The other day I went to the Freemasons’ Hall to say hello to a few colleagues (five years of research in their archives and counting) and to attend a Quatuor Coronati meeting. I was truly impressed with the new Café: spacious, bright, drinks and coffee in separated stands and crews, comfortable seats. I sat with a pint and thought about how easier my Ph.D. research would have been if I had a pub to gather my thoughts inside Freemasons’ Hall. However, I decided to do what we do nowadays: to text my excitement to a friend.
Me: We need to schedule a trip to the Freemason’s Hall in London. They even have a café now.
Friend: My God!!! A secret society with a cafe?!?!! What’s next a crèche?
Me: Well, a shop? Hahaha. (Trying to cover my shame after having my excitement bashed by my friend’s view of how Freemasonry should present itself)
My friend is not alone. A number of masons and non-masons have been treating the recent efforts to make Freemasonry more accessible with derision. One can only ask why since the public always demanded transparency from Freemasonry, even though not understanding why they are demanding it, most of the time. At the same time, Freemasons often claim to be treated with prejudice or suspicion if they reveal their membership. So, what is potentially ludicrous about the whole PR strategy of the UGLE? Maybe the ontological awkwardness of something traditional trying to acquire new clothes and present itself to the “youngsters”, or absorbing new interpretations of old doctrines. One example, to use the Catholic Church again, is the Charismatic Renewal, a movement that started in 1967 and that was highly impacted by American Protestantism. The charismatic renewal became the main bridge between young people and the catholic faith.
From the enigmatic “to be one, ask one” to the more traditional marketing strategy of “apply here”.
Such strategy has proven effective, for instance, in 2007, 54% of the Latino Catholics were charismatic,1 however, one may argue that, still, the selling point of Catholicism is tradition. A non-stop apostolic chain from Peter to Jorge, a headquarters that runs in their own version of temporal time, an Estate where the official language is Latin, a place where decisions take more time and are often taken behind closed doors. Although the charismatic renovation is being responsible to keep the catholic trenches within steady numbers, their fair representation cannot be seen in the college of cardinals, the top priests who, among other things, elect the new Pope.
And what does this have to do with Freemasonry? A similar trade-off between tradition and renovation. According to the numbers of UGLE’s National Digital Marketing Campaign, in almost a year of an increased digital presence, they received 2.516 enquires, and had a result of 989 membership leads. However, it is impossible to qualify what these new potential members are seeking within Freemasonry. Even though the UGLE has been championing progressive positions, there is a backlog that makes the sole act of joining Freemasonry a potential political statement. This is true, especially for people who used to not see much difference between the Apostolic Palace and the number 60 at Great Queen Street.
According to public opinion (this amorphous and ideological entity), the backlog that I mention would be in two aspects of the matter: secrecy and aspects of its sociability. These two topics can be quite hazy; however, we need to address them in order to understand the ways sought for promoting this aggiornamento.
Even if you are not a Roman Catholic, you are familiar with one outcome of the Second Vatican Council that came about in the Holy See from October 1962 to December 1965. This outcome is the aggiornamento, an Italian word popularized during that period meaning “bringing up to date”. Most of the current Catholic masses and practices reverberates the aggiornamento that took place after the council. Priests facing the congregation, celebrating the mass in vernacular, singing pentatonic tunes, even priests recording and selling albums, all of this would not take place before the Second Vatican Council and its aggiornamento.
Freemasonry is not a religion, but it is a tricentenary institution at least its most ancient body, the Grand Lodge, based in London, nowadays the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE). As any old institution based on tradition, regardless of how and when they were invented, Freemasonry suffered with the acceleration of history brought by the end of the Second World War. If a century ago Freemasonry carried within and around the values of the British Empire, nowadays the institution suffers backlashes due to the very same reasons.
The past three years have been full of journalists, critics, academics and even some Freemasons pointing out issues with the way the Craft is conducted, portrayed and displayed. From critics arguing that Freemasons should not occupy public positions to others claiming that Freemasonry has gone “woke”; the masonic aggiornamento is a reality.
The UGLE may be regarded as a Masonic Vatican for a more traditional branch of Freemasonry. It is fair to say that they carry the flag of Freemasonry as being a Teist, Royalist, male-only sociability. As much as the UGLE repeatedly highlights the diversity of masonic institutions in England (Order of Women Freemasons (OWF) and the Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons (HFAF) and so on ), there is little doubt that even its critics see the UGLE as being the most traditional branch, therefore ‘the original’ Freemasonry.
It is important to highlight that academics, including the author of this post, advocate for a broader interpretation of Freemasonry, mostly as a practice with several possible combinations. A more holistic view of the masonic phenomenon demonstrates that the term “freemasonries” is more accurate than its singular form. Being so, in a logical effect, holding the UGLE as accountable for more representative or progressive values, even when there are other forms of masonic practice, is to give them the sceptre of masonic authority. Great Queen Street became, somehow, the Masonic Holy See.
