Christian by degrees?
“Could it really be right,” wondered the theologian Eric Mascall, “to stir up again in the Church of England a controversy which, after a short but somewhat lively career, seemed to have sunk into oblivion?” In writing the Foreword to Walton Hannah’s book, Christian by Degrees, Mascall was referring to what had followed from an inconclusive discussion about Freemasonry in the General Assembly in 1952 – but he could as well be asking the question today, for a generation has passed since the only debate on the matter by General Synod, in 1987.
A QUESTION OF ACCURACY
Mascall decided that it was right, in order to answer these two questions: first, “whether Mr. Hannah has transcribed the masonic rituals and described the masonic ceremonies with substantial correctness”, and secondly, “whether it is possible for a Churchman, whether clerical or lay, to take part in ceremonies such as Mr. Hannah describes, without falling into grave irreverence”. As Mascall went on: “I should very much like an answer to my two questions, and they cannot be avoided simply by pointing to the unquestioned integrity and sincerity of many clerical freemasons [for] it is a regrettable but undeniable fact that perfectly honest people can be very confused in their thinking.”
After the Synod debate on Freemasonry, I wrote a Foreword to a new edition of Hannah’s first book on the subject, Darkness Visible and was able to provide an authoritative answer to Mascall’s first question, partly because of what was said by John Broadhurst, a member of the Synod Working Group on the subject, during that debate:
“One of the questions I was very concerned about was whether we were dealing with the accurate rituals of Masonry; whether we were actually pointing Christians to the areas they should be looking at. Commander Higham [the Grand Secretary of Craft Freemasonry at the time] in his little paper [the Grand Lodge submission to General Synod] says ‘not quite right’, but when he came, we asked him about Hannah, about whether Hannah’s accounts of rituals were actually true and he said – and I did ask some of the members of the Group whether my recollection was right – they were ‘regrettably accurate’.”
A QUESTION OF TRUTH
In answer to the second question of whether a Christian can be a Freemason with a clear conscience, it will be helpful to consider one of the ways used by some Churchmen to justify their membership of Craft Freemasonry. This is the claim that, beyond the rituals of the Three Degrees of ‘Entered Apprentice’, ‘Fellowcraft’ and ‘Master Mason’ (as described and considered in Christianity and Craft Freemasonry – A Pastoral Guide for Christian Ministers) there are Christian truths, both implicit and explicit, to be found in the so-called ‘Higher Degrees’. Of these ‘degrees’ – and there are many – only the Royal Arch degree is administered by the United Grand Lodge of England and Wales. The others have their own constitutions, governance and rituals, though all have in common as a minimum membership requirement that of being a Craft ‘Master Mason.’
Christian by Degrees was Hannah’s answer to this claim of there being a fundamentally Christian basis to Freemasonry once you get beyond the ‘basics’ of Craft Freemasonry. This book did not enjoy the publishing success of Hannah’s earlier book so is something of a rarity, which is why it is worthwhile rehearsing some of Hannah’s arguments here.
First, Hannah had to define the word ‘Christian.’ In his day, the word was used loosely, to include and be confused with the ethical standards upheld by Christianity. In that way any demonstration of kindness or decency could be described as ‘thoroughly Christian’ and therefore some senior Masons asserted that the Craft was “Christian in all but name” and that in their practices they were “upholding the real principles of Christianity.” As Hannah pointed out, on that basis one might affirm “Islam (or Buddhism) in all but name” would be equally applicable.
Secondly, Hannah addressed the argument, as put forward by a former Mason, that Freemasonry was “such an unintelligible hotch-potch of pomposity and platitude that any intellectual approach or critique misses the mark completely.” He cantered through the “strange irrational sects and religious substitutes” of his day and concluded that “it would be unkind and grossly untrue to place Freemasonry directly under this cloud” although, he accepted, “it is on the misty outer fringe of it.”
Thirdly, Hannah wrote that if Freemasonry is not entirely irrational and unintelligible, then neither is it, as some have claimed, a ‘super-religion,’ a system of belief capable of uniting the world’s faiths. Among others, Joseph Fort Newton, an American Baptist minister and Mason had gone as far as to suggest that Freemasonry is “more than a Church… not a Religion but is Religion, a worship in which all good men may unite that each may share the faith of all.”
True, Hannah conceded, Freemasonry refrains from crude dogmatism and yet it has more than a passing resemblance to the ancient pagan and Gnostic mystery cults. And whereas what he termed ‘freak religions’ (which, as we know, flourish for a season before collapsing in disaffection or disgrace) have “a certain external nuisance-value to the Church”, Freemasonry has “an internal yet parasitic influence within it, weakening its distinctive witness to the supernatural Christian faith by its syncretistic universalism and natural religion.” The extent of this ‘parasitic influence’ upon the Church of England, for example, may have reduced since Hannah’s time, but it has not gone entirely - one has only to see the extent to which cathedrals are used by Freemasons’ Provincial Lodges for ‘virtue signalling’ to appreciate that fact.
A QUESTION TO ASK
In Christian by Degrees Hannah examined in some detail the rituals of ‘The Holy Royal Arch,’ of Mark Masons and Ark Masons, of the Ancient and Accepted Rite and other paths taken by their initiates including the Rose Croix, Knights Kadosh, Masonic Orders of Chivalry, Knights Templar, and Knights of Malta. Having done so, he ended with wondering why someone who has been received by baptism into the Church should need these “bizarre, schismatic, secret rites.” He ended with this simple question: “What, exactly, do they add to it, and why?” Seventy years later, in response to a Freemason who claims that it is possible, and indeed appropriate, for someone to be a ‘Christian by Degrees,’ this is still a good question to ask.
 Walton Hannah, Darkness Visible, Augustine Publishing, first published 1952, 16th impression 1988.
 Gerard G. Moate, Christianity and Craft Freemasonry – A Pastoral Guide for Christian Ministers, Latimer Studies 25 (2021)
 For a diagram showing the inter-relationship of these ‘Higher’ and ‘Allied Degrees,’ see Appendix II of the Latimer Studies 25.
 Walton Hannah, Christian by Degrees, Augustine Publishing, first published 1954, 3rd edition 1984.
THE REVD DR GERARD G. MOATE FRSA is a Church historian and bibliophile who used to be a mountaineer but who now enjoys exploring the valleys. He has ministered in London and north-west England, as the Vicar and Lecturer of Dedham on the Essex-Suffolk border, and has taught in (and helped to govern) maintained and independent schools. Today he ministers in five Cotswolds villages near Burford. He is the author of our Latimer Studies books called: Christianity and Craft - Freemasonry which you could find here.
Views expressed in blogs published by the Latimer Trust are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Latimer Trust.