A Theological Report to the Bishop of Down and Dromore
Theological concerns which have been expressed about the RBI and its influence.
Use of the Bible, and especially the old Testament
It is clear that biblical traditions have been and continue to be embedded within RBI rituals in which members are involved performatively, whether by acting out particular stories (and playing particular roles within them) or by identifying with biblical characters in the course of catechismal dialogues … there seems no grounds for objecting to such practices, per se, so long as they remain clearly framed as such, and do not encourage or require members to meaningfully and actually self-identify in ways which are clearly nonbiblical (i.e. claiming to be a priest of the order of Melchizedek or of the tribe of Levi), nor encourage the confusion of biblical traditions with nonbiblical ones (for which see below)…
While some within the RBI acknowledge that the figure of Hiram features within the Institution’s teaching, it has been suggested by those outside the RBI that the Apron and Royal Blue (Royal Mark) degrees teaching about Hiram includes details which are not known from Scripture, nor from any other ancient source.
If, as has been suggested, such teachings elaborate in nonbiblical ways on a character known from the Bible, without clearly demarcating these elaborations as nonbiblical, the potential for confusion, confusing biblical and nonbiblical traditions would appear to be real and unhelpful.
It has also been suggested by those outside the RBI that the teaching of the Institution includes the notion of a lost word in which biblical and nonbiblical traditions are unhelpfully intermingled. Both 2 Kings 22:6ff. and 2 Chronicles 34:8ff. offer accounts of the finding of sefer ha-torah (the Book of the Law) which associate its discovery with the repair of the Temple by workmen (including ‘stone-cutters’ 2 Kings 22:6) under the supervision of Shaphan. Both accounts report Hilkiah the Priest’s claim to have found the book and thus any claim that masons were involved in its discovery remains speculative.
There is no further indication within the Hebrew Bible of when this rediscovered book of the law was lost, nor by whom, nor precisely what it contained. (Though there is a widespread scholarly agreement that Josiah’s reforms find numerous parallels in the legal traditions found in Deuteronomy). Therefore, if the teaching of the RBI claims (as has been suggested) that a divine word/name was revealed on a role of fine linen, found by digging in the ruins of Solomon’s house, old, under a marble slab beneath a Jewish arch on which the sun shone once each day, then this represents the kind of unfounded speculation which seems likely to contribute to the unhelpful confusion of biblical and nonbiblical traditions amongst members of the RBI.
A final example may be gleaned from allegations regarding the 5th Royal White degree in which the candidate is invited to respond to questions as if he were the biblical ‘David’. It is claimed that the catechist is required to recognise that a password is required for him/David to proceed to the Valley of Elah (where Goliath awaits) and that the candidate/David received a white robe on account of his innocence as an honour for slaying Goliath. While Job does claim his innocence and David does eventually receive a robe from Jonathan, this is not represented as white, nor as a token of innocence or honour, but rather as a token of (along with his armour, sword, bow and belt) the covenant between Jonathan and David.
While some Christian traditions incorporate speculative traditions not found within the pages of the Bible into their authorised understanding of the scriptural tradition, (e.g. the Roman Catholic elaboration of the tradition of St Veronica) the disavowing of speculative additions which is characterised characteristic of the Reformed tradition – with which the RBI self identifies – is reflected in the Church of Ireland’s own profession of biblical authority and ‘constant witness against all those innovations in doctrine and worship, whereby the Primitive Faith has been from time to time, defaced or overlaid’ (1871). While political interpretations of Scripture within the Reformed tradition may occasionally lapse into (often psychological) interpretive speculations regarding particular personages and passages, such speculations are not embedded within the liturgical/pedagogical/doctrinal tradition (as has been suggested in the above examples).
Given that RBI’s strong identification with the Reformed tradition – with its historic emphasis on Sola Scriptura and resistance to elaborating and revering the “tradition of men” – and given the primacy of the Black Institution’s claim to “study Holy Scripture” and “increased knowledge of the Reformed Faith” within its own statement of its mission, this would appear to leave open at least two alternatives with regard to dealing with such speculative interpretations: either they should be clearly distinguished from the biblical tradition within the Institution’s rituals and teaching (and they are nonbiblical sources identified) or they should simply be eliminated from the RBI’s, rituals and teaching.
