Freemasonry in American Orthodox history

Once upon a time, it was the norm for American men to be members of fraternal organizations. These were especially attractive to new immigrants, who wanted to be integrated into American society and make progress in business. And in that earlier era, fraternal membership was the best and quickest way to achieve both goals. They joined the Rotary Club, the Lions, the Elks, the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Columbus, and a host of others. But the most famous — and infamous — of them all was Freemasonry. Countless men in American Orthodox history, including priests and bishops, have been Freemasons. This, despite the fact that membership in secret societies is widely viewed as incompatible with Orthodoxy.

For some background, let’s first look at the relevant canons. Now, I am not a canonist, nor am I a historian of the Eastern Roman (or “Byzantine”) Empire. But, as best I can tell, the key canons are Canon 18 of Chalcedon and Canon 34 of Trullo. Let’s take the latter one first:

But in future, since the priestly canon openly sets this forth, that the crime of conspiracy or secret society is forbidden by external laws, but much more ought it to be prohibited in the Church; we also hasten to observe that if any clerics or monks are found either conspiring or entering secret societies, or devising anything against bishops or clergymen, they shall be altogether deprived of their rank.

The Trullo canon was referred to as simply a renewal of Canon 18 of Chalcedon:

The crime of conspiracy or banding together is utterly prohibited even by the secular law, and much more ought it to be forbidden in the Church of God.  Therefore, if any, whether clergymen or monks, should be detected in conspiring or banding together, or hatching plots against their bishops or fellow-clergy, they shall by all means be deposed from their own rank.

On their face, these canons seem to be focused on prohibiting clergymen from conspiring against other clergymen. I don’t think that the bishops who composed the canons had in mind groups like the Freemasons. That isn’t to say that Freemasonry is acceptable in Orthodoxy, but I don’t think there’s an explicit forbiddance in the ancient canons themselves. If anyone knows of other relevant canons, please let me know, because, as I said earlier, I am definitely not an expert on this stuff.

Freemasonry and other secret societies were extremely prevalent in Russia,  Greece, and other traditionally Orthodox countries in the 19th century. Meletios Metaxakis — the Archbishop of Athens who founded the Greek Archdiocese and later became Ecumenical Patriarch — was a Freemason. So was Archbishop Athenagoras Spyrou, who led the Greek Archdiocese for two decades and then became a hugely influential Ecumenical Patriarch. Likewise Metropolitan Antony Bashir, the longtime head of the Antiochian Archdiocese of New York. And these were just three of the biggest names; numerous other Orthodox bishops were Freemasons in the 20th century. (In the case of Athenagoras and Bashir, I’ve talked to people who knew them, and it was common knowledge that they were Freemasons. But I must admit that I don’t have any hard evidence to prove this fact. Unfortunately, evidence beyond word of mouth is hard to come by on this sort of thing.)

In 1917, Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine argued strongly against the consecration of Aftimios Ofiesh as bishop for the Syrians. One of Irvine’s main contentions was that Ofiesh was a Freemason. I’ll quote Irvine’s letter at length here, because it’s directly relevant to the topic at hand. The letter, dated 2/5/1917, was written to the North American Ecclesiastical Consistory and is preserved in Irvine’s file in the OCA archives. All the emphases and misspellings are Irvine’s.

 A Schism can be healed but the consecration of the wrong party for the Episcopate never. [...] Who is the candidate for the Syrian Vicar Bishoprick? A Freemason. It may be said that, he has given up Masonry. While I doubt it, it makes the matter more terrible than if he persisted in being an active member. And why?

First: Because by being an in-active member for the sake of a chance of being made a Bishop he must have lost the respect of both the Masonic Order and loyal Orthodox Christians.

Second: There is an old and well authenticated fact to wit: — “Once a Mason always a Mason.” An ignorance of the watchword because of delinquency of a member etc., for the time being, does not hinder the opportunity of having that ignorance remedied and the knowledge granted at an opportune moment. Insincerity under the first point would suggest the second idea.

The history of Freemasonry is a night-mare to Christianity in the West. Pardon a little bit of my own knowledge being interjected. Practical knowledge after all is the best.

[Irvine goes on to discuss his own negative experience with a Freemason bishop in the Episcopal Church.]

Freemasonry, today, is a mixture of spurious Christianity, agnosticism, infidelity, aethism [sic], Judaism, and in very many instances, immorality. I have carefully studied it for over fifty years. It’s [sic] nobility of long ago, while it has still had some noble men as members, has long since departed. It has damned the State and the Church by its under-hand influence and corruptive practices.

If a Bishop of the Church is a Freemason then every priest had better be a Mason in his Diocese, for otherwise it may follow that a Jew, an Infidel, an Aethiest etc. or the lowest saloon keeper, or house of ill fame manager, as a member would have more influence as a mason with the Masonic Bishop than the priest who was not a member of the Order.

One of the questions asked of me when I was a candidate for the Russian Orthodox Priesthood was “Are you a Freemason?” My reply was “I am not.” Have we changed? Are our conditions variable?

