Posts tagged Freemasonry
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.
In conjunction with the recent podcast concerning the Federated Orthodox Greek Catholic Primary Jurisdictions in America, I thought I would publish a special, extra entry for Frontier Orthodoxy. I still plan on writing two additional columns this month. For this entry, however, I wish to provide a basic timeline of the Federated Orthodox Greek Catholic Primary Jurisdictions in America (FOGCPJA). This timeline may be useful when listening to the recent podcast on American Orthodox History over at Ancient Faith Radio.
I also wish to note that I failed to make an important connection within the interview itself. Near the beginning of the podcast, I mentioned the difficulties Fr. Boris Burden had with Metropolitan Platon. I meant to return to this later to note that the tense relationship between the two may have also been a factor that excluded the Metropolia from membership. It was not the only factor, as I mentioned the FOGCPJA’s requirement that each jurisdiction be under a Mother Church/Patriarch, but it may well have played a role. Metropolitan Benjamin (Moscow Patriarchate) relied quite heavily on Fr. Boris Burden.
I should further note that Phillies’s membership in the Masons may not have been as ill received since Archbishop Athenagoras and Metropolitan Antony were also Masons. Although Masonic membership would have likely concerned Fr. Boris Burden, it is possible that Metropolitan Benjamin showed some restraint in this regard.
Fall of 1942 (September or October): The Selective Service attempted to draft Fr. John Gelsinger. When that happened, Fr. John Gelsinger, and his father, Fr. Michael Gelsinger, contacted George E. Phillies, a family friend and local attorney in Buffalo, New York.
October 9, 1942: Phillies appealed to the federal authorities, via General Lewis B. Hershey, having gone before the local and state selective service boards. The response from Washington D.C. was that they needed to see proof of an organized Orthodox Church in America. In response to this, the hierarchs of the four primary jurisdictions met.
Fr. Michael Gelsinger (New York Syrian) and Fr. Boris Burden (Moscow Patriarchate) were the instrumental people behind the movement. Fr. Michael received commitments from Archbishop Antony Bashir and Archbishop Athenagoras and Fr. Boris Burden convinced Metropolitan Benjamin and the Bishop Dionisije, the Serbian bishop.
At the subsequent hearing at the Pentagon, Bishop Germanos, an auxiliary bishop of Constantinople, was the only testifying witness. U.S. Senator James Mead (NY, hometown of Buffalo) and Representative James Wadsworth (NY) also appealed on behalf of the Orthodox Church.
December 8, 1942: Major Simon P. Dunkle signed the paperwork instructing the selective service of New York to recognize Fr. John Gelsinger as a priest and providing Orthodox the Opportunity to enlist as Orthodox. Orthodox priests were granted the opportunity to serve as chaplains.
Phillies hailed this as the first time the four primary jurisdictions had provided a united front in America. He quickly built upon this momentum to pursue another venture: amending New York state law for religious corporations. He did this because his reading of the laws of New York convinced him that it was possible the Roman Catholic Church might claim sole legal right to the terms Greek, Catholic, and Orthodox. He also had found no legal incorporation of an Orthodox Church (jurisdiction) that would mitigate this. Individual parishes had incorporated, but the only large scale incorporations were Roman Catholic, such as the Greek Catholic incorporation in Pennsylvania.
February 10, 1943: George E. Phillies wrote to Gov. Dewey, recommending that the hierarchs visit and Dewey replies by stating they should do so after the signing.
February 19, 1943: Charles J. Tobin, secretary of the New York State Catholic Welfare Committee, wrote to State Senator Charles Burney, objecting to the proposed legislation, claiming that only Rome could use the terms Catholic or Greek Catholic.
February 25, 1943: Rev. Philemon Tarnavsky (chancellor of the diocese of Philadelphia) also wrote to Gov. Dewey and agreed with Tobin. He objected to the use of the word Catholic, which he said was linked to the Holy See in Rome. He even noted that the word Orthodox is also used by Greek Catholics, questioning whether Orthodox should use it as a self designation. Rev. Turnavsky was a Greek Catholic himself.