As everything in Freemasonry, a Bible reference is needed. Here, the parable of the faithful servant (Luke 12:48) is suitable. The lesson of that story is mostly known under the name of Peter Parker principle “with great power comes great responsibility”. The idea is similar: UGLE’s Freemasonry stood for a pattern of masonic practice, called ‘regular’ by its practitioners, and now sees itself obliged to update some of its policies.
The changes in their headquarters have been largely publicised, mostly by their own Public Relations Team. However, the changes in the structure of the UGLE are something far more interesting from a historic point of view. In 2018, a physician, Dr. David Staples, was hired to be UGLE’s first CEO. Yes, a Chief Executive Officer, that would now offer the guidelines for everything that happens outside the four lines of the ritualistic world. Although not publicised, and not understood by most media, the creation of a parallel structure to manage “the business of Freemasonry” was a shift in the history of Friendly and Fraternal Societies.
The changes within the UGLE, its charities, headquarters, and lodges under its jurisdiction around the world are sundry. The administrative structure of the UGLE was further parted from the masonic, i.e., ritualistic, administration, meaning a professionalization of procedures, responses and compliance. Therefore, the positions created within the administrative structure, and the existent ones that became vacant, were largely advertised and professionals were hired for them (very rarely were these professionals Freemasons). The Museum of Freemasonry, already equipped with a team of professionals, was revamped and reshaped to better serve public research and to reinforce Freemasonry as part of British and world history, and not a world apart. In July 2018, a Gender Reassignment Policy was issued, ruling, among other details that transgender women may stay in their masonic lodges and transgender men may apply for initiation. Recently, dietary requirements are being accommodated at dinners (vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, etc.). And yet, the UGLE went out to the public to confront accusations, its accusers, and to promote Freemasonry, inviting people to see “who we are and what we do” in the words of Dr. Staples, also present on the institution’s annual report, the first in 300 years.
This sets up the scenario for us to dive into the Masonic Aggiornamento. More than a curiosity or its social implications, this is a chance to take a critical look to the history of Freemasonry. Let’s not miss it.
For a concise history of the Second Vatican Council: Alberigo, Giuseppe. A Brief History of Vatican II (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2005). To understand the structure of the Vatican: Reese, Thomas J. Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).
Some examples are Foster, Dawn. “Secret Freemasons Should Have No Place in Public Life.” The Guardian, 5 Feb. 2018 and Shute, Joe. “Millennials and Vegans welcome: Have the Freemasons gone ‘woke’?” The Telegraph, 26 Jun. 2021.
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), 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.
 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)
Before reading this post, I advise you to read (or re-read) part 1, and part 2. Otherwise, it will not make much sense.
Continuing the “quest” for definitions of rite, we start with no less than Albert Mackey. His life is worthy of a full post, dedicated to his talents and deeds. Suffices to say that Mackey was a physician, a journalist, and most importantly, an educator. Mackey dedicated most of his life to the study of languages, the middle ages, and Freemasonry, among other topics.
From his extensive bibliography, I picked two that will fit our purpose here: find definitions that were written to be definitions. For the distance of both works in time, it is also interesting to notice the adjustments made by Mackey. In the first work selected, “A Lexicon of Freemasonry” (1845, but the quote is from 13th ed. 1869), he defined Rite in a paragraph constituted of two phrases. In the first one, he defines rite in masonry, in the second one, a Masonic rite. Although complementary, they bring different pieces of information.
“RITE. A modification of masonry, in which the three ancient degrees and their essentials being preserved, there are varieties in the ceremonies, and number and names of the additional degrees. A masonic rite is, therefore, in accordance with the general signification of the word, the method, order, and rules, observed in the performance and government of the masonic system.” (p.410)
Here, Mackey brings a word that will be mingled with rite quite often across masonic literature: system. However, Mackey brought the term without specifying what he meant by “Masonic system”. But let’s fast forward some years and consult Mackey’s masterpiece “Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry and Its Kindred Sciences” (1873), in which he establishes a more concise, and polished definition.
