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.
- “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.”
- “Such a link between Freemasonry and the ancient idolatrous mysteries is also manifested by all that is enacted and performed at the initiations.”
- “Thus Freemasonry is, as granted, a mystery-religion, quite different, separate, and alien to the Christian faith.”
- “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.”
- “On the other hand, Freemasonry [...] shows itself in this sense to be in sharp contradiction with the Christian religion.”
- “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.
January 16, 1924: Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow — former Archbishop of North America, and future canonized saint — issued an ukaz removing Metropolitan Platon Rozhdestvensky from his post as primate in America for “public acts of counter-revolution.” Of course, Tikhon was under pressure from the Soviet government. Really, “pressure” is an understatement; I have no doubt that he was compelled to issue that ukaz. Because this ukaz and stuff like it, later in the same year, the Russian Archdiocese declared itself independent from the Moscow Patriarchate.
January 17, 1869: Former Episcopal priest James Chrystal was ordained to the Orthodox priesthood in Syra (Greece). This would have been the eve of Theophany on the Old Calendar. Chrystal had only recently been baptized into the Orthodox Church, and very soon after returning to America, he left Orthodoxy, saying that he couldn’t tolerate the veneration of icons.
January 21, 1957: Greek Archbishop Michael Konstantinides delivered the invocation at President Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration. This was the first time that an Orthodox bishop was invited to participate in a presidential inauguration. In the years surrounding this event, Orthodoxy came to be recognized by dozens of states as the “fourth major faith,” along with Roman Catholicism, Protestantism (treated as a generic whole, in spite of its myriad divisions), and Judaism.
If you know of another major American Orthodox historical event that occurred between the 16th and 22nd of January, let us know in the comments!
It’s almost Christmas for those of us on the New Calendar, but of course, our Old Calendar brethren will have to wait an additional 13 days. Originally, of course, all Orthodox Christians celebrated Christmas on the same day, because we all followed the same calendar. In 1923, an Inter-Orthodox Congress met at Constantinople under the presidency of the infamous Ecumenical Patriarch Meletios Metaxakis and voted to adopt the New Calendar. Over time, a lot of the world’s Orthodox Churches went along with the switch, but many refused and continue to use the Old Calendar. Hence the current discrepancy.
The thing many people don’t realize is that not every Orthodox Church that uses the New Calendar adopted it in 1923. According to Dr. Lewis Patsavos of Holy Cross, the latest Church to make the switch was Bulgaria, which did so in 1968.
Another thing people don’t realize is that some Orthodox in America were already following the New Calendar prior to its official 1923 endorsement. A couple of years ago, I wrote about how a Greek community in Columbia, SC arbitrarily adopted the New Calendar in 1914. That group didn’t have a priest or a formal church, but even earlier, in 1900, a Syrian colony in Fort Wayne, IN celebrated Christmas on the New Calendar’s December 25, and they were joined by a visiting priest from New York. (Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, 12/25/1900.) I’m not sure, but it’s possible that the priest was St. Raphael Hawaweeny. If it wasn’t him, it must have been one of his subordinates.
On the flip side, the Antiochian Archdiocese didn’t celebrate a New Calendar Christmas until 1940. The New York Times (1/6/1941) reported, “Departing from an ancient custom, the Syrian Orthodox Antiochian Church, which formerly followed the Julian calendar, celebrated Christmas on Dec. 25 this year…” That’s a full 17 years after the 1923 Inter-Orthodox Congress. And — someone correct me if I’m wrong here — the OCA waited until 1982 to switch calendars.
Anyway, to all of our New Calendar readers, we wish you a joyous Christmas. To our Old Calendar readers, happy St. Herman’s day!
This article was written by Matthew Namee.
UPDATE: In the comments below, William Kosar has pinned down when the Metropolia/OCA began making the switch from the Old to the New Calendar. William writes, “After a little research, it was at the Thirteenth Sobor of November 14-16, 1967 that the decision was made permitting parishes, upon approval of their diocesan bishop, to use the new calendar.” The 1982 date that I cited seems to refer to when then-Bishop Herman Swaiko of Eastern PA forced all the parishes in his diocese to adopt the New Calendar. Up to that point, it appears that parishes could choose. See the comments for more on how the process of choosing worked.
Back in 2009, I wrote an article about a unique Independence Day church service held in Chicago by Fr. Firmilian Drazich of Serbia. I thought it’d be appropriate to link to it today. If anyone out there has more information about this fascinating event, please email me at mfnamee [at] gmail [dot] com.
Until the early 1980s, some OCA parishes in the Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania used the Old Calendar. In 1982, then-Bishop Herman Swaiko of Philadelphia ordered all of his parishes to switch to the New Calendar. Predictably, this wasn’t universally well-received. The majority of St. Basil Orthodox Church in Simpson, PA jumped to ROCOR, and this led to a dispute over the parish property. The case, Mikilak v. Orthodox Church in America went to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in 1986.
