On 18 February 2017, Canterbury Cathedral held a service to celebrate the tercentenary of the formation of English Freemasonry. The compatibility of Freemasonry with Christianity is a source of continuing debate, and the private nature of this “all-ticket” event prompted media speculation and comment on its content. This post examines some of the concerns that were raised, a number of which suggested a need for the Church of England to revisit its relationship with Freemasonry, last considered by General Synod in 1987.
Details of the Service
Details of the tercentenary celebrations at Canterbury Cathedral were circulated by the West Kent Masons, whose website indicated that these had been prepared in conjunction with the Dean, the Very Reverend Dr Robert Willis, who delivered the sermon. The Duke of Kent along with “High Rulers in the Craft and the Holy Royal Arch Chapter together with Brethren from the Provinces of East Kent, West Kent, Surrey and Sussex” were present. Some commentators had suggested that the service would be three hours in length – clearly inconsistent with the Order of Service – and there was a possibility that Masonic regalia might be worn.
Order of Service
To many, the Order of Service must have brought back memories of school assemblies, civic services and the like, in its choice of familiar hymns and readings. “On the face of it, this is a wholesome Anglican service of orthodox Christian liturgy” – so said the Archbishop Cranmer blog. However, this was followed by an exploration of a potential “hidden Masonic ritual in the Order of Service”, and suggested that “[t]he scriptures chosen [Psalm 482, Chronicles 2:1-9, 1 Corinthians 3:10-17] have greater significance (and a very different meaning) to Freemasons than they do to (other) Christians. Indeed, they are used at the highest degree of Masonic initiation in their rituals of exaltation”. The post concluded:
“There’s nothing wrong with morality and good fellowship: these are virtuous Christian pursuits. But we might well ask the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral why so much of this Order of Service is steeped in covert references to Masonic ritual, with twisted scriptural interpretations known only (now not quite) to the initiated? Why the secret syncretism?”
Non-masons such as ourselves are not generally in a position to verify the content and significance of Masonic rituals. However, the point is that the secrecy with which these are guarded and the lack of further detail on the Canterbury service only serve to foster such suggestions, whether there is any substance in them, or not.
The blog Virtue on Line opined “in opening his archiepiscopal cathedral at Canterbury to a full-scale Masonic service on February 18, 2017”, Justin Welby was “following the example of President Donald Trump’s thumbing his nose at the US judicial system…[i]n blatant defiance of a recent ruling against Freemasonry by an ecclesiastical judge of the Church of England. It continued [emphasis added]:
“This is in complete violation of the spirit of the ruling by Chancellor Geoffrey Tattersall (Queen’s Counsel) who as the judge in the Consistory Court of the Diocese of Carlisle banned a family from having the Freemasons square and compass emblem engraved on the gravestone of a Freemason who died after devoting much of his life to the organization”.
Not quite how we would have phrased it. The case in question is the recently-published Re St Oswald Dean  ECC Car 5, in which the Chancellor refused to grant a faculty for the addition of the Masonic symbol to a memorial headstone to the Petitioner’s late uncle, who had a lifelong association with Freemasonry.
Legally it is a far stretch from the decision of a consistory court relating to the application of Churchyard Regulations under the faculty jurisdiction (which has no doctrine of stare decisis) to what is permissible in a cathedral service under a completely different legislative regime, (as was evident in the “fundamentally flawed” application to a consistory court in Re York Minster  Ecc Yor 3).
Nevertheless, the Carlisle court’s considerations on Freemasonry and Christianity are pertinent to the debate, below.
Re St Oswald Dean
This case is considered in our post, Masonic symbol banned on headstone: in this case, the Chancellor considered the petition in relation to three issues: the Churchyard Regulations [13 to 20]; the reasons for the application, in which the petitioner was supported by information from Provincial Grand Master of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons of Cumberland and Westmorland [21 to 27]; and the issue of Freemasonry in general [28 to 37].
Churchyard Regulations and reasons for application
No evidence was placed before the court to support the assertion that “the symbol of a set square and compass…can be seen in most cemeteries in this area” ; and although documentation was produced “demonstrating that the Square and Compasses were acknowledged as the signs of a Master Builder or Masons, who were employed throughout the Christian world to build magnificent cathedrals” , the Chancellor was not satisfied that “a square and compass has been an acceptable Christian symbol for many centuries” .
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…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…the Churchyard Regulations permit “representations of objects or motifs appropriate to the life of the deceased or of accepted Christian symbols”…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.”
Church of England: 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? [available in hard copy from Church House Publishing]. The Synod’s primary theological objection centred upon Freemasonry’s use of the word “Jahbulon” [the name used for the Supreme Being in Masonic rituals, and an amalgamation of Semitic, Hebrew, and Egyptian titles for God]. The Report 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.”
