Poking the Beehive: Is there an “English Rite”? (Part V – final)

©The Two Crafts

Before reading this one, I suggest reading part I, part IIpart III, and part IV

Why all this fuzz about the existence or not of an “English Rite”? We are losing ourselves in semantics, some would say. Well, I can even agree if we are talking about Freemasonry for the practitioner – in this case, a Freemason. For a member of a lodge in Bristol or in Kent, the name by which his rituals are called may be of less or no importance since they are performing it regardless. But before I make a case for the importance of definitions for any academic (or just committed) study, let me address the significance it has for Freemasons.

Clifford Geertz, an American anthropologist, published in 1973 a book called “The interpretation of cultures”. This work was a game changer not just for the Anthropological Studies but its effects were felt in the field of Historical Studies as well. From all the important ideas that he put forward in this book we can pick some to explain why the concept of “masonic rite” is important, also why it is also crucial to know if this concept may be applied to the English system of Freemasonry, and last but not least, if English Freemasons recognise themselves in this concept that is a Masonic rite.

In the aforementioned book, to oppose the Structural Anthropology of Claude-Levi Strauss, Geertz proposed an Interpretative Anthropology, and what that means? Among other things, Geertz states that an interpretation should not distance from what is happening, that is to say, from the object of study. He also alerts that to understand a culture it is not necessary to become a “native”, but that it is indeed necessary to talk to them, to understand, to get a grip of their concepts. That’s why the conceptual precision is so important and rigorous in the interpretative anthropology, and by extension, in History nowadays.

That being said, I will bring my own experience that was not ethnographical in its nature, but that has an ethnographical value, especially for this topic. I am from Brazil, so, on a regular basis, some Freemason asks me how’s Freemasonry in Brazil. And guess what part is the hardest, almost impossible, one to explain? Yes, the notion of “Rite”. Because for the so-called “Continental Freemasonry” the concept of rite is crucial since the Craft degrees are worked into a rite tradition, there is to say, the Craft degrees are basic degrees of a bigger system which works vertically. For English Freemasonry, rite is an alien concept, overall when referring to the Craft degrees. Does that mean that there are no rites in England? No, they exist, but a rite is one path out of many possibilities allowed by the English system.

The notion of Rite is laudable in its ecumenicity, however, I understand to be inaccurate when it comes to the structure of English Freemasonry. There are rites – i.e. a group of degrees conferred inside a particular order in an established sequence – inside the English system. An English Freemason may join the A&AR (Ancient and Accepted Rite)[1], for instance. Nonetheless, after the Craft degrees, the Freemason is not obliged to progress in a particular path. Some will say that the English Master Mason is strongly encouraged to join the Holy Royal Arch and etc. Notwithstanding this fact, a Master Mason can join, after one year, the A&AR, or the Order of Mark Master Masons, or the SRIA, or the Royal Order of Scotland… The point is: there is not a vertical, necessary, mandatory sequence.

The other point is that the “higher degrees” in the English System work inside Orders, rather than in the body of a rite controlling them all. Most of these Orders work from one (as the Holy Royal Arch) to five degrees (as the Allied Masonic Degrees), and every order, or the combination of association in two of them may serve as pre-requisite to join even other bodies. Some will see in that evidence to suffice the name “rite”, but again, we have to remember the history of Freemasonry and its rites. Most rites started as a group of degrees already existent, and that was at some point compiled, enhanced and organized to give it a structure and a philosophical rationale.

What I aim to expose here is a view seeking more accuracy, what is always needed in academia, and I believe that it is very welcome in any other field, professional or amateur. There is nothing terribly wrong in calling what happens in England (or places that emulate this system) as “English Rite”, however, it may lead (and by personal experience, I can say it did) to an understanding that there is a mandatory or enchained sequence between the rites and orders that compose the English system.

The notion of rite is ubiquitous, as I tried to demonstrate in this sequence of posts. Also, the notion of rite is really dear to most Freemasons because it eases things out. Nevertheless, it can work as a pitfall when we are in need of understanding a specific Masonic system, different from the ones that we know. To exemplify: it is like to arrive in someone else’s house and presume that they eat the same things as your family does, that they call their dog by the same name, that they go for vacations to the same places, etc, just because they are a family (like yours) and because they live in a house (like you).

Names are not just a tag, they are embedded in values, notions, and meanings. As it is often said, “if everything is art, nothing is art”. So, if every set of rituals in Freemasonry is a rite, so nothing is a rite. In order to study something, sometimes we need generalizations and sometimes specifications. However, the generalizations cannot lead to massification, flattening obvious differences, and the specifications cannot single out to the point of becoming the knowledge of the object impossible.

Research and my amateur “ethnographic” experience in England led me to understand that what exists in England is a system of Freemasonry. This system fosters rites and orders, but it is a stretch to call the whole ensemble of the English Freemasonry, a rite. However, I don’t criticize the efforts made in the past to propagate the English system by calling it a rite. Hughan and others did an amazing work “translating” how the passage of degrees and other aspects of the Craft were conducted in England.

Nevertheless, since then, masonic studies grew in importance, scope, and complexity. It is about time for us researchers, amateurs and professionals, to be more thorough with the specifics of Freemasonry. At the same time, the tools offered by theory (of humanities and social sciences) may be used to understand this phenomenon that it is far from being “niche” or for Freemasons’ only.

[1] In England, the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite is normally called “Ancient and Accepted Rite”, my guess is that it is called this way to not be confused with the workings under Scottish Constitution (GloS)

A good, but not exhaustive, representation of the English Masonic System.

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