By Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, Past Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory.
I have been asked the question many times. If Freemasonry is not a religious institution, why do Lodges have chaplains?
The immediate response is that the military and police have chaplains too, yet these are not religious institutions. Their chaplains are appointed to provide counselling and support, especially in times of crisis; they do not administer liturgical or theological services unless specifically requested. However, it is a flawed analogy, because Lodge chaplains are not merely or mostly pastoral workers but carry out a liturgical role. On being invested, a Masonic chaplain is told quite clearly, “Your duty is to offer up prayers and invocations to the Great Architect of the Universe”. His role encompasses also the reading or reciting of Biblical passages, especially at the opening of the Lodge in the three degrees. Yet his prayers and readings are tightly prescribed and non-denominational, other than in the sense that they assume the general belief in the Deity which Masonic membership requires (though in some places there is specific Christian content). Further, the chaplain does not have to be, and frequently is not, an ordained clergyman; any Mason is able to be appointed and act as Lodge chaplain.
The general concept of chaplaincy derives from a Biblical passage in Deuteronomy 20 concerning the conduct of an Israelite military operation. The kohen mashu’ach lamilchamah, “the priest anointed for battle”, was a spiritual adviser to the soldiers, available and required to sustain their morale and faith.
A major difference from the Masonic model is the professional nature of military chaplaincy. A second is that the military chaplain serves two masters – both the Almighty and the military leadership.
The name “chaplain” first appears in British military history in the reign of Edward I between 1272 and 1305, but chaplaincy historians derive the word from a much earlier source, the story of St. Martin of Tours in the 4th century. Concerned for a starving, shivering beggar on a freezing cold night, Martin, a soldier, took off his cloak, cut it into two and gave half to the beggar. His dream that night of Jesus wearing the half cloak turned him into a believer. He was eventually the patron saint of the kings of France, who carried his cloak (capella) into battle to symbolise the Divine presence. The keeper of the cloak (capellanus) was the king’s spiritual adviser (i.e. chaplain) and the place where the cloak was housed was called a chapel. Though William of Hawthorne (early 18th century) spoke blithely of the chaplain being charged “to keep the army in the fear of God”, it was never easy to be responsible at one and the same time to two institutions, the church and the army, and to this day chaplains experience an internal tug-of-war.
The tug-of-war problem does not arise in Masonry, which recognises no dichotomy between religion and life. The chaplain is not a semi-outsider but a Mason like any other Mason. His chaplaincy is not on behalf of an outside organisation but arises from within and is integral to the Masonic world view. As we often say, Masonry is religious but not a religion. Nonetheless it might have been better if the craft had chosen a different name for the chaplain. Less confusion would have been caused and we would have suffered less criticism.
For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.
Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book on the history, symbolism and teachings of Freemasonry, enlivened with personal reminiscences and humour.