The court reviewed the history of Russian Orthodoxy generally and St. Basil’s in particular. The parish was founded in 1904 as part of the Russian Mission, and originally, both the parish congregation and the ruling Russian bishop in America had legal control (by deed) of church property. The parish was formally incorporated in 1924, and the incorporation document stated that the property was “subject to the control and disposition of the lay members” of the parish. (No reference to any hierarchy or diocesan authority.) Three years later, a court transferred the bishop’s interest in the parish property to the parish itself, giving the congregation complete legal control over the property. In 1937, the parish adopted bylaws which again asserted that the property belonged “to all members of the parish.”
All this time – all the way up to 1956 – the parish hadn’t formally recognized any hierarchical authority: not ROCOR, not the Metropolia, and apparently not the Moscow Patriarchate either. I don’t know how this worked, as a practical matter. Who assigned the parish priest? Whose signature was on the antimens? Was the parish never visited by a bishop? Anyway, this is what the court tells us, and we’re further told that in 1956, the parish voted to affiliate with the Metropolia. The Moscow Patriarchate sued (this was just after Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, and Moscow wasn’t interested in losing control of any property), but the case settled and the parish kept its building. So from 1956 to 1982, St. Basil’s was a part of the Metropolia/OCA — but this was never put into the legal documents of the parish.
In Pennsylvania, courts use the neutral principles of law approach in church property disputes when there is “no inquiry into ecclesiastical questions.” The burden, said the court, is on the OCA to show either (1) a transfer of property from the parish to the OCA, or (2) “clear and unambiguous language” indicating that the parish created a trust in favor of the OCA. If there was a trust, the parish would remain the property owner, but it couldn’t just do what it wanted, without OCA consent.
As the court saw it, there was neither a transfer of ownership nor a trust. From 1927 (the court order noted above) onward, the parish property belonged solely to St. Basil’s congregation. The parish never created a trust in favor of the OCA. Even the OCA Statute (Article X, Section 8) supports this, said the court, since it asserts that “[t]he parish or parish corporation is the sole owner of all parish property, assets, and funds.” Yes, the Statute goes on to say that the parish officers must “act as trustees of God’s, not man’s, property” and other such ambiguous language. But there’s no creation of a trust. The only caveat is the stipulation that if the parish is abolished, the antimension, tabernacle, and sacred vessels must be surrendered to the diocesan bishop.
On the basis of these findings, the court ruled that the congregation could keep its property when it joined ROCOR, except that it must return the holy objects I mentioned above.
The court doesn’t really get into the obvious issue of defining the parish. It treats the majority as being the parish, but from the OCA’s perspective, the parish was really the minority of members that remained in the OCA. We’re not congregational, so what gives? The answer, according to the court, is that “St. Basil’s exercises congregational control and ownership over its church property.” And the hallmark of “congregational” churches is that the majority rules. So, even though St. Basil’s was a part of the hierarchical Orthodox Church, on the level of parish property, it was treated the same as a congregational church.
I’m sympathetic to the parish majority, who didn’t want to be forced to accept the New Calendar, but the outcome of this case raises some alarm bells. The court quite casually classifies this case as one not involving “ecclesiastical questions,” and it’s this classification that allows the court to employ the neutral principles approach. But the church calendar is an ecclesiastical question. For that matter, the deeper issue of a diocesan bishop’s authority is also an ecclesiastical question. The court was, quite frankly, wrong when it claimed that there were no ecclesiastical questions at issue.
Which gets to a broader point that I keep running into — there is no such thing as an Orthodox court case that doesn’t involve ecclesiastical questions. How could there be? The power of a bishop or synod, the identification of this or that group as the “true” parish — these are profoundly ecclesiastical questions, and they are inherent in every Orthodox property dispute I’ve seen. I’m not saying neutral principles shouldn’t be applied, or even that I disagree with the court’s decision (I actually take no position on it right now). I’m saying that the court was factually incorrect, and had it accurately recognized the ecclesiastical issues in the case, it would have been legally obligated to apply deference to the higher church authorities (in this case, Bishop Herman Swaiko).
Because all Orthodox court cases necessarily involve ecclesiastical questions, we will need to develop a framework more nuanced than the binary yes/no approach currently employed by the courts. We must admit, up front, that courts will decide ecclesiastical questions, in every case, whether they like it or not. It is unavoidable, regardless of whether they use deference or neutral principles. And because it’s unavoidable, we must accept it and develop some guidelines to ensure that judges can do their jobs without involving themselves too deeply in the affairs of the Orthodox Church.
I have no answers at this point, and if anyone out there has any helpful suggestions, I’d love to hear them.
This article was written by Matthew Namee.