Now if the Episcopate is one, any member of it affects the whole. And if the Church is one, any member of the same may feel agrieved [sic] if he believes that a member of an alien and pernicious organization is permitted to rule in the high and sacred office of a Bishop in the Church of God Almighty.

The Orthodox Church has gained the Confidence and love of right-thinking people. Let us not tarnish her banner now by inserting amongst the title letters “Masonery.” Rome is marveling at our success and Orthodox Catholicity. Let us not give her a chance to say that, we have retrograded to rationalism and chicanery. Above all things let us guard the Episcopate from that which is worldly and earthly.

Therefore if all others keep silent, I for one, as a faithful priest of the Russo-Greek Holy Orthodox Catholic Church, most solemnly protest against the admission of Archimandrite Afiesh or any other Mason into the Episcopate.

And if he is admitted or any Mason, even under pain of Ecclesiastical penalties, I will never recognize him as a Bishop. I can not serve God and Mammon in the Episcopate. Masons as Laymen may be sinners, but as Bishops hypocrites and creatures of circumstances.

In spite of Irvine’s campaign against him, Ofiesh was consecrated a bishop. And his career did end badly — he exhibited erratic behavior and ended up marrying a young girl in 1933 — but I don’t think any of that was connected to his status as a Freemason.

Have any Orthodox Churches formally condemned Freemasonry? Yes, they have. The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) condemned it in 1932. The Church of Greece followed suit the next year, issuing a rather lengthy statement. The Holy Synod of Greece had appointed a commission of four bishops to study Freemasonry, and on October 12, 1933, the commission presented its initial findings. The Holy Synod also heard reports from the Theological Faculty of the University of Athens. After this, the Synod unanimously adopted several conclusions.

  1. “Freemasonry is not simply a philanthropic union or a philosophical school, but constitutes a mystagogical system which reminds us of the ancient heathen mystery-religions and cults—from which it descends and is their continuation and regeneration.”
  2. “Such a link between Freemasonry and the ancient idolatrous mysteries is also manifested by all that is enacted and performed at the initiations.”
  3. “Thus Freemasonry is, as granted, a mystery-religion, quite different, separate, and alien to the Christian faith.”
  4. “It is true that it may seem at first that Freemasonry can be reconciled with every other religion, because it is not interested directly in the religion to which its initiates belong. This is, however, explained by its syncretistic character and proves that in this point also it is an offspring and a continuation of ancient idolatrous mysteries which accepted for initiation worshippers of all gods. [...] This means that by masonic initiation, a Christian becomes a brother of the Muslim, the Buddhist, or any kind of rationalist, while the Christian not initiated in Freemasonry becomes to him an outsider.”
  5. “On the other hand, Freemasonry [...] shows itself in this sense to be in sharp contradiction with the Christian religion.”
  6. “Thus, the incompatible contradiction between Christianity and Freemasonry is quite clear. [...] [T]he Orthodox Catholic Church, maintaining in its integrity the treasure of Christian faith [has] proclaimed against it every time that the question of Freemasonry has been raised. Recently, the Inter-Orthodox Commission which met on Mount Athos and in which the representatives of all the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches took part, has characterized Freemasonry as a ‘false and anti-Christian system.'”

I’ve truncated all of those conclusions; click on the above link to read the full statement. The Holy Synod of Greece concluded:

Freemasonry cannot be at all compatible with Christianity as far as it is a secret organization, acting and teaching in mystery and secret and deifying rationalism. Freemasonry accepts as its members not only Christians, but also Jews and Muslims. Consequently clergymen cannot be permitted to take part in this association. I consider as worthy of degradation every clergyman who does so. It is necessary to urge upon all who entered it without due thought and without examining what Freemasonry is, to sever all connections with it, for Christianity alone is the religion which teaches absolute truth and fulfills the religious and moral needs of men. Unanimously and with one voice all the Bishops of the Church of Greece have approved what was said, and we declare that all the faithful children of the Church must stand apart from Freemasonry…

This is an especially remarkable statement given the prevalence of Freemasonry in Greece, and its role in the Greek Revolution a century earlier. The Church of Greece didn’t (and doesn’t) have an American jurisdiction, but in 1949 the Holy Synod of the Russian Metropolia in America (today’s OCA) formally affirmed the statement of the Church of Greece. In 1960, the Metropolia’s Synod reiterated that affirmation (click here to read the 1960 affirmation).

As far as I know, those three bodies — ROCOR, the Church of Greece, and the Russian Metropolia (OCA) are the only Orthodox Churches/jurisdictions that have formally condemned Freemasonry. That isn’t to say that it is acceptable among the other Orthodox Churches, but it’s also a somewhat sensitive issue, given how many Orthodox men have been Freemasons over the past century.

This is all by way of introduction. There’s quite a bit of material online about Orthodoxy and Freemasonry, but unsurprisingly, most of it focuses on condemning Freemasonry, rather than talking about history. If anyone out there has more details on the historical side of things, please let me know.

Matthew Namee