While the RBIs reticence to disclose details of its teaching has frustrated outsiders attempts to determine the concordance of the Institution’s teachings with Scripture, there seems no reason why such a reticence should not prevent the RBI from disclosing nonbiblical elements which it no longer choose to teach, as it continues to review the biblical content of its teaching. A willingness to do so on the part of the RBI might allow it to become better known for its laudable commitment to the study of Scripture rather than being open to criticism for its alleged misuse of it.
We want to reiterate the report of the standing committee report 1999, which observes:
“much of the representation of Holy Scripture in the Loyal Orders is of the Old Testament, with an emphasis on such things as battle, righteousness, the defeat of evil, obedience to the law. This is reflected in the Bible teaching and representation of Bible sequence on Orange order and especially the Royal Black per secretary banners.”
While we affirm truly the centrality of Holy Scripture in all of life, we submit that in the Loyal Orders, insufficient emphasis is ostensibly given to the New Testament, in particular to those teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ, who manifested in his earthly ministry, and in his redeeming work on the cross, God’s love for all people; and who called us to the love of God and our neighbour (St Mark 12, 30, 31), to love our enemies (St Matthew 5:44), and who gave us the golden rule, to treat others as we ourselves would wish to be treated.”
TWG’s chief concern are therefore with the apparent lack of attention to the whole of the Scriptures, especially the New Testament; the probable continued use of extra-biblical material without differentiation from Scripture, and the possibility that RBI members may erroneously identify themselves with people or groups in the Scriptures as a way to claim preference over or separation from other people.
Rituals and ceremonies.
A number of former members of the RBI told us about the ceremonies that they had participated in. We were concerned to hear the following:
i) that in one of the degree ceremonies a person entering the RBI, who is blindfolded, is invited to drink water from a cup which can be:
- an actual human skull,
- a plastic replica of a human skull,
- half a coconut,
- a seashell.
This was referred to as a “Mystical Cup.”
ii) that the skull and cross bones are used in a degree ceremony, and that actual bones may be used.
It was put to the official delegation that the working party had been told that actual human remains, which may have been used over centuries, were incinerated within living memory. The response of the official delegation was that no such remains were used by the RBI. They deplored anything which was disrespectful of human remains and they said that they had not seen any human remains being incinerated.
While rituals which use human bones or other legally acquired means as a momento mori in relation to the Old Testament patriarch Joseph may be offensive to some, the Old Testament itself testifies to the Christian tradition’s accommodation of a considerable range of pedagogical innovations and peculiarities (not least in the ministry of Ezekiel). Nevertheless, regardless of what the law of the land may indicate as to such practices, there are two theological concerns which a Christian may have about this: first, the question as to how a Christian may be said to love his deceased neighbour and the neighbour’s family if his/her remains are being used in this fashion; secondly, why a Christian would want to drink of this ‘cup of death’, when at the Lord’s supper, the cup of life is offered for eternal life? We do well to consider Paul’s strong warning, “you cannot drink of the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons.” TWG did not have the means to investigate these allegations, and could only record them and offer a comments.
We were told by a variety of persons that the term “Black” was connected to mourning, and that the RBI emphasizes the need to face one’s own mortality as a way of inviting people to faith in Christ alone. However, we were also told that the RBI are “mourning for brother Joseph” from the narratives in Genesis, which forms no part of any mainstream Christian tradition. There is also a laboured interpretation of symbols that are said to signify death, the coffin (which some former members alleged was actually part of a rite), the skull and cross bones (widely displayed on flags), and even the term ‘Black’. This preoccupation with death can be partly understood since the organisation arose in a time when death was far less removed from everyday life than it is now. But it contrasts strongly with the emphasis of Jesus, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” …
Several former members mentioned a ceremony were the initiate is blindfolded and made to “ride the goat” (the GOAT, we were told, was The Ark Of God backwards). In this, a person is tossed in some way, and it was said to be the worst of the ceremonies as people do in the tossing were sometimes over-keen. It is difficult to offer a theological reflection on such activities, and we could see no biblical warrant for using a biblical phrase backwards, if that is what is done.
