John Hamill asks: is it time to modernise the rituals?

Thursday, 05 September 2013

The language of mystery

Director of special projects John Hamill considers whether the words and phrases used in Freemasonry should be modernised to give greater clarity.

The English language is said to be one of the most difficult to learn, in both its written and spoken forms. Part of that difficulty is the wonderfully idiosyncratic illogicality of how we pronounce many of our words, which often has little bearing on the actual letters they contain. Another problem is that a simple word can have different meanings, or shades of meaning, depending on its context, or even where in the country it is spoken.

To most of us, ‘bait’ is what a fisherman puts on his hook in the hopes of catching a fish. In northeast England, ‘bait’ is what a workman has in his lunch box. Equally, in spoken English many words sound the same but have different spellings and meanings. Consider the simple words ‘you’, ‘yew’ and ‘ewe’, or ‘earn’ and ‘urn’.

English is a living language in which the meaning of words changes over time, so it is important to consider the period to get the full definition. I remember in my early days as a masonic researcher being slightly puzzled when the premier Grand Lodge Minutes referred to brother A being appointed Provincial Grand Master for M ‘in the room’ of brother B. In my naivety I thought it rather quaint that they actually went to the room of the predecessor to appoint the successor. But it soon dawned on me that they were using ‘room’ not in its usual sense of an actual physical place but to mean ‘in place of’.

Time to redefine

Our Craft rituals were developed over a long period, from the late 1600s until they were formally codified by the Lodge of Reconciliation from 1814 to 1816. They inevitably include words and phrases with meanings that have changed in the past two hundred years. Many of those words are still in common usage and so can cause confusion for a new member.

One word that gives pause for thought and appears frequently in our rituals is ‘mystery’, plus its plural ‘mysteries’. Today, mystery has connotations of something hidden, possibly secret, which takes time to understand. The full Oxford English Dictionary gives more than a dozen definitions, some of which are no longer in use, or used rarely, but nonetheless show how we came to use mystery in our ceremonies.

One definition is that a mystery was an occupation, service, office or ministry. Another that it was a handicraft, craft or art. The dictionary states that the phrase ‘art and mystery’ appears in many apprentice indentures, citing a sixteenth-century indenture for a boy apprenticed to a master to learn ‘the science, art and mystery of wool combing’. In another definition it states that a mystery was a trade guild or company, pointing to our possible connections, direct or indirect, with the stonemasons’ craft.

This latter definition was one that appealed to the late Rev Neville Barker Cryer. In his Prestonian Lecture of 1974 he looked for the possible roots of Freemasonry in the Mystery Plays performed by the medieval trade guilds, which he believed had a similar purpose to our masonic ceremonies – the instilling of principles of morality. In ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, the ‘mysteries’ were rites and ceremonies to which only the initiated were admitted, which again chimes with the use of the word in our ceremonies.

Occasionally, we hear calls to modernise those ceremonies, to take out old words and phrases and replace them with modern, instantly comprehensible ones. I hope those calls are never answered. Our ceremonies contain some wonderful set pieces of English language that would be destroyed if we modernised them. Freemasonry is a learning process, and if we have to resort to a dictionary to fully comprehend what we learn, that can only enrich us.

Letters to the editor - No. 26 Summer 2014

Word matters


I’ve always considered one of the most important aspects of ritual was to inculcate the brethren in the principles of masonry, and the word is repeated often in ritual and lectures. I do not believe that ‘inculcation’ occurs simply by reading the rituals. 

‘Inculcate’ is defined as ‘to instil by forceful and insistent repetition’. By learning, practicing and performing ritual, we reinforce the principles of masonry in ourselves and, hopefully, encourage others to take up those principles. I think it follows that, no matter how good or bad a brother may be at ritual, every effort is made to encourage him in the effort and if bringing some of the language of masonry into the twenty-first century encourages this, so much the better. 

Alan Booth, Earl of Chester Lodge, No. 1565, Lymm, Cheshire


Letters to the editor - No. 25 Spring 2014

Mystery of the heel


How right John Hamill is to urge that we don’t modernise the language of our ritual. My favourite is the Charge to the Initiate that encapsulates so well the qualities that we expect of ourselves.

One mystery that I find odd is the suggested pronunciation of the word ‘heel’, which I contend should be pronounced just as that – the Oxford Dictionary in its third meaning defines it as ‘set a plant in the ground and cover its roots’, so why shouldn’t it be pronounced as it’s spelt? And of course there is the old chestnut of ‘tenets’, derived from the Latin tenere (to hold) with a short ‘e’, so where the pronunciation ‘teanets’ came from is another mystery.

Peter Dodd, Old Epsomian Lodge, No. 3561, London


Letters to the editor - No. 24 Winter 2013

Minding our language


I always enjoy reading John Hamill’s articles and found ‘The Language of Mystery’ in the last issue particularly interesting. I have, myself, what some might call an obsession with the origins, history and development of the English language and have, from time to time, presented a paper entitled ‘Language and Freemasonry’.

In that paper, I make mention of the word ‘mystery’, with reference to Peter Ackroyd’s excellent book London: The Biography (Chatto & Windus, 2000). In chapter seven, where he discusses the medieval guilds, Ackroyd says that the word ‘mystery’ in this context derives from the French ‘metier’, meaning, of course, ‘trade’ or ‘profession’. It doubtless suits us in both meanings!

Andrew McWhirter, Luxborough Lodge, No. 4700, Loughton, Essex


Hear, Hear! I read with great interest John Hamill’s article ‘The Language of Mystery’ in the autumn issue, concerning the debate surrounding the call to modernise our ritual and language. To many brethren, this has all the hallmarks of ‘dumbing down’ – and to what end? 

If the goal is to put ‘bums on seats’ we would do well to remember that in recent history, our larger churches went through this process of modernising their respective services in order to make them more accessible to a wider congregation. The result? A near collapse in church attendances bordering on seventy per cent. As John Hamill asks, do we really want to risk the current green shoots of growth just because some of our language may appear a bit ‘fuddy-duddy’ at times?

Martin Day, Cyngesburie Lodge, No. 5607, London

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