Poking the Beehive: Is there an “English Rite”? (Part IV)

©The Two Crafts

Before reading this one, I suggest reading part I, part II, and part III

From all the definitions and attempts to sum up what a masonic rite is, it is possible to learn that its meaning transitioned from a segment of the masonic ritual to a concept of a collection of degrees in a specific order – brought by the arrival of higher degrees, specially the Continental ones. Since the vocabulary spread, the concept of rite ended up having a broader significance, encompassing every masonic system, being those similar to what a rite originally meant, or not.

However, what the books that we consulted until now have to say about the existence of an “English Rite”? As we know, many of them bring the list of rites known to its authors up to that point. Reverend George Oliver in his “Dictionary of Symbolical Masonry” (1853) does not mention the English Rite, i.e. it does not constitute an entrance in his dictionary.

Robert Macoy and his “General History, Cyclopaedia and Dictionary of Freemasonry” (1870), lists an “English Rite” and defines “adopted by the United Grand Lodge of England and Wales, at the Union in 1813, and is now practiced by the Lodges under that jurisdiction.” (p.327). Under the entrance “Rite” of the cyclopaedic part of his work (remembering the dictionary segment was a republishing of Oliver’s book), he enumerates several rites, among them the “English rite” with the aforementioned definition. Nonetheless, all the named rites will have their own entrance in the Cyclopaedia, something that didn’t happen with the intended “English Rite”.

Therefore, one pattern that starts with Macoy and will continue until today: the “English Rite” will be listed but not detailed. Mackey, in his crucial “A Lexicon of Freemasonry” (1873) also lists an “English Rite”, but doesn’t offer further explanation. Still, Mackey has an entrance for all the other rites he lists.

A.F.A Woodford and his opinion on this matter published on the Kenning’s Masonic Cyclopaedia (1878) was quite explicit. On defining rite, he started with “Though in our English Craft Masonry we only know of or recognise the Three Degrees and the Royal Arch, yet in a Cyclopaedia we have to recognise that, for good or evil, there are so-called Masonic Rites in the world” (p.578). Needless to say that there is no entry or mention to an “English Rite”. Notwithstanding, under the letter E, there is the entry “English system” that I reproduce here in full:

“English System, The. – The English system of Masonry is in one sense indigenous and peculiar, in that it is both in its theory, its unity, and practical development, unlike any other known system. We mean by this that it rests upon the three symbolical grades, but makes the Royal Arch the completion of the Masonic edifice. We in England, knowing well the value of our system, would not exchange it for any other, neither would we enlarge it or alter it. Such as it is we have received it from our Masonic forefathers, and such we mean to hand it on to our Masonic children. It is a system which after all the foundation of every other European, American and Asiatic system; and in our opinion, whenever others have deviated from it, or contracted it, or expanded it, they have done wrong. The English system is, in its practical development, cosmopolitan and universal; and while it is both reverential and religious in all that appertains to the great truths of divine wisdom, it deprecates all controversial contention and ignores all denominational declarations.” (p.200)

The questions to be observed here are varied. First, as a historian there is no value judgment to be made, that is to say, we have to value Woodford definition by what it is: the opinion of an eminent English Freemason and masonic author living in the nineteenth century. Second, his entry makes clear that for an important stratum of English Freemasonry at that time, there was no “English Rite”, but an English system of Freemasonry. Third, that the pride coming from it, was due to an established ancestry of the English system over any other system in the world. Besides his strong views, what Woodford brings to the table is a better definition of what the English Freemasons were understanding by system, and in my view, this word may be a better way to define the Masonic structure in England.

But to pinch a little bit of salt in the English discussion, there is William James Hughan. He was one of the abnegated researchers on Freemasonry that flourished from mid-19th to the early 20th century. Hughan was an accomplished Freemason being Past Grand Rank (Craft and Chapter) in the Province of Cornwall, and a Past Senior Grand Deacon at the UGLE.

William James Hughan (1841-1911)

Among his works, one is of special importance here: “Origin of the English Rite of Freemasonry”, from 1884. I was really curious to read what Hughan would reveal about the “English Rite”, since it is really hard to understand the English system as “progressive degrees of initiation” as Mackey conceptualized. William James Hughan wrote a fine piece about the evolution of Craft Masonry in England, and the developments on the Holy Royal Arch. However, it seems that the expression “English Rite” was used to give the book breadth outside England, and/or an attempt to bring the term to England.

Analysing the book, it is noticeable that Hughan uses the expression “English Rite” only five times, on a 150 pages book. Even the expression “rite” is used only 10 times throughout the whole work. These numbers reveal that the notion of rite, or the existence of an English Rite, is not so pivotal to explain the masonic system existent in England, let alone Craft Masonry. Even Hughan, in the last page of that book, writes: “Hence the English ‘Rite’ of Freemasonry…” (my emphasis). So, even Hughan was orthographically admitting that to call Craft Masonry, plus Royal Arch, an English “Rite” was a stretch. William James Hughan was an international Freemason, an honorary member of several Foreign Lodges and Societies. His book was, most probably, trying to present the English masonic system to a broader audience in a way that they would relate to it and understand it.

About Arturo de Hoyos article “Masonic Rites and Systems”, suffice to say that the expression “English Rite” is not used even once, despite the “ecumenical” definition given by the author to the meaning of rite. But since de Hoyos brings us a more sophisticated definition, I will bring his discussion in the next part of this series of articles.

For now, we can see that there has been more of a will to frame English Freemasonry into the Continental understanding of “Masonic rite” than an accurate perception of this system on its own terms. More than a historical filigree, to understand a group on its own terms, idioms and customs is key to any historical analysis. However, more on that in the next part.

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