“Rite. A method of conferring Masonic light by a collection and distribution of degrees. It is, in other words, the method and order observed in the government of a Masonic system.” (vol.2, p.626)
To match our previous post, it is pivotal to bring an English author with his definition of rite. He was writing at almost the same time, but on the other side of the pond. A. F. A. Woodford was one of these nineteenth-century Freemasons that through research took the Order to another level. Besides being a reverend of the Anglican Church, Woodford was an avid Masonic practitioner and researcher. He was behind the formation of the Quatuor Coronati Lodge, and of English publications on Freemasonry, such as “Freemasons” and “Masonic Magazine”. The publisher of these two magazines, George Kenning, sought the editorial niche of Freemasonry and issued the “Kenning’s Masonic Cyclopaedia”, in 1878. The book was edited by Woodford, by the time a Past Grand Chaplain of the UGLE, and shows a view as authorial as well-supported of the topics to be defined. He wrote
“Rite – 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. Some of us may be disposed to reject this multiplication of Rites; others may look favourably upon some, at any rate; and therefore, in a work of reference, we have to mention them, whether we approve of them or not, whether we believe in them or not. It is impossible to give all here, as it would, we think, be profitless. Some say there are 108 rites and 1400 grades; but many of them are clearly only quasi-Masonic, and some not Masonic at all. We therefore only propose to give today those we have considered in our studies, or which our readers are likely to meet with in Masonic works…” pp.578-579
Other works, like “The Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia” (1877), by Kenneth Mackenzie, just bring some considerations about rites (as something implicit) without any definition other than the dictionary one. However, the theme “rites”, or “rituals” for that matter, gained several publications over the twentieth century. A list of these works would be fascinating but terribly extenuating. Let’s fast forward to 2014, to a chapter on the “Handbook of Freemasonry”named “Masonic Rites and Systems” written by one of the finest researchers on Freemasonry of this day and age: Mr. Arturo de Hoyos.
As in any handbook, de Hoyos had few pages to give an introductory, but deep, account of that topic. Instead of a single definition, he broadened the explanation, showing the differences of understanding that “rite” could acquire to Freemasonry, and for Freemasons. Nevertheless, he inserted in the title the word systems, as a separated although conjoined matter: “Masonic Rites and Systems”. I shall go back to that in the next post.
For now, it is important to close this series on definitions of Masonic Rite. I strongly advise everyone to read de Hoyos’ chapter (actually, the whole book is precious) since, to the purpose of my reasoning, I will be cherry-picking some of the definitions for “rite’ that he offers. After the lexicographic definition, de Hoyos informs, among other things:
“There are two main types of rites in Freemasonry: (1) a procedure with a symbolic or defining nature, such as the rites of circumambulation, discalceation, or investiture, which may be grouped to form a larger ceremony (or degree), and (2) the linking of masonic degrees, for initiation or instruction, under administrative or governmental authority. This chapter focuses on the latter application. […] In a general sense a Rite is any number of degrees grouped together. A Rite may be compared with a staircase, which is comprised of individual steps. The steps represent individual masonic degrees, whereas the staircase as a whole is analogous to a Rite. The degrees of a Rite will usually, although not always, have a numerical designation or fixed position on a calendar or schedule. The Rite may be further divided into sub-organizations (‘lodges’, ‘chapters’, ‘councils’,and so on), just as a staircase may be divided by a number of ‘landings’ which connect the stairs between floors. The degrees which comprise a Rite may be arranged in a particular sequence for any number of reasons, including mythology, chronology and/or tradition, or they may appear to be unrelated to each other, having been derived from various sources, or having been aggregated at different times.” pp.355-356
It is possible to verify how Arturo de Hoyos condensed and sophisticated the definition of Rite to comprise all the variations of conferring Masonic degrees. However, in the same article, he points out some differences that I understand as pivotal for a narrower definition of Masonic rite. In the next post, I will try to condense these understandings of Masonic Rite and check what these same authors have to say about the existence of an “English Rite”.
In the last post, I have introduced the question of whether there is an “English Rite”. As I also stated in the previous text that the inverted commas and the questioning itself are enough to show that I am casting doubt over an expression that is used by some researchers, and some Freemasons.
I demonstrated, briefly, the definitions of the word rite in the dictionary and that such definitions were enough for us to say that yes, there is an “English Rite”. However, Freemasonry is complex as any old institution, have a history, vocabulary, idioms, customs of its own, and on top of that, the broadening of the Masonic phenomenon across the globe added some more terms, customs, degrees, etc.
So, a next step is trying to establish what a Masonic Rite is, mostly for the Freemasons. For this purpose, some Masonic reference works should be used. I will bring them forward in chronological order so it will be possible to follow the development of this understanding of rite for Freemasonry.
Of course, this small research is far from exhaustive, being limited by works which I have instant access to and that bring some definition of rite. Like the “A Dictionary of Symbolical Masonry”, from 1853, which was “compiled from the best Masonic authorities” by the Rev G. Oliver. According to the title page “A Past Deputy Grand Master, and Honorary Member of Many Private Lodges and Literary Societies; Author of ‘The Historical Landmarks of Freemasonry’ Etc. Etc.”