March 5, 1943: Episcopal diocese of Western New York wrote to support the bill (Rt. Rev. Bp Cameron J. Davis)
March 8, 1943: Phillies asked “Charlie” [Burney] for a moving picture crew and claimed there were five million Orthodox in America.
March 10, 1943: Tobin wrote to consul of the governor to object again. He included the assessment of Monsignor Tarnavsky.
March 15, 1943: Memorandum by Phillies stated the purpose(s), excluded the Metropolia, responded to Roman Catholic critics, and noted that the FOGCPJA was set up to parallel the federal/state division in the United States of America.
March 25, 1943: Governor Thomas Dewey signed the bill.
August 2, 1943: The Buffalo Evening News called Phillies the “lay head,” noted that he had dual membership in the GOC and the PEC, and was a Mason.
August 8, 1943: Concelebration.
August 22, 1943: Divine Liturgy in Kleinhans Hall (GOC too small). Archbishop Athenagoras presided, with Metropolitan Antony and Bishop Bogdan assisting (Ukrainian). By this time, the Ukrainians and Carpatho-Russians who were under Constantinople were participating in the FOGCPJA. A small internal disagreement ensued, because Frs. Boris Burden and Michael Gelsinger thought the service should have been in a larger non-Orthodox church building rather than one that was strictly secular.
Bishop Dionisije was bothered by the fact that the Carpatho-Russians and Ukrainians were under Constantinople and had other unnamed concerns. He soon quit participating.
October 3, 1943: At a meeting in Bayonne, NJ, the officers of the FOGCPJA passed the “Bayonne Resolution.” This resolution stated all officers of the Federation must be Orthodox, with no sacramental participation in non-Orthodox churches. Another problem that arose was that the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America had received a letter (likely sent by Phillies) asking for membership.
October 7, 1943: Articles signed by the bishops and the Federation is legally incorporated. Archbishop Athenagoras had been chosen as the presiding hierarch. Fr. Peter Horton-Billard was chosen as secretary, replacing Fr. Boris Burden. Phillies remained the elected chancellor.
October 8, 1943: Burden called the elections “conditional.”
November 1, 1943: Russians threatened to leave over concerns with Phillies.
December 18, 1943: Marriage served jointly by Fr. E Wolkodoff, a Metropolia priest, and PE priest J. Coseby. Metropolitan Benjamin suspended the priest. At this point, the Federation was suspended.
February 2, 1944: Meeting: 1) no “lay head” 2) hierarchs are the leaders 3) Orthodox cannot be communicants elsewhere 4) “chancellor” means “legal advisor” and nothing more. Metropolitan Benjamin also said he had the support of Patriarch Sergius.
Around this same time, Patriarch Sergius wrote to Metropolitan Benjamin, offering permission to be active in the Federation, but Metropolitan Benjamin and Fr. Boris Burden were preparing to renege on the FOGCPJA.
Early October 1944: Metropolitan Benjamin said Phillies was no longer the chancellor. Phillies claimed he was.
November, 1944: Russians officially pulled out. By early 1945, the FOGCPJA was basically dead, though Metropolitan Antony Bashir kept it alive on paper.
Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine, the great convert priest who was ordained by St. Tikhon in 1905, may well be the most quotable figure in American Orthodox history. You can expect lots of Irvine-related material on this website well into the future, but I thought that today, I might offer some particularly great quotations from the man who was once nicknamed, “The Spurgeon of Brookhaven,” and who, in my opinion, might justifiably be called, “The Prophet of American Orthodoxy.”
On the modern world (1895): “People have to-day lost sight of Scriptural facts and become afraid of the old ritual. [...] I do not care who may criticise me when I say that there cannot be found a more idolatrous age, full of Satanic cunning; an age governed more by loud talk, gold and allurement than by pure Christianity.”
On the Episcopal Church: “The Anglican Church is not the true platform of unity. She is too political and diplomatic, always compromising for expediency and shading like a chameleon to attract each Protestant Sect. [...] She allows her Bishops in some respects to be more papal than the Pope of Rome and she gives to her laymen the casting vote in Doctrine, Discipline and Worship.”
