Masonic symbol banned on headstone

In the recently-published judgment Re St Oswald Dean [2016] ECC Car 5, the Chancellor refused to grant a faculty for the addition of the Masonic symbol to a memorial to the Petitioner’s late uncle, who had a lifelong association with Freemasonry. In his considerations of the circumstances relating to the petition, the Chancellor reviewed the relationship between the Church of England and Freemasonry, a position which has received relatively little attention at national level since it was discussed at General Synod in July 1987.

Case summary

At the time of the judgment, the memorial already exhibited three “unusual features”: an etched landscape intended to represent the gateway to heaven; a flower believed to be a rose, immediately above the words REST IN PEACE; and what appeared to be a rugby ball bearing the lettering “WTRLFC” [4].

The request was supported by the PCC, but objections were raised by the DAC since “in the opinion of the Committee the stone does not comply with the Diocesan Chancellor`s Regulations” [9, 10]. The DAC expressed concerns not only about the addition of a set square and compass but also about the unusual features, supra. The Chancellor considered three aspects of the application: Churchyard Regulations [13-20]; the reasons for the application [21-27]; and the issue of Freemasonry [28-37].

Diocesan Churchyards Regulations

The Chancellor held that the P-i-C was correct in refusing to approve the Masonic symbol as he had no delegated authority to approve it; on the same reasoning, however, he had no delegated authority to permit the other features which he did purport to approve. Nevertheless, the Chancellor

“unreservedly [accepted] that, in dealing with the Petitioner`s requests in relation to the proposed memorial, [the P-I-C] was acting in good faith and was endeavouring to adopt a sympathetic and pastoral approach towards the Petitioner [17-18].

However, whilst the Chancellor would have permitted some, but probably not all of these features [19]

“… notwithstanding the provisions of Regulation 2.2.5, given the time which has elapsed since the memorial was erected and all the circumstances of the case [he did] not think it would be appropriate, pastorally or otherwise, to order that the memorial should be removed and [he declined] to make any such order”, [20].

Reasons for the Application

A letter from Mr Keith Hodgson, the Provincial Grand Master of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons of Cumberland and Westmorland, stated inter alia that the symbol of a set square and compass “is unique to Freemasons and can be seen in most cemeteries in this area, and Ken Wilson [the petitioner’s deceased uncle] being the head of a Masonic order deserves this distinction” [24]. However, no evidence was produced to the court that such a symbol appears in any Church of England churchyards in the Diocese; additionally, the Chancellor also did not accept the assertion that “a square and compass has been an acceptable Christian symbol for many centuries”.


The issue of Freemasonry was considered by the General Synod of the Church of England in July 1987 in a debate on a Report Freemasonry and Christianity: Are they compatible? [GS 784A]. The final paragraph concluded:

“This Report has identified a number of important issues on which, in the view of the Working Group, the General Synod will have to reflect as it considers `the compatibility or otherwise of Freemasonry with Christianity`. The reflections of the Working Group itself reveal understandable differences of opinion between those who are Freemasons and those who are not. Whilst the former fully agree that there are clear difficulties to be faced by Christians who are Freemasons, the latter are of the mind that the Report points to a number of very fundamental reasons to question the compatibility of Freemasonry and Christianity.”

Synod endorsed the Report of the Working Party and commended it for discussion by the Church by 394 votes to 52. However, “at national level there have been no formal developments since the 1987 debate” [32], and little more is to be gleaned from the web page of the Church’s Views on the subject.

Helpfully, this section of the judgment continues with a brief review of the positions adopted by other Christian denominations: the Roman Catholic Church, which prohibits membership [34], and the Methodist Church which discourages it [35] a position shared by the Free Church of Scotland and the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland [35]. However, the Chancellor concludes [35]:

“For the purposes of this judgment it is not necessary for me to determine whether Christianity and Freemasonry are compatible. However, I believe that I am entitled to note from the decisions of the General Synod and other Christian churches that there is clearly some debate and doubt as to whether the two are compatible and that the addition of a Masonic symbol on a memorial in a Church of England churchyard is likely to be controversial.”

