Church of England

Simony, syncretism or sacred service? Canterbury Cathedral to host Freemasons’ celebration

Canterbury Cathedral is to host a service on Saturday 18th February exclusively (if not quite secretively) for Freemasons. The Dean, the Very Rev’d Dr Robert Willis, who may or may not be a Freemason, will preside at the service, which is to be held in honour of the tercentenary of Freemasonry. The Grand Master, HRH the Duke of Kent (who is also a patron of the Canterbury Cathedral Trust), will be in attendance, along with hundreds of Masons from Kent, Surrey and Sussex, who have together raised £300,000 for the restoration of the North-West Transept. Christian Today reporter James Macintyre asked directly whether the service was linked to the donation, and a spokesperson for the Cathedral apparently responded: “Indeed.”

Well, why not? The benevolent association of Freemasons with Canterbury Cathedral has undoubtedly  helped preserve this ancient and iconic building. “For a long time, I had no idea there had been links between the Cathedral and Freemasons,’ said Roger Odd, former Deputy Provincial Grand Master of the East Kent Lodge. “Then I realised Archbishops of Canterbury had been Freemasons – people like Geoffrey Fisher, who crowned our current Queen. I also saw a picture of Past Provincial Grand Master of Kent Lord Cornwallis at a service in 1936. There had been connections, but the relationship hadn’t been re-established for some time.”

So the Freemasons kindly and very generously set about funding apprentice stonemasons. Freemasonry Today explains:

Heather Newton, stonemason and the Cathedral’s head of conservation, sees the Freemasons’ support as nothing less than a blessing. ‘We’re desperately in need of funds,’ she says. ‘It’s a huge building, and there’s always something that needs doing. The Freemasons have been immensely generous, but the fact that they’ve given much of their donation specifically for training apprentices is particularly helpful. It’s proper, practical help, and in many cases it’s been a lifeline for some very talented people. You see them develop over the course of the apprenticeship – the experience enriches them.’

The current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is not and never has been a Freemason. It is sheer ignorance to try to tarnish his name with this event: what goes on in Canterbury Cathedral is the purview of the Dean, and absolutely nothing to do with the Archbishop. The previous Archbishop, Rowan Williams, was not only not a Freemason, he positively reviled their oaths and rituals, believing them to be utterly antithetical to the Christian faith. That was until he came to appoint senior Freemason the Rev’d Jonathan Baker as Bishop of Ebbsfleet, and then he turned a different whisker. As Roger Odd observed, Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher was most definitely a Freemason, and his penchant for the Brotherhood almost threatened disestablishment. Quite a few bishops and other clergy may be Freemasons – we don’t know: it’s secret.

There’s a bit of a fuss growing about Canterbury Cathedral hosting this service, with implications of simony and allegations of Satan worship. The Church of England examined the compatibility of Freemasonry and Christianity back in 1987, and the majority (of a 7-strong committee, two if whom were masons) found the beliefs to be somewhat in tension, if not antithetical. Their final paragraph reads:

(122) 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 the Report shows 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.

Funny how the BBC didn’t present this difference of opinion as a ‘schism’ or ‘split’ or as a ‘church in crisis’. Perhaps they just don’t care about the mental health of Freemasons.

But this report was often wildly misrepresented, with assertions such as “the Church of England over­whelmingly accepted the results of a church inquiry which accused Freemasonry of being blasphemous and hereti­cal”. The Church of England asserted no such thing. The General Synod ap­proved the report by 394 votes to 52, with 5 abstentions. The motion it approved was: “That this Synod endorses the Report of the Working Group (GS 784A), including its final paragraph, and commends it for discussion by the Church.”

The Church just didn’t discuss it very much. The Dean of Canterbury will be familiar with this report, and is manifestly content that showing hospitality to Freemasons is neither blasphemous nor heretical. Whether or not he is himself a mason, he will ensure that the liturgy at England’s preeminent Cathedral is unequivocally Anglican: it’s not as if Jahbulon will be invoked or members of the congregation will be asked to sing ‘Praise, my soul, the King of heaven’ while standing on one leg with with a noose around their necks. Of course, what each mason has in his heart or mind during the service is a matter for him, but it’s not going to be a worship service of Satanic-Anglican syncretism, as some are imagining.

But is it simony? Well, only if the Freemasons gifted their £300,000 with the proviso that they got to celebrate their tercentenary within the hallowed Cathedral cloisters, beneath the stained-glass shadows of the Ancestors of Christ. And there’s absolutely no suggestion that they did. At a basic level, Freemasonry is a charitable and benevolent association. It is tolerant and respectful of all religions and admits all men of good character who have a commitment to self improvement and to serve their communities. Atheists, however, are excluded: there is a requirement to believe in God as the ‘supreme being’, but no doctrine of God is advanced beyond that.

Would Canterbury Cathedral welcome Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists or Jedi Knights?

Yes, of course they would, for the Cathedral belongs to all the people of England, and all are welcome to worship God beneath its medieval vaulted ceiling. If any group had bothered to raise £300,000 for crucial works of restoration, they might similarly ask the Dean if the Cathedral would host an event for them, and he would doubtless consider it very carefully. Would such an accommodation constitute any kind of endorsement of these belief systems? No, of course not: not unless the act of divine worship were made using alien scriptures which took the name of the Lord in vain or denied the divinity of Christ. These things the Dean would decline.

Freemasons may belong to any faith, and they dedicate their lives to tolerance, compassion and brotherly love. The question of whether Freemasonry is a religion has been considered by the courts, and they found that when tested against the criteria of belief in a supernatural being and the acceptance of conduct to give effect to that belief:

..it seems that Freemasonry – just – falls short. That is because (i) as we understand those criteria the supernatural being is the same for all adherents, whereas the nature of the supernatural being accepted by Freemasons may differ according to their particular faith; and (ii) the canons of conduct promoted by Freemasonry are freestanding and not adopted to give effect to the belief”

There is no compulsion or expectation that Canterbury Cathedral will endorse the canons of conduct promoted by Freemasonry, but there is certainly no harm in exhorting fraternal love or blessing peacemakers. This is not syncretism. Insofar as the masons’ objectives in gifting £300,000 to Canterbury Cathedral were philanthropic and civic, there is no simony. Freemasons support the Cathedral out of reverence for sacred history, respect for mutuality, as a service to the community and a gift to the nation. For the Dean to foster fellowship and fraternity with them is a basic courtesy and a sacred service.