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    The wrong side of right

    By Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, Past Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory.

    Centenary Communication, United Grand Lodge of NSW, 16 August, 1988.

    What a magnificent birthday party! A hundred years of symbolism, ceremony, and service, celebrated with such style in a uniquely majestic setting. Fittingly, could we echo the ancient Hebrew tradition on occasions of rejoicing and praise God, the Great Architect of the Universe, “who has kept us in life, and preserved us, and enabled us to reach this time”.

    It was on this very day, 16 August, one hundred years ago, that NSW Masons from English, Scottish and Irish Lodges gathered at the Great Hall of the University of Sydney to witness the establishment of the United Grand Lodge of NSW and to elect the Grand Master and Grand Lodge Officers.

    Then, just over a month later, on 18 September, nearly four and a half thousand Masons, about half the total number then belonging to the Craft in NSW, assembled in the Exhibition Building in Prince Alfred Park to take part in the Installation as Grand Master of the Governor of the Colony, Lord Carrington.

    But Masonic activity did not begin in 1888. It was already almost a century old. At the end of the eighteenth century Masonry was growing rapidly, and often traveling warrants were issued to army regiments and naval ships to enable them to hold Masonic meetings and initiate Masons.

    So it is reasonable to assume that the first Masons to land in Australia would have come with the First Fleet. There is a recorded Masonic presence from 1797, and in 1800 there were Masonic meetings on Norfolk Island though not under the auspices of a warranted Lodge, and in 1802 the British ships “Glatton” and “Buffalo” anchored in Sydney Harbour, provided the setting for further Masonic meetings.

    Irish Lodges, English Lodges, Scottish Lodges came into being and established Provincial Grand Lodges. Their story is of far more than merely Masonic interest. It is part of the social fabric of Colonial Australia, perhaps a more important part of Australian history than has ever been acknowledged. When the history of NSW Freemasonry appears it will enable us to trace and assess the role of the Craft throughout its two centuries on Australian soil as a movement dedicated to discipline, duty, diligence, dignity and the democratic spirit in society.

    Since the three types of Lodges came together in 1888 in what might be called High Victorian Sydney, what the intervening century has witnessed! Crowded years of transition, the years of greatest transition in the history of mankind. The fussy, unhurried, spacious Victorian era gave way to the streamlined helter-skelter of the twentieth century, with marvels of science and technology and volcanic eruptions of hatred and inhumanity.

    What stand, you ask, did Masonry take on the changing issues and developing events of these hundred years? Strangely, or perhaps not strangely at all, Masonry continued on its regular pattern with apparent indifference to the events around it. Widely publicised statements, frantic lobbying, ringing resolutions – these were not the methods Masonry adopted. Indeed, the very nature of Masonry precluded such partisanship. It did not and cannot involve itself in political, religious or any other sectional concern.

    Does that mean, then, that Masonry provided its members with a temporary escape from the real world, that it was merely, as some good-humouredly describe it, a mildly eccentric irrelevancy?

    A superficial reading of the facts might tend to support that suggestion. During a Masonic meeting the door of the Lodge room is closed, and outside events cannot directly intrude (I will confess that, for me at least, it is a welcome by-product of being a Mason that when I am in Lodge I am free of the often persistent pest of the telephone). Masonic ceremonies remain constant, with hardly a change in phraseology or procedure, despite the passing decades.

    But to look back on a century of drama on the world stage and to accuse Masonry of turning a blind eye and a deaf ear, of being indifferent to the world and its agonies and ecstasies – that would be a total travesty.

    For Masonry made a statement of immense significance by standing firm on age-old moral foundations, planting its feet not on shifting sands but on the solid rock of abiding values. As the oldest and best known of the great fraternal organisations, it believed that the way to cope with the changing challenge did not require the frantic search for a guru, the desperate adoption of a slogan, the paralysed abdication of one’s own judgement and the toeing of a party line.

    No; Masonry believed that with the right training you would instinctively know the way of duty, of service, of responsibility, wherever you found yourself. It sought to equip its members with a built-in moral compass that pointed them in the right direction and enabled them to make the right decision in any set of circumstances.

    Why do some people view the Craft with suspicion or hostility?

