Earlier this month, Williams named the Reverend Jonathan Baker as the next Bishop of Ebbsfleet, in spite of Baker's active Masonic membership. He joined Apollo University Lodge in Oxford while he was a student, and he has recently served as an assistant Grand Chaplain. Apparently, over the last week, back channel griping within the Church grew vexatious enough that Williams and Brother Baker felt compelled to come clean. And now, Brother Baker has decided to demit from the fraternity after 20 years.
The appointment, and now Baker's decision to demit, have only made the situation more troublesome, because if there isn't anything wrong with the fraternity (described with suitably sinister spookiness in the press), and if the historically anti-Masonic Archbishop really didn't have a public problem with Baker's membership, why should he resign?
The row is turning into just one more punch in the face to the thousands of devout members of the CofE flock who are also Freemasons.
From "Archbishop allows Freemason to be Bishop" by Jonathan Wynne-Jones, the Telegraph's "Religious Affairs Correspondent" (who goes the extra mile and takes gleeful care to insensitively attempt to expose Masonic ritual in his piece):
When contacted by The Sunday Telegraph on Friday, Fr Baker defended his continued membership of the Masons and insisted it was compatible with his new role as a bishop.
Yet yesterday he said he had changed his mind was leaving the Masons so he could concentrate on being a bishop, adding: “I wish nothing to distract from the inauguration of that ministry.”
Fr Baker, who is currently principal at Pusey House in Oxford, said he had told Archbishop Williams he was a Mason when they discussed his appointment to be the next Bishop of Ebbsfleet – one of the “flying bishops” who oversee clergy opposed to women priests. The post had fallen vacant when its previous holder quit to join the Roman Catholic Church.
He said on Friday: “For many years I have been an active member and I continue to be a member. This came up in discussion with Rowan, but it has not caused a problem for me at any stage of my ministry and it won’t cause a problem now.”
He argued that it would not interfere with his role of overseeing traditionalist parishes and said he saw no conflict in being a bishop and a Freemason.
“I’ve never found it to be anything other than an organisation that is wholly supportive of the Church.”
However, yesterday he said: “I have concluded that, because of the particular charism of episcopal ministry and the burden that ministry bears, I am resigning my membership of Freemasonry.”
He said that in his conversation with Dr Williams about taking up the Ebbsfleet post, the Archbishop had asked him to reconsider his membership of Freemasonry, but was happy for the appointment to go forward while he was still a Mason.
Yet Dr Williams has previously expressed serious concerns about clergy being involved with the organization.
In 2002, shortly before he became the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Williams wrote in a letter to Hugh Sinclair, of the Movement for the Register of Freemasons: “I have real misgivings about the compatibility of Masonry and Christian profession ... I have resisted the appointment of known Masons to certain senior posts.”
A year later he repeated this unease when he tried to apologise for upsetting Freemasons with his comments, saying: “Where anxieties exist they are in relation not to Freemasonry but to Christian ministers subscribing to what could be and often is understood [or misunderstood] as a private system of profession and initiation, involving the taking of oaths of loyalty.”
His senior advisers went even further at the time. “He questions whether it’s appropriate for Christian ministers to belong to secret organisations,” said The Rev Gregory Cameron, a close friend and former chaplain to Dr Williams. “He also has some anxiety about the spiritual content of Masonry.”
A spokesman for Dr Williams said at the time that he was “worried about the ritual elements in Freemasonry, which some have seen as possibly Satanically inspired and how that sits uneasily with Christian belief”.
He continued: “The other idea is that because they are a society, there could be a network that involves mutual back-scratching, which is something he would be greatly opposed to.”
Last night, Christina Rees, a member of the Archbishops’ Council, said: “The fact that Jonathan Baker has resigned as a Freemason suggests to me there is a serious incompatibility between the organisation and the Church. If it was only a matter of perception, surely he could have stuck it out.”
Her comments were echoed by Alison Ruoff, a prominent member on the General Synod, who said she had been stunned to learn of Fr Baker’s involvement with the Masons.
“I’m pleased to hear he’s resigned as a Mason because it is clear that the gospel does not go with masonic beliefs,” she said.
“I think Rowan should have said he could not be a bishop if he continued to be a Mason.”
The Rev David Phillips, general secretary of the Church Society, a conservative evangelical group, said: “The Church has said that Freemasonry is not compatible with Christianity so appointing him as a bishop seems to contradict its own stance.”
This is the personal statement Fr Jonathan Baker has made on the See of Ebbsfleet web page:
I joined freemasonry as an undergraduate in Oxford, before ordination. Over the years I have found it to be an organisation admirably committed to community life and involvement, with a record of charitable giving second to none, especially among, for example, unfashionable areas of medical research.
Had I ever encountered anything in freemasonry incompatible with my Christian faith I would, of course, have resigned at once. On the contrary, freemasonry is a secular organisation, wholly supportive of faith, and not an alternative to, or substitute for it. In terms of the Church of England, its support, for example, for cathedral fabric is well documented.
Last year HRH the Duke of Kent invited me to serve as an assistant Grand Chaplain, an invitation which I was pleased to accept. This appointment was for one year, and ceased in April.
To be a bishop requires one to review commitments across every area of life; indeed, Archbishop Rowan had invited me, in discussion, to re-consider, amongst other commitments, my membership of freemasonry. I had intended to discuss the issue more fully with friends and colleagues.
I have, however, decided to take the decision now. My absolute priority is the new ministry to which I have been called and to the people who will be in my care. I wish nothing to distract from the inauguration of that ministry.
I wish to pay tribute to the aims and objectives of freemasonry and the work which it carries out. I am thankful for the part it has played in my life and for the many friendships it has nurtured.
I have concluded that, because of the particular charism of episcopal ministry and the burden that ministry bears, I am resigning my membership of freemasonry.
13th May 2011