In other words: they do not admit atheists among them. Liberal, adogmatic Masonry considers this to be a private matter, and belief in a deity is not required; consequently even atheists can join their lodges. More exactly, it is left to the individual lodges to decide the requirements.
The primus inter pares for the regulars is the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) – every new “regular” Grand Lodge in the world will seek their approval, in form of ‘recognition’; it is pretty much similar how newly formed countries beg for diplomatic recognition by existing states. The correspondent main body for the other group (remember, London calls them “irregulars”) is the Grand Orient of France (GOF or GOdF). Some sources say that of all Masons of the world around 80% belong to regular lodges (recognized by UGLE) and the remaining 20% are of French affiliation.
The schism happened in 1877. However, some days listening to the “regulars” one gets the impression that the other group is comprised of present-day murderers, criminals and con-men… Certain less educated Masons use very harsh words when describing the liberal Continental Masonry and consider them the worst enemies. A brief history lesson may not hurt at this point.
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The history of the “big schism” in Freemasonry is not as clear-cut as many Anglo-American Masons believe today. The Grand Orient de France (GOF), actually is older than most North-American lodges: it dates back to 1728! Interestingly, more than a hundred years later, in 1849 the GOF made a requirement for its members the belief in a deity (God). N.B. Both the Moderns’ and the Antients’ Constitution (i.e. the two competing Grand Lodges between 1751 and 1813) in England had initially a vague reference to God, without formulating it, expressis verbis, as a “requirement”. Not even in 1813, when the present UGLE has been formed by the “amalgamation” of the Moderns and Antients, was this a requirement. Then in 1877 the GOF decided to remove it and leaving it to the judgement of every mature men what to believe.
Prior to that they (GOF) also committed some “encroachment” in the Southern USA: recognized a Masonic group in Louisiana without any racial discrimination while the local lodges were overtly white racist institutions, forbidding blacks and coloured men from joining. So their grand lodge cut the ties with the GOF and asked other American grand lodges to do the same.
However, even the 1877 decision by UGLE to declare the GOF “irregular” wasn’t automatically followed by every regular Grand Lodge. At the beginning of the 20th century and till the end of the Great War (WWI) there were American and other Grand Lodges that still had amical relations with the Grand Orient, i.e. they recognized each other as “regular” Masons and inter-visitation was allowed.
…that theological detail would practically admit mainly the followers of the three major Abrahamic religions…
Then, the first time in its history, the UGLE – in the good old colonial traditions of the Brits – published, in 1929, their set of “Basic Principles”: a list of rules used to determine whether a Grand Lodge was regular in the eyes of ‘London’. Although Masons like to think these were or are “eternal” rules – they have been quietly modified in 1989. For example, an important detail, namely the “belief in the revealed will” of the Great Architect of the Universe has been removed because that theological detail would practically admit mainly the followers of the three major Abrahamic religions, that consider the sacred ‘book’ of their religion the revealed will of their Deity. (Unfortunately, most of the other Anglo-American Grand Lodges, including my grand lodge in Ontario, did not follow… Which means they advertise themselves as tolerant toward any religion, yet later they use the restrictive – belief in revelation – requirement in their questionnaires.)
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The history of my mother lodge and its Grand Lodge can illustrate the worldwide confusion in a nutshell. Just a decade before this big mess between the French and English Masonry began, Masonic lodges finally were allowed in the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, in 1868 (but not in the Austrian half… where the general 1795 ban was still in effect). Immediately, two grand lodges emerged: one of the “Johannite” tradition – which means the traditional Craft or Blue lodges, conferring the three degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason; and another body working in the (red) Scottish Rite style ritual like the “French” Masonry, also conferring the three basic degrees AND the “higher” 4-33 degrees. As it is customary even today in many Latin countries using that ritual! All this happened in the late 1860s and early 1870s.
Then, we got the UGLE-GOF standoff in 1877. If we examine the historical records, the world didn’t pay much attention to this…
Back to our Hungarian bodies, in a unique way not seen anywhere else in the world, they also decided to amalgamate and to ‘divide’ the duties between them, forming in 1886 the Symbolic Grand Lodge of Hungary, being exclusively in charge of the three Craft degrees, and the Scottish Council managing the high degrees from 4 up till 33. The different lodges brought their own traditions into the newly formed (symbolic) grand lodge.