In his definition it is possible to see the bifold interpretation that will prevail, as a structure, to explain until today what is a Masonic rite. Oliver wrote that a rite “is an item in the ceremonial of conferring degrees” (p.311), that is, every Masonic meeting is formed by a set of small rites put together. In the English case, examples would be the procession, the circumambulation, the opening of the lodge, etc. To this definition he added “[…] although in some countries it is extended to include a number of degrees and orders, as in the French rite ‘ancien et accepté’ which comprehends […]” (p.311) then enlisting some of the degrees of that rite.
Robert Macoy was one of these American phenomena when it comes to Freemasonry. Not only was he a prominent Mason, but also the founder of a Masonic publishing and supply company. Like that was not enough, Macoy is also known for his “General History, Cyclopaedia and Dictionary of Freemasonry”, first published in 1870, with several other editions until today. In the encyclopaedic part of his work, he expands the definition of (Masonic) rite, after giving a dictionarist definition, like I did, adding: “Freemasonry, although uniform and immutable, in its principles and general laws, exists, nevertheless, in a variety of methods or forms, which are called rites.” (p.326)
According to Macoy, we could characterize rite as one method or form in which Freemasonry presents itself. One out of many. Further, he concludes that these differences are unimportant since they don’t affect in the least the fundamental plans of the order, nor disturb their harmony. Still, he writes about “legal” rites, implying the existence of “illegal” ones. In its first edition, available at the webpage of the Hathi Trust (hathitrust.org), on the “dictionary part” of his work, he republished Rev. G. Oliver’s “A Dictionary of Symbolical Masonry”.
It worth remarking that Oliver was an English Freemason and Macoy an American Freemason. More than cultural differences, there were dissimilarities of Masonic practices between the two authors. Oliver is careful to put (Masonic) rite as a collection of degrees and orders, as something practiced in “some countries”. Although rather insignificant now, we will highlight this information again in the future. Macoy, adopts a more ecumenical stance towards Freemasonry which will characterize the American Craft (South, Central, and North American) until today. We will get back to that as well.
Coming next… Mackey, Kenning, and others
 I refer here to word combinations that have a different figurative meaning
Going for conferences on Freemasonry is not just an opportunity to learn, meet researchers, establish a network, make friends, meet brethren and taking pictures in which you look very important. It is also a chance to spot where the research community on Freemasonry agrees or disagrees, which topics are getting more attention, so on and so forth. As I wrote in my first post, the “disagreements” show the multiplicity of Freemasonry as a Social Fact, and as a cultural phenomenon.
Alas, most disagreements do not come from a theoretical or literary (in the bibliographical sense) concern. Often, researchers just cling onto the bits they agree on and overlook the parts they disagree on. A “kind of inverted” situation from the strictly academic seminars, the conferences of Freemasonry tend to spread the beauty of fraternal tolerance to situations in which questions and disputes are just not desirable, but necessary. For the sake of research to progress.
In a review for a Brazilian Journal, I wrote: “researchers on Freemasonry are separated by a common theme”. And what I want to say with that? That we lack a higher dose of conceptual uniformity, due to the multiplicity of “Freemasonries”, but more so, due to the perception that the reality, analysis, and vocabulary of one branch – the ones one knows – are automatically applicable to others.
This leads to the expansion of terms that, besides not being accurate, are widely spread since the Masons think “It is not actually like this, but my public knows what I’m talking about” and the non-masons think “It is accurate since the Freemasons themselves are using it”. Well, I cannot highlight enough that research on History, is like any other, in the sense that: on one hand, we need to establish consensus, on the other hand, we need to challenge the ones that we think (based on at least some acceptable, non-diversionist, rationale) are wrong.
That being said, I would like to develop with you, my dear reader, a question to which the answer will be barbarically transformed into one footnote one day. The question is: Is there an English Rite?
My answer: Yes, and no.
Calm down, I am not intending to diverge from the question, or to offer a paradoxical response. But the answer, my answer, is not blunt. And by the inverted commas you, smart reader, can guess what it will be.
If we look in any dictionary, the answer is yes, there is an “English Rite”. Consulting our good old Oxford Dictionary, we find, among other definitions “solemn ceremony or act” (check), “set of customary practices” (check), and come on! The word comes from the Latin ritus, meaning “(religious) usage” (definitely check!).
So, now that we did our Sunday research, we can go home happy, there is an English Rite. But wait, if you check my previous post (wink wink), you will see that we should be more cautious. Let’s “slice” the question: what rite means (great, we did that); what a “masonic rite” means (uuhh); do the English Freemasons understand themselves as being part of a “Masonic Rite”? (hummm) And, finally, is there an “English Rite”?
I could call upon my Masonic practice, but it is always better to offer a less biased (and less solipsistic) way of answering it. Let’s check what masonic dictionaries and Encyclopaedias say about Rite, and/or Masonic Rite. And, spoiler alert, they are going to beat the hell out of my proposition.