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An atheist in church

7 April 2009

Last week I found out that a good friend had died, having suddenly dropped dead of his second heart attack, aged 65 and too young for such a fate these days. Although almost 20 years my senior, Vic was as alive as any of my peers my own age. He leaves behind a widow, 2 children, 7 grandchildren, and would have been a great-grandfather later this year. And he was a committed Freemason, which is how I came to know him. It was his passion: he was a member of at least 17 Masonic groups, he was Director of Ceremonies in the group we shared and either Almoner or Charity Steward in nearly all the others.

It may surprise some readers to know that I am a Freemason, particularly as I am also atheist (Secular Humanist). Those familiar with Freemasonry will know that one of the fundamental requirements for joining is affirmation of a “belief in a Supreme Being”, which might suggest that I’m either a liar or hypocrite -– but I’m neither. When I first joined Freemasonry (called Craft here, but also called Blue Lodge elsewhere) I considered myself agnostic -– that is, I figured there was probably a supreme being of some kind but I just simply didn’t know what or whom, so I chose neutrality over a position. But as I’ve mentioned previously, it can be argued that a self-identified Agnostic is simply an Atheist who hasn’t really given it much thought.

I’ve subsequently given it much thought, and that’s also led to me giving much thought to my Masonic membership. I was also a member of a side order called the Holy Royal Arch (often simply referred to as Chapter), which I joined later, but it is unapologetically Judeo-Christian –- more so than Craft in its present form –- so I felt it only right to leave, but also because I felt the morality story and ritual that it uses is too contrived. In short, I left Chapter because I felt that it was incompatible with atheism, but I joined both Craft and Chapter at a time when I met all entrance requirements.

Although I should in theory resign also from Craft, as it has an ongoing assumption that its members retain that belief in a supreme being, but I have remained for a number of reasons. Part of the reason is compassion and responsibility: as I have worked my way through the Lodge offices over the last 5 years, this year I am to go into the Chair (i.e. I’ve earned the right to run the Lodge for a year) and as the lodge member numbers are quite low, my resignation would have a notable negative impact upon the lodge itself. It’s an interesting ethical dilemma.

So back to Vic.

In my early teens I had 4 family members tragically die: the first was a cousin aged 7 who was buried alive, the second was a family friend who we think was murdered by a serial rapist (she introduced me to Catholicism when I was young), the third was my grandfather (and best friend), and lastly was my “godfather” (a family friend my grandfather’s age who I called and considered my uncle). Having had my fill of deaths, burials and cremations before coming of age I’ve been quite fortunate to have not been to a funeral service since.

Over the weekend just gone I was informed that Vic’s funeral was today, and was asked if I could attend. This presented multiple mental hurdles for me:

  • The old but strong feelings of my teenage funereal experiences.
  • I’ve not been to a church service of any kind in 17 years, and that was when I was a true believer.
  • I’m now unapologetically atheist.
  • It was to be a Masonic funeral service conducted in a Church of England chapel by a Church of England Reverend and Freemason.
  • Unapologetically atheist or not, in Masonic terms it’s something I’ve discussed with only a couple of close brothers.

Ultimately my decision was based in the humanistic position that one may respect a man regardless of his beliefs. He was a good man who lived his life as he felt right, and he did what he did in life for the right reasons. So I wanted to pay respect to that life as well as be there to support my friend (who introduced me to Vic and was close friends with him) and Vic’s widow.

So at noon we were standing with over a hundred people, all suited and booted outside the chapel, in marvellously good weather. We all filed into the chapel and the place was filled to bursting: 50 or so people had to stand, so it was a huge turnout. Say what you might about Freemasonry, there’s no doubt it engenders a huge sense of community.

I find it difficult to not be disparaging about clear emotional manipulation throughout any major religious event (e.g. funerals being good recruiting opportunities, etc), but I think it worth sharing here to give those who are unfamiliar with how Church of England funereal services are conducted:

  • Kenny G’s Forever in Love was played while the pall-bearers brought in the coffin.
  • The minister welcomed everyone and said some prayers.
  • A hymn was sung by all: Guide me, O thou great redeemer.
  • The minister read John 14:1-6 from the Bible.
  • One of Vic’s friends from our Chapter spoke a moving tribute.
  • The minister gave an address, largely consisting of the usual platitudes but also peppered with Masonic phrases that the majority of the room recognised and appreciated.
  • We were all asked to silently reflect on Vic’s life for a few minutes in our own way, while Kool & The Gang’s Cherish played in the background.
  • The minister spoke a number of prayers.
  • Everyone was asked to speak The Lord’s Prayer.
  • We all sang the Closing Ode that is sung at the end of every Masonic meeting, which was moving for all the Freemasons present.
  • The minister spoke a commendation and farewell to Vic, which ended with the automated curtain closure.
  • The minister read a blessing to all.
  • Boyzone’s No Matter What was played on loop as everyone left the chapel. This took some time, so it played at least 3 times.

As you can see, I’m not derisive or dismissive of the service. I think it was done for the right reasons, it’s what Vic would have liked (if he’d ever thought far enough into the future to think of such things), and it wasn’t overly treacle-covered and full of unusual string-pulling. While I disagree with much of the content, execution and reason, I don’t disagree with the intent.

After the service we all met at the nearby Masonic Club for a reception and lunch. We stayed for a couple of hours catching up with people, offering condolences to Vic’s widow and all the family who had come, some of whom had travelled internationally. Those present were philosophical, reflective and some downright cheerful, which is I suspect as Vic would have liked it to be. He lived all aspects of his life to the full, not doing anything by half, and a hundred or more miserable people in a building he loved would have broken his heart.

I’ll certainly miss him –
– as I miss all family and friends that I’ve lost — but I’m very pleased to have known him for the time I did. He got what so many never get: the opportunity to be born and to live a life, for however long.

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