General Synod passed the motion: “That this Synod endorses the Report of the Working Part [GS 784A], including its final paragraph, and commends it for discussion by the Church” by a majority of 394 votes to 52. However, the CofE web page on Freemasonry admits: “there have been no formal developments at national level since the 1987 debate”.
Against this background, there has been an on-going involvement between Freemasonry and the Church of England in three areas: services and other activities with cathedrals; donations; and membership of senior clergy. With regard to the former, these range from annual carol services to other non-liturgical events: in 2012, 800 Hertfordshire freemasons and members of the Rose Croix and Societas Rosicruciana attended St Albans Cathedral for a service of thanksgiving and the rededication of a pulpit, a gift from English Freemasons in 1883; on 21 September 2013 Canterbury Cathedral marked the bicentenary of Royal Arch Masonry.
The recent event at Canterbury was linked to a £300,000 donation from local masonic groups, the invitation to which stated:
“Freemasonry has been pleased to support Canterbury Cathedral for many years, helping to fund essential repairs to the building, and the training of a number of apprentice stonemasons. To mark this three hundred year celebration, a major donation of £300,000 has been made jointly by the Freemasons of Sussex, Surrey and Kent, to support the restoration of the Cathedral’s North West Transept. Three hundred thousand, to mark three hundred years.”
In the past, Church of England clergymen who have been masons include: the former Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher, who headed the Church of England from 1945 to 1961 and who held the senior post of Grand Chaplain for the United Grand Lodge of England; Robert Milburn, the former Dean of Worcester, also held this masonic office. John Habgood, former Archbishop of York, told General Synod that he believed Freemasonry was a “fairly harmless eccentricity” and later expressed the view that he did not see any conflict in being a Mason and a Christian”.
More recently, the appointment of the Revd Jonathan Baker as Bishop of Ebbsfleet raised the issue again in view of his active involvement and as an assistant Grand Chaplain, a one-year appointment. Fr Baker is reported as stating that he did not consider Freemasonry incompatible with his Christian faith, but “because of the particular charism of episcopal ministry and the burden that ministry bears, I am resigning my membership of freemasonry”.
Other faith groups
The judgment stated:
“. It is contended by some Christians that Freemasonry posits an alternative [God as the Great Architect of the Universe whose name is revealed in the rite of the Holy Arch as Jahbulon] to the Christian understanding of the God the Holy Trinity and is thus idolatrous.
. The Roman Catholic Church has a long-standing opposition to Freemasonry and there have been many papal pronouncements on the incompatibility of Catholic doctrines and Freemasonry. That church still prohibits membership in Freemasonry because it concluded that Masonic principles are irreconcilable with the doctrines of the church. The 1983 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith`s Declaration on Masonic associations states that the `faithful who enrol in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion` and that membership in Masonic associations is prohibited.
. By contrast, the Methodist Church recommends that its members should not belong to Freemasonry although it does not prohibit it. The 1985 Conference of the Methodist Church of Great Britain asked Methodist Freemasons to reconsider their membership of Freemasonry and banned the use of Methodist premises for Masonic meetings. The 1996 Conference confirmed that there was no absolute bar on a Methodist being a Freemason but concluded that there will still `hesitations about the wisdom` of a Methodist joining a Masonic lodge and that there were unresolved concerns relating to the openness of Freemasonry and the compatibility of Masonic practice with Christian doctrine.
. A similar position of discouraging membership of Freemasonry is adopted by the Free Church of Scotland and the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland.
In summarizing his conclusions, the Chancellor said [emphasis added]:
“[39.5]. I do not accept that what is proposed is an accepted Christian symbol. Moreover I am satisfied that the Masonic symbol of a set square and compass is considered to be un-Christian by some Christians.
[39.7]. Although, as I have already stated, I make no judgment as to whether Freemasonry is compatible with Christianity, I cannot help but note that when it last discussed the subject the General Synod of the Church of England, by a very sizeable majority, by accepting the last paragraph of the Report Freemasonry and Christianity: Are they compatible?, decided that there were a number of very fundamental reasons to question the compatibility of Freemasonry and Christianity. Moreover, this approach seems to be shared among other Christian denominations.
Services such the recent one at Canterbury Cathedral, although infrequent, are not an unusual occurrence within the Church of England. However, it demonstrates the reactions of various parties within and outside the Church for whom such events are problematic. In 1987, General Synod was not asked just to “take note” of the report Report Freemasonry and Christianity: Are they compatible? but to vote on the motion, which it endorsed it by a significant majority of 394 to 52. Whilst the motion “commend[ed] it for discussion by the Church”, it appears to have been condemned to oblivion. Although not the most pressing of the issues currently facing the Church, it is perhaps one that deserves to be revisited.
The service at Canterbury Cathedral coincided with a Mass at Westminster Cathedral, when Cardinal Nichols re-consecrated England and Wales to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, inaugurating the celebrations of the centenary of the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima. There is a history of Masonic hostility towards Our Lady of Fatima.