    Some of the reasons undoubtedly arise out of conviction and conscience, such as the fear that Masonry might be a rival religion and undermine the mainstream faiths. The truth needs to be restated time and time again, that whilst a Mason must believe in God, and the Bible and Biblical events, phrases and personages figure in our ceremonies, Masonry is not a religion. It has no theological tenets, no denominational liturgy or observances, and no authority over the spiritual life of its members; it encourages every Mason to follow the faith of his birth or adoption.

    Others are apprehensive, as we certainly are, at acts and attitudes, especially in certain overseas countries, that purport to be carried out in the name of Freemasonry. With all the force at our command we have to voice our disapproval of and disassociation from political and other goings-on involving so-called Lodges with which we wish to have no connection.

    Likewise, we cannot and do not agree with Masons having or being perceived to have an old-boy network of favouritism and preferment in professional, commercial or public life. Within the Lodge, one gains promotion solely on merit, and Masonry stands for the same principle in every arena of life.

    Public perception of the Craft sometimes tends to take an ounce of fact and knead it with a pound of imagination. Because outsiders often had no real information about Masonry and no way of getting any, even from the books that claim to unlock the secrets of the Order, all sorts of bizarre activities were said to take place under our auspices. These days we ourselves have seen it possible to be much more open about Masonry; significantly, one of the Masonic lectures I am asked for most often is entitled “What I Tell My Wife About Freemasonry”. Instead of hiding our light under a bushel, today we feel relaxed about letting people know much more about what we stand for and what we contribute to the community.

    Maybe a word is necessary about the range of Masonic charity in NSW, because we do a great deal and deserve to be proud of ourselves. Our charitable institutions and activities are, of course, available for the benefit of both Masons and non-Masons.

    The Frank Whiddon Masonic Homes care for more than 1,100 aged people and there are plans for an additional) 146 units. The Royal Freemasons’ Benevolent Institution has granted millions of dollars in aid to deserving people. It has 745 aged residents and a further 340 will soon be cared for, and it provides financial assistance for 275 people. The NSW Masonic Youth Welfare Fund spends over $100,000 a year. The William Thompson Masonic School operates three family group homes. The NSW Masonic Hospital offers health care for 108 beds. The NSW Freemasons’ Disaster Relief Fund comes to the aid of victims of disaster. And individual Lodges, as well as the United Grand Lodge, support a multitude of other charities as well as assisting medical research. Masonry truly believes in its principles and endeavours to live by them.

    Who knows how many thousands, how many hundreds of thousands, of citizens of this State have been Masons or have had their lives touched for good by Masonry? Masons can be quietly satisfied, not complacent because complacency leads to inertia and inanition, when they contemplate the pleasure Masonry has given them, the moral influence it has brought to their lives, the achievements of the Craft and its Lodges and Institutions, and the good citizenship it has consistently fostered, over the first as well as the second century of its existence in NSW.

    It is valid reason for a celebration. Let’s congratulate ourselves. Let’s enjoy the birthday party.

    But when you mark a birthday, you say two things – both “Happy Birthday” and “Many Happy Returns” – and keyed up, on a high as we are because of the “Happy Birthday”, we have to pick up the challenge and make the commitment to ensure there will be “Many Happy Returns” – a decade from now, in 50 years’ time, in another century, and far ahead into the future.

    Our first commitment must be to make the most of Masonic membership. A Lodge is only as strong as its members. As someone said, a Lodge has two types of members – the pillars and the caterpillars. The pillars uphold the Lodge and keep it strong; the caterpillars simply crawl in and out once in a while.

    We can all attend Lodge more regularly, become more active inside the Lodge room and outside it, daily advance in Masonic knowledge, generously support Masonic charities, and show a living example of brotherliness wherever we go.

    Our second commitment must be to rebuild Masonic members. True, salesmanship and open solicitation of membership is not the Masonic way. But Masonry is good; let’s talk about it. There is really very little about Masonry that is private to Masons. Let’s be good Masons in ourselves, and let people know we are Masons. Many outsiders may not be comfortable with the type of commitment that Masonry and, for that matter, so many other worthwhile community organisations, requires – but there will be many who will feel that the Craft might well be for them.

    There is a third commitment which I urge upon my brother Masons as well as upon myself. It is suggested by my title, “The Wrong Side of Right”.