Another suggested that they were put into a coffin and that it was implied that the Grand Master of the large sea of them from this fate. Whilst participants are told that “the Worshipful Master is the only one who rescues you and the participant is asked to pledge allegiance by kissing the Bible.” This is clearly unchristian, since Christ alone saves, which the official statement of the RBI acknowledges.
One former member of the RBI was of the view that the degrees involved “travel,” which was justified by using Scripture; but that the outcome for the initiate was humiliation and obligation to the RBI. This contrasts with the Gospel message, which requires of a disciple, humility before God and neighbour, and submission to the cross of Christ. This alone brings us to the glorious freedom of the children of God, as Paul indicates: “for freedom Christ has set us free.”
Theological concerns which the working group wish to register about the teaching of RBI.
Transparency and endorsement.
First, it is reported that people who are initiated into the RBI are not made aware prior to the initiation what oaths, promises and activities they are about to participate in; nevertheless, they make solemn ‘blind’ promises to the keep secret what is revealed. Making open ended promises can lead to serious consequences. King Herod promised up to half of his kingdom, and when the promise was ‘cashed in’ the beheading of an innocent man was demanded, and delivered. There is a double problem with this: the persons encouraging fellow Christians to enter into blind commitments are themselves acting improperly, and the person entering into a commitment unawares is also acting foolishly. The Rev Norris Wilson of the Reformed Presbyterians holds that ‘such extrajudicial oath-taking to be contrary to Scripture’, because “no master or a self-appointed Lodge
has any God-given right to administer such an oath, for such oath taking, we believe, is only valid within the framework of God-appointed government.”
Whilst no suggestion was made to us that this was the case, the ‘secret’ might be against the law, or it might be against the Christian faith (some did think this); and that leaves a person with a hard choice to make: should they break their promise, which was foolishly made, or should they keep their promise and engage in activities which they may think turn out to be against their faith, or at least not consonant with their faith. This is a dilemma caused by a promise or by which they should not have entered into in the first place. The Rev Norris Wilson believes that “no man is at liberty to bind his conscience by old without a knowledge of the nature and extent of his obligation.” And the Baptist Church has also expressed concerns about this.
Second, Christians are to be people of the light. This gives a picture of the kind of mutual accountability which Christians are to have too one another. However, how can members of a parish or congregation hold one another to a kind, if some of them engage in activities which are secret?
This brings us to’ endorsement’. This CoI lives alongside all kinds of secular and religious groups. With some, it may have close relationships, with others it may have no relationships at all. Individual persons from every kind of background may come as worshippers into its services will stop. But when a group as to hold a service for its organisation, a degree of endorsement is implied to people outside of the church, even if not to the group attending the service. That is why a church might refuse to hold a service for a group which espouses a lawful or anti-Christian policy, such as a racist group. But in order for the church to make such a decision, that group must be open about not only what it stands for, but also what activities. It engages in. The church cannot implicitly or explicitly endorse a group whose mission or practice is contrary to the common good or Christian teaching. The way to combat error is not to imply endorsement and then use the pulpit to break them, but to engage in open dialogue with them in a context more suitable to argument and persuasion.
In the case of RBI asking for church services in the CofI the questions which ministers need to ask themselves, are:
Do we know exactly what they do and believe? –
- If yes, a decision may be made on the basis of consonants.
- If no, then, can we endorse this organisation whose practices may be contrary to the Christian faith.
Christian churches will always want to think through with whom they can partner, but also to be aware that whilst it may think it is offering an opportunity for the RBI to worship as a group and to hear the gospel without condoning all that the RBI stands for, others may not be able to make such a fine distinction. They may mistakenly think that the RBI’s attitude to Roman Catholicism is also that of the sea of I. As a standing committee report of 1999, said:
“An act of public worship cannot be entirely divorced from the actions, attitudes and intentions of the worshippers before and after the act of worship.”