On the Orthodox Church: “It may without controversy be truly said that she is the parent Church of all Christian Churches, whether they be Roman or Anglican or Protestant, and that as such she ought to take her place in every land, in every city, in every hamlet, so that those Churches which have either added to or taken from the Faith of the first seven General Councils [...] may correct their creeds, articles and charts by her original and scriptural standard of ‘the Faith once for all delivered to the Saints.’”
On the teachings of Orthodoxy: “The Holy Eastern Church says just what she means; and means what she says.”
On his conversion the Orthodox Church: “God the Holy Ghost, on the morning of Whitsunday [Pentecost], 1905, in St. Mary’s Church, Philadelphia, in response to the inquiry of my soul, ‘Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?’ commanded me in an irresistible way, ‘Go and work for the Holy Eastern Church.’ And I was obedient unto the voice.”
On prayer: “Heaven, is nearer to us than Boston is to New York. I can speak from New York through a telephone to a friend in Boston. Why not through prayer – God’s own ancient telephone, never out of order – speak with a friend in a nearer place? Heaven is where Christ is present. The spiritual law of Religion surely is as great as the physical law of Science. To doubt it would be folly.”
On St. Tikhon: “To see the Archbishop celebrate at the Liturgy was an inspiration. In every word, act and posture he was perfect, yet unconscious of self because of his reverent and natural spirit.”
On St. Raphael’s death: “We see him now in his true light, great and good, learned, and, yet humble as a little child, a brave champion for the Orthodox Faith, yet filled with love for all mankind.”
On Orthodox unity in America: “Let it be hoped that, at least here in the United States, where children of parents unfriendly to each other in the old world intermarry and love each other, the sons and daughters of all the Orthodox Confederated Churches of Europe, Asia and Africa may realize that in unity of organization there is strength.”
To negligent Syrian parents: “Oh, foolish parent, who hath bewitched you! What demon is it which has blinded your eyes, dulled your understanding and filled you with unnatural love for your children? Do you think that love only means the satisfying of the eye, the ear, the palate and the body? Alas, these are the last to be thought of.”
On translator Isabel Hapgood: “That vixen Miss Hapgood. What a liar – she has damned the Church for years.”
In response to an article by Hapgood: “Our Archbishop was not called by the Holy Ghost to consecrate our Choir Leaders for roving Singing-Bands to help and please new Orthodox churchgoers. Music is a luxury, but the ‘Bread of Life,’ distributed through ‘twenty little new parishes,’ is a necessity.”
On the Old Calendar: “It is a standing protest against the encroachments of Rome on the rights of Christendom and suggests investigation on the part of seekers after Ancient ways and truths amongst Protestants.”
On Freemasonry: “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 Atheist 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.”
On Fr. (later Archbishop) Aftimios Ofiesh: “I will never recognize him as a Bishop. I can not serve God and Mammon in the Episcopate.”
In defense of the use of English: “Here are our thousands of young Orthodox of the parentage of every nationality who are being educated in our public schools and entering into our Mercantile and Professional life. They look upon the language of their parents as only an accomplishment, but not as a medium of either religion, politics or business. Are you and I, as Orthodox going to starve them both soul, mind and body simply because we love too well but not wisely, our mother tongue? I am not fighting for the English language as a tongue. My words would fit any other country with its mother tongue as well as that of North America. I am fighting for a principle and Orthodoxy.”
More on English in the services: “I am convinced that the Russian Holy Orthodox Church in America and every part of the Orthodox Church under her jurisdiction cannot prosper as she and they should unless we use English more freely in her and their services. I venture to say that in the recital of every Liturgy, we ought to have one or more Ektenias, etc. in English and until this is carried into effect we will be losing hundreds of youth as we are now irrespect of claims to the contrary.”
On himself: “From without and within, there may be some who would like to have me brushed aside. Yet be it so, still clearly, fearlessly, loudly but lovingly and respectfully, I proclaim, we need Aggressive Orthodox Catholicity for the Truth’s Sake.”