Determination of application

In declining to grant a faculty to allow the Petitioner to add an engraving of a set square and compass in the bottom right-hand corner of the existing memorial on the Deceased`s grave, the Chancellor stated:

  • what is sought by the Petitioner is not permitted by Regulation 5.1 [h] of the Churchyard Regulations given that such Regulation expressly prohibits `any arms, crests, badge or insignia` except in certain circumstances for an insignia of the Armed Forces of the Crown;
  • Although Regulation 2.5.6. of the Churchyard Regulations permits “representations of objects or motifs appropriate to the life of the deceased or of accepted Christian symbols” [and on occasions the Chancellor has permitted representations of sheep, sheepdogs or tractors have been for memorials for deceased farmers] such provision was not intended to allow multiple representations of objects or motifs appropriate to the life of the deceased.
  • On the facts of this case there are already many [in fact too many] “objects or motifs appropriate to the life of the deceased” on the Deceased`s memorial and … it would be wholly inappropriate that there should be yet another representation.

The Chancellor did not accept that what is proposed was an accepted Christian symbol; was satisfied that the Masonic symbol of a set square and compass was considered to be unChristian by some Christians [39.5]; and did not think that it appropriate that a memorial should contain a symbol which would not be recognised or understood by many, a fact acknowledged by the Petitioner [39.6].

However, he made no judgment as to whether or not Freemasonry is compatible with Christianity, but noted that the General Synod debate decided by a very sizeable majority that there were a number of very fundamental reasons to question the compatibility of Freemasonry and Christianity. Moreover, this approach appeared to be shared among other Christian denominations [39.7].

Regulation 2.5.3 provides that “epitaphs may reflect the life, work, interests or concerns of the deceased” providing they as entirely compatible with the Christian faith. Having regard to the controversy as to Freemasonry set out above, the Chancellor believed it would be detrimental to the churchyard and inappropriate to allow such a controversial symbol as that sought by the Petitioner to be added to the Deceased`s existing memorial.


The judgment in Re St Oswald Dean is the ruling of a diocesan consistory court on whether an additional symbol which did not conform to the applicable Churchyard Regulations might be permitted. It is not a national statement of the Church’s position, and does not comment as to whether Freemasonry was compatible with Christianity; however, the court took the views of the General Synod debate into consideration. At one level there are parallels with Re St Leonard, Middleton, Manchester Const Ct, Spafford Ch. (reported in (1990) 2 Ecc LJ 64), in which a faculty was granted for the laying-up of a Royal British Legion standard in a parish church, although a petition for the introduction of a Guide movement flag to be displayed in a frame was dismissed. This was not a slight against the Guide movement, but the application of a criterion of eligibility.

However, the relationship between the Church of England and Freemasonry is more complex and uncertain, and the court’s decision was based upon a debate in General Synod nearly 30 years ago. Putting this into perspective, it was before the introduction of women priests (12 March 1994) and before the agreement on Section I.10 – Human Sexuality at the 1998 Lambeth Conference.

A recent local debate reported in Freemasonry Today on the incompatibility of Freemasonry and Christianity reflected Synod’s conclusions, albeit much less convincingly, [Ayes 25, Noes: 13, Abstentions: 20]. There are nevertheless ambiguities within the CofE – such as the support of Freemasonry by some senior churchmen and cathedrals hosting Masonic events – which would benefit from a clarification. However, the 1987 debate was initiated not by a two-paragraph Private Members Motion, but a 56-page report by a seven-member committee after 16 months of study. Whilst the appointment in 2011 of the Revd Jonathan Baker as Bishop of Ebbsfleet and his subsequent resignation of his membership of Freemasonry resulted in media comment at the time, there have been no subsequent calls for a clarification of the 1987 position.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Masonic symbol banned on headstone" in Law & Religion UK, 11 October 2016,

8 thoughts on “Masonic symbol banned on headstone

    • I’ve just done a bit of searching and in fact it’s Workington Town RLFC, not Wakefield Trinity. Which would fit with the case being from the Diocese of Carlisle. But, of course, people support sports clubs for all sorts of reasons other than proximity: I live in Lancashire but support my home county, Durham – obviously.

