The shared experience

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

A badly read piece of ritual is infinitely worse than a badly remembered piece, explains Director of Special Projects John Hamill

When dealing with the media on behalf of Grand Lodge, one of the comments that I regularly received from journalists was that if the ceremonies are the main purpose of lodge meetings it must eventually become very boring to see the same ceremonies year after year. My answer was always a resounding ‘no’.

No two ceremonies can ever be the same. The candidate is different each time, the officers taking part regularly change and those attending the meeting are never exactly the same. Although the basic words and actions of each ceremony may be the same each time it is worked, those changes of personnel can make an enormous difference.

One of the most memorable meetings I have attended was a Third Degree, the candidate for which was in a wheelchair. You could almost feel the atmosphere of good will in the room with the officers concentrating on the comfort of the candidate and those on the sidelines silently willing the officers to do a good job for the candidate. It was Freemasonry at its best.

Our ritual did not simply happen. It went through a long gestation in the eighteenth century, moving from simple lessons in morality to a complex series of catechetical lectures in which the principles and tenets of the Craft, as well as the symbolism and content of the ceremonies, were explained. A watershed came in 1814 when, as a result of the of the two Grand Lodges, a Lodge of Reconciliation was set up to reconcile the two former systems of ritual and bring about a standard form of the ceremonies to be adopted by all lodges.

Like many special committees, the Lodge of Reconciliation went way beyond its brief and extended the original simple ceremonies by introducing material from the catechetical lectures, and brought about the basis of our present ceremonies. One of the sad effects of that was that the lectures gradually dropped into disuse, except in places like the Emulation Lodge of Improvement, where they are still worked every Friday evening during the masonic season. It’s sad because they contain a wealth of explanation that would increase the brethren’s understanding of the ceremonies.


The aim of producing a standard form of ritual was not achieved. In those days writing down ritual matters was a heinous masonic crime. Ritual was passed on by word of mouth. Its work having been agreed by Grand Lodge in 1816, the Lodge of Reconciliation gave weekly demonstrations of the new rituals in London. Lodges were invited to send representatives to the demonstrations to pass on the new method to their lodges.

This method of transmission and a failure to suppress cherished local traditions has resulted in a richness and variety of working in our lodges, which makes visiting all the more interesting for us.

In recent years there have been calls for officers to be allowed to read the ritual in lodge. For two reasons I think this would be a retrograde step. First, having seen ritual read in lodges in Europe, a badly read piece of ritual is infinitely worse that a badly remembered piece. More importantly, by learning the ritual we increase our understanding of it.

Whoever we are we all come into Freemasonry in the same way. Our progress through the three ceremonies is what the late Canon Tydeman so aptly described as ‘the shared experience’. Combined with our belief in a supreme being, it is what unites us, whatever our backgrounds, and gives us the basis to build and be of service to our communities.

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