We will never know whether London considered them regular or not – at that time this wasn’t such a big issue as it became after 1929, when the UGLE published their list of Basic Principles.[An interesting intermezzo from the Cold War period: For a brief period after WWII the Hungarian Grand Lodge came to life although in the mess of those years there were a lot of more important tasks than to seek “recognition” from grand lodges far away… And then the communists banned it again, confiscating the Grand Lodge building and all the documents. So, when Masons ran away from the Soviets and arrived as exiled immigrants to Canada, they legally were not Masons, due to the lack of proper recognition between the two grand lodges. What a mess… Does that make them “clandestine”?]
And by that time, the Hungarian Freemasonry has already been banned (since 1920), which means the recognition isssue never came up.
Then history and the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe allowed to restart the legal Freemasonry in 1989 in the East of Budapest. During the decades of the wondering in the wilderness, lodges in exile guarded the light, initiated Masons and hoped for better times. One of the most supportive and active Hungarian lodges in exile was a “French” lodge, i.e. under the jurisdiction of the Grand Orient de France (GOF).
Despite that, the re-instituted Grand Lodge of Hungary pledged ‘allegiance’ to the UGLE, having in consideration that around 80% of the world’s Masons belong to jurisdictions whose Grand Lodges are recognized by London – as the UGLE is often referred to.
According to one of the Masons who suggested and promoted this idea of adherence to the UGLE-type of Masonry, it was a painful and sad moment in the history of the Hungarian Masonry. They had to cut ties with half of their traditions and (almost) to disown half of their history.
And after it was decided in 1989 that the Hungarian Masons should follow the Anglo-American “regular” type of Masonry, many unhappy members left and they organized a body recognized by the Grand Orient of France. Having in mind how fatefully they guarded the light and preserved the Masonic traditions despite the harsh historical circumstances during the years of tyranny… it is extremely difficult and painful to say that those are “not Masons”, that they are “not Brethren”. Who is a Mason, if they are not considered Masons?
Furthermore, if we look at the history of the World, the modern history of the last two or three centuries, it is absolutely clear that Freemasons belonging to the Continental type of Masonry did way more to implement those noble ideas of freedom and equality than any regular jurisdiction2. Of course, nobody ever tries to explain this controversy.
Just for clarification: I was made a Mason in a “regular” lodge under the jurisdiction of a Grand Lodge fully recognized by the UGLE. And later I joined another “regular” lodge in the jurisdiction of Ontario, Canada, a direct descendant from the bodies of the British Isles, and a former Provincial Grand Lodge of the UGLE. And I am absolutely aware of my obligations and the promises I made to respect the rules and to abide by the Masonic laws of the jurisdiction where I am an active Mason. In plain English: I have no Masonic intercourse with members of lodges belonging to jurisdictions supported and recognized by GOF. However, I do have schoolmates and friends, old friends from before being a Mason, that work – Masonically – on the other side of the fence. I will not sit with them in a lodge… but I will never disown their friendship! And despite my obligations, I have difficulties – morally – to call them non-Masons.
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I’ve met my significant other in Canada, years after I became a Mason. When I disclosed my membership in the fraternity, I talked long and eloquently about the noble ideals of the Craft and what we believe. Then at a certain point I had to answer two big questions. First, the one discussed above, why aren’t the French Masons brothers, if we really are such a tolerant, great and universal brotherhood… Unfortunately, I always feel losing all my credibility when I am not able to explain this. Of course, I am familiar with all the usual platitudes regarding the requirement of the belief in GAOTU and the GOF’s devotion to the idea of Laïcité (secular character). But let’s face it: there is no reasonable explanation that a decent human can invoke, without shame, for the hatred in the name of tolerance and equality and brotherly love.
The other big question will be the subject of the next post: black Masons. Excluded for racial reasons by the white Freemasons of North America, all champions of equality in the land allegedly created on Masonic principles…
- See the original article: ‘Godless’ Scotland could doom Freemasons ↩
- From Simón Bolívar to many other personalities of the national liberation movements used Masonic lodges to organize their secret revolutionary movements. Not to mention the illustrious thinkers of the Enlightenment: philosophers, encyclopedists, writers, musicians etc. Every Masonic booklet and website will proudly list quite a number prominent international political and social “activists” that today would not fit in the passive, ivory-tower mentality of present (regular) Freemasonry. Of course, nobody ever tries to explain this controversy, it is better not to mention the affiliation of those past ‘celebrities’. ↩