    Forgive the play on words, but there is something that I remember reading about a Wright – Wright with a “W”. He was Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect, whose home in Spring Green, Wisconsin, he dubbed “an eyebrow on a hill”. Wright is said to have had an acid temper and a biting tongue. People said, however, that to take too much noticed of his temperament was to see the wrong side of Wright. Such an architectural genius was he that the wrong side of Wright was not really so wrong when you remembered the right side!

    The phrase stuck in my mind and it set me thinking. And then I came across a statement by Franz Werfel, the German writer. “The world,” he said, “has forgotten, in its preoccupation with Left and Right, that there is an Above and Below”. Left and Right continue, in varying ways and contexts, to be forces in modern history. But the word “right” has come, in recent decades, to assume the significance almost of a slogan, a catch-phrase, a war-cry. Today’s message is that people – even unborn children, even animals, even nature and the plant kingdom – have rights.

    In the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson called human rights “inalienable rights”. A magnificent phrase: because one is human, there are inherent rights which no-one is entitled to diminish or destroy. Sir Robert Birley once described an occasion when he made telling, if somewhat facetious, use of the phrase. When he was headmaster of Eton and the boys had to attend church services, some of the teachers insisted that the pupils go straight into church without dawdling or chatting at the entrance. Birley could not shift their thinking until he thought up a good phrase. He said, “You know, in my opinion, it is one of the inalienable rights of man to stand and gossip outside his parish church!” The opposition collapsed at once! Totalitarian societies, as our century knows to its cost, cannot afford to recognise, encourage and uphold inalienable human rights. Our democratic ethos, by way of contrast, though it has not yet come within distance of Utopia, is based as a matter of philosophy and principle on human rights.

    Every group claims its rights. Teachers, pupils, doctors, patients, teenagers, pensioners, Aboriginals, ethnic groups, unions, activists, women, single parents, students, tenants, homosexuals – the list is endless and expresses the diversity of our society.

    But our agitation for rights does not always go hand-in-hand with carrying out our duties to society. Rights and duties are two sides of the same coin. If a sense of duty does not accompany and indeed surpass our insistence on our rights, we shall indeed have got the wrong side of right.

    It has been pointed out that the Hebrew Bible, the historic foundation of the moral duties that underlie our western society, has many words for “duty” but not one for “right”, except in the sense of doing the right thing. It simply does not know of rights. That is, it demands that I willingly, lovingly, responsibly, do my duty to others, and when I have done that there will be no need for anyone else to claim what is due to him.

    Everywhere you look today there is a sense of selfishness. The world owes me something! Society owes me a living! I’ve got my rights! The emphasis is all wrong – it’s the wrong side of right.

    The result? Insatiable ambition, deep frustration, nagging dissatisfaction, festering discord, self-indulgence and any number of social diseases. The right side of right is service before self, and with uncanny accuracy that is one of the most important and indispensable planks in the programme of Freemasonry.

    So, if we are going to pick up the challenge of our Masonic birthday, we would do ourselves and our civilisation a favour by relearning and reliving the principle of duties, not just rights – of service, not just self. We would become happier; our society would be more sane, stable and secure.

    A preacher once served a large congregation which had the habit of attending church with great regularity. Indeed, to accommodate everyone, there had to be two services, one after the other. The trouble was that he was an immensely boring preacher and his sermons were long and rambling.

    One day a visitor came up and asked him why the pulpit had a flag with stars on it. The minister explained that the stars were for the men who were lost in service. “Lost”, the visitor asked, “at the first service or the second service?”

    In a sense, many people today are “lost in service” – that is, they have lost the concept of service in their lives. The have forgotten, in their preoccupation with the rights that the world owes them, that there are duties of decency and care and concern which everyone can carry out, and find exhilaration as a by-product of doing the right thing – not just wanting rights, but doing right.

    As we celebrate the centenary of the United Grand Lodge of NSW and rejoice in two centuries of Masonic history on this continent, let’s wish each other and our movement a happy birthday. Let’s pick up the challenge and ensure there will be many happy returns. Let’s strengthen Masonry; let Masonry make us strong, and through us it will enrich the quality of our society.

    May the Great Architect of the Universe continue to prosper our Order. May it flourish in brotherhood and charity, and help to make the world a finer and more brotherly place to live in.

    For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.


    Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book on the history, symbolism and teachings of Freemasonry, enlivened with personal reminiscences and humour.

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