In section 4 we outlined the privacy and secrecy of the RBI. This has been defended theologically by a member of the RBI who argues that there has always been an esoteric or mystery aspect to Christianity, which is not understood so much in the modern church. He pointed to the so-called ‘messianic secret’ in Mark’s Gospel which he attributed to Jesus’ reluctance to say who he was. Moreover, the parables have an esoteric nature; the disciples are allowed to know the truths explicitly, but not everyone else. He also suggested that in the history of the early church, on Easter Eve vigil, baptisms would take place at night in secret and that the Eucharist would often be given in sacred. He suggested that even in the creeds, some words would be secret. So it is not entirely unprecedented for the RBI to keep secrets. However, TWG considers that in as much as there is any secrecy in these situations, it is warranted by the need to invite faith, not compel it, or by the pressures of persecution.
In the current situation, or the church has been mandated to spread the gospel, and where there is no imminent persecution, the impulse must be too share “The immeasurable riches of God’s grace.” While we were told that any literate Bible believing Christian would not find anything new in what is done in the RBI, we were also told that there were rights and disclosures which were beneficial to the members. We consider that secrecy is at variance with any definition of the terms messenger or ambassador, which Christians must be. Either the RBI is helping its members to be better Christians, in which case they should share what they have learned with all Christians, or they are not, in which case there are questions as to why they engage in it. Truth understood as revelation of God is surely his gift for all, and not for an exclusive group.
But the secrecy is also accompanied by an implication that something is gained, which is advantageous and which makes God known. As mentioned in P. 20 above, the RBI lecturer’s certificate says, “… N … By zealous Labour, acquired great skill in the ceremonies, secrets, and mysteries of the order of the Royal Black Knights.”
The idea of progression was highlighted by a former member, who spoke of the revelation of God through progressing through the degrees. This seems close to Gnosticism, which suggested that special knowledge was needed for salvation. Another suggested that he was left with the impression that if you get the Red Cross you are a Christian, which is clearly contrary to the ‘Sola Fide’ of the Reformation, although two former members agreed that there was no mention of the ‘Five Solas’ in the preceptories, which makes us ask how far they are [the] basic commitment of the RBI adhered to by all perceptive ease and districts.
Division and separation
The NT clearly teaches that the purpose of God is to draw all things together in Christ. It also teaches that we are to love our neighbours and our enemies. Our preaching of the Gospel will always be hindered by our neglect of its teachings, since we cannot preach reconciliation, if we are not people of reconciliation. We are concerned, as is the Baptist Church statement on this matter, that the RBI exists by separation: men from women, meal members from meal non-members, Reformed from Roman Catholic.
Although the RBI denies any links between Freemasonry and its own ceremonies, many of the symbols are assured, as Canon Brian Blacoe makes clear,
“There is interpolation of nonbiblical material largely dependent on the teaching of Freemasonry and other sources associated with e.g. the Knights Templars.”
Both the Baptist report and the Reformed Presbyterians are concerned because the Royal Arch Purple, which RBI members normally pass through, allegedly uses Freemasonry rituals. The Rev Norris Wilson asserts, “in its rituals, Orangemen would admit the Royal Arch Purple, most closely resembles Masonry.”
The Baptist report “The Loyal Orders” A Biblical Examination comments in this way:
“Where did all this ritual come from? Although many attempts have been made to circumvent this question the answer is straightforward. All of the original founders of the Orange Order were Freemasons and they simply adapted much of the ritual with which they were familiar for the new Order. In this they were assisted by a noted Mason, John Templeton. Orange writers, though somewhat reluctantly, do admit the Masonic background with words such as; “because some of the founders had been masons they used the Masonic system which they knew worked”.9 The same writers also acknowledge that the Royal Arch Purple degree “is the most Masonic-like part of our ceremony” This is remarkable in light of the fact that this is looked upon as the ‘sublime degree’.”