  1. I read this judgment with interest. Cases about arguments over memorial inscriptions seem to be de rigeur this year, this one coming after those relating to ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ and Sunderland Football Club and, even more recently, proposed overly-sentimental wording (Re St Andrew, Witchford; Re Scott’s application [2016] ECC Ely 2, in which the Chancellor of Ely Diocese, Judge Anthony Leonard QC, has some cautionary advice for incumbents.)

    I have no quarrel with the actual decision in this case (to refuse permission to add the Masonic symbol to the headstone), but there are three aspects of Geoffrey Tattersall’s judgment that trouble me:

    1. At para 39.2 the chancellor says that reg 2.5.6 of the Churchyard Regulations (set out on page 5) “was not intended to allow multiple [the word is emphasised in the judgment] representations of objects or motifs appropriate to the life of the deceased.” But there is no such numerical limitation in the regulations, which are promulgated to guide incumbents in exercising their delegated authority. If the chancellor considers there should be such a limitation in the Carlisle diocese, surely he should issue revised regulations.

    2. At paras 28 to 36 the chancellor refers to a General Synod report and debate on Freemasonry and Christianity in 1987 and the views of the Roman Catholic and Methodist churches, which he says (para 37) that he is “entitled to note.” I don’t seek to dispute that as a general proposition (and the chancellor said specifically that it was not necessary for him to determine whether Christianity and Freemasonry are compatible), but as these views are not law, it raises the question whether he brought them to the attention of the Petitioner for comment before referring to them in the judgment. There is nothing in the judgment to indicate whether or not he did so, and I note that the case was decided on the basis of written representations (para 11). Questions of fairness of the procedure arise if Mrs Stubbs was not alerted to the GS report and the other views about Freemasonry set out in paras 28-36. (There is nothing in para 10 to suggest that these objections formed part of the opinion of the DAC.)

    3. At para 39.1 the chancellor refers to reg 5.1[h] of the Churchyard Regulations as providing that the Freemasons symbol was “not permitted” by that regulation, and this is one of his reasons for declining to grant the faculty sought. However, reg 5.1 provides only that the incumbent does not have delegated authority to permit the listed items: hence the need for the faculty petition. It says nothing about whether, on such a petition, the chancellor should allow any such item in the exercise of his discretion.

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  6. The problem with the C of E is that it sees Freemasonry as a competitor; that members of Freemasonry might visit the Lodge rather than the Church, despite the fact that many Ministers of Religion are also Freemasons and visit both. Freemasonry is older than the C of E and is not a religion, but religious, in that Prayers and Hymns are part of masonic practices, symbolism such as the square and compasses are based upon Morality. Men of all religions are accepted and pray to their God at the masonic altar. Thus, Freemasonry, having no sacraments, cannot be a religion, but unites men in common Morality, whereas religion often divides them. This is why discussions on religion are not permitted in the masonic lodge. Freemasonry requires that a man must believe in a Supreme Being and encourages each member to follow their own religion. As such, Freemasonry is not a substitute nor a competitor to religion, but a supporter of religion, irreligious libertines being excluded. In truth, it can therefore be seen that if Freemasonry was a religion, instead of being an Order based upon Morality, it would be ‘that religion in which all men agree’, ie., a common set of principles and morals acceptable to any religion. Much of these principles and morals are well illustrated in the Old Testament. and in each copy of a Masonic Bible. As such, there is nothing incompatible between Masonry and Christianity, by those within its’ ranks, including many many Christian Ministers and Churchmen of rank. Freemasonry can therefore be seen as complementary to religion, enabling men to meet and share in the glory of their individual beliefs as Creatures of the Creator, under a common bond of Morality, Brotherly Love, Relief (Charity), and Truth. From my own experience of being a member of the C of E and a Mason, I do believe that if the rest of the world conducted its’ affairs the way in which Freemasonry conducts its’ affairs, the C of E and the world in general would be a better place.

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