EARLIER this year, Hexham Abbey was taken over by an unusual service, as around 100 members of an ancient order crowded the church.

The service was the first time the Masonic Knights Templar had held its annual Service of Thanksgiving and Renewal at Hexham Abbey.

A branch of the Freemasons, the Knights Templar – or to give it its full title, the United Religious, Military and Masonic Order of the Temple and of St John of Jerusalem, Palestine, Rhodes and Malta in England and Wales and its Provinces Overseas – has no direct historical with the medieval Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller from whom it takes it name.

However, the ceremonies echo the history and ethos of those medieval organisations.

The Service of Thanksgiving and Renewal, which was held at the Abbey in May, is an integral part of the group’s activities, but they are a group somewhat shrouded in mystery, something Provincial Prior Kevin Stannard, from Ovington, is keen to change.

“We do have an image problem and we’re trying to overcome that,” Kevin admitted.

“The Masons and the Knights Templar were always regarded as being secretive. We’re now much more open, we’re not a secretive organisation.

“About one in ten masons in Northumberland are in the Templar Order.

“Like the Freemasons, we’re divided up in provinces basically on the county lines, so we’re the Provincial Priory of Northumberland.

“We meet in masonic lodges and just convert them to our needs. We have a ceremony usually followed by a meal.”

The Knights Templar wear impressive regalia, taking its pattern from the medieval knights and comprising a tunic and mantle; cap, sash, belt and sword; and a breast jewel and star of special significance.

But behind the ceremony there is a genuinely impressive charitable organisation, donating hundreds of thousands of pounds for both masonic and none-masonic causes.

The charitable side of the Freemasons is becoming more well-known. Earlier this year, three masonic lodges in Hexham – Hexham Priory, Albert Edward and Hextoldesham – donated a total of £500 to Hexham Priory School on hearing that damage had been caused to the school’s minibuses.

Kevin continued: “One of the main things we do, as well as personal development, is charity. One of the main charities we support is the St John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital.

“We do what we can to help with fund-raising – the orders contributed up to half a million, all from people’s pockets.”

Kevin is hopeful that the provincial priory can return to the Abbey in May to repeat their annual service, and he is encouraging residents of the town to come along and experience it.

He added: “If anybody would like to come along, they’re very welcome. It’s a very colourful ceremony, but it’s Christian. Everyone enjoys it.”