If it is indeed true that there are Freemasonry origins and parallels in both the Royal Arch Purple and the RBI, then we need to note that the CofI has already stated that Freemasonry “does not have the fullness of the Christian Gospel” and many Christians would agree with the General Synod of the Church of England’s conclusion that “there are very clear difficulties to be faced by Christians who are Freemasons,” if not, “a number of very fundamental reasons to question the compatibility of Freemasonry and Christianity.” Unless RBI members are asked to announce the Royal Arch Purple, there are assurances about their own ceremonies being free of Freemasonry influences are insufficient, although some former members do not think these assurances that the RBI owes nothing to Freemasonry are accurate. Lacking detailed knowledge of the RBI procedures we can only highlight this. One former member of the RBI told us that he resigned from the RBI when he realised how close it was to Freemasonry.
There are a number of other concerns which we should mention. What we have been able to glean from the RBI suggest that there is much missing from Christian faith and teaching since the emphasis falls on the stories of Israel’s history. This leaves room for much ambiguity, as to how and when the great doctrines of the faith are taught. It is especially difficult, for example, to think of church, mission, evangelism without teaching on Christology, Ascension and Pentecost, but maybe that happens, and it has not been disclosed. We heard no mention of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit which brings us into that new life in Christ, so clearly stated in the gospel. This may reflect the Western churches, historical comparative neglect of Pneumatology, but again, there have been significant developments in this area during the 20th century. We realise that the RBI does not claim to be a church, but for some, their main learning of “faith” seems to be from the RBI, and given the institutions, public corporate commitment to the Christian faith, this is a question worth exploring.
We note that the RBI itself engages in evangelism on occasion. We believe that mission needs to arise from the living of the gospel in such a way as to attract people to the faith, even without preaching. Sometimes the way Christians live, and undermine their very right to preach to others. The Baptist statement draws attention to “the effect on Christian witness in evangelism that the orders have exercised,” which it believes is detrimental.
The Baptist Church is concerned about:
- “The fellowship and brotherhood that is said to exist within the Orders” because they think that believers are being joined together in fellowship with people who are not practising Christians.
- “The role that the Orders claim for themselves as defenders of the reformed faith” because they think that that is to claim something which the churches properly undertake, but they will do so in different wares from that of the RBI.
- “The relation between church and state that the Orders perpetuate” because there have been so many problems in Ireland between differing groups.
TWG has expressed some major reservations about the RBI, which were voiced to it, or have already been published, or which TWG itself wishes to underline. It recognises that these concerns are based on differing kinds of evidence, some oral, some documented. Since the RBI in habits the same geographic space as the Dioceses of Down and Dromore, TWG believes that the kind of dialogue, as suggested by Canon Ian Ellis (and others) could be helpful: “while the churches in recent times have had occasional meetings with the loyal orders, a more sustained and in-depth dialogue is now required.” Such an idea was drawn to our attention by the RBI official delegation who expressed their willingness to participate. It might well be helpful as the RBI has already indicated that it listens and changes its practices in the light of critique.
In the case of the Royal Black Institution, whilst its Mission Statement states that the Bible is their rule and guide, the fact that its rituals are not public makes it hard to be sure how far all of its beliefs are consistent with the CofI. Some concerns are raised:
a) Use of the Bible – there is some reason to think that there may be confusion of biblical material with other sources – which could mislead members. In addition, there is a danger that members may self-identify in ways which are clearly non-biblical e.g. thinking of themselves as a member of the tribe of Levi. There may be a lack of attention to the New Testament in their rituals.
b) Some rituals and ceremonies may be difficult to defend from a Christian basis, e.g. it is alleged that people take oaths without prior warning as to what they will be asked to promise.
c) There are problems associated with the privacy and secrecy of the RBI, which makes it hard for the church to assess whether it should, by implication, endorse the RBI by holding services in its churches for members and friends.
d) There are concerns that the RBI exists by separation which may hinder its witness to the message of reconciliation.
Christina Baxter, David Shepherd, Heather Morris, John Dinnen. 30 April 2016