What originally did I join Freemasonry for? Comradeship. In that, I think I have a lot in common with many an aspirant. At the time of my initiation, I had only a hazy idea about the spirituality, the esoteric side. I had not done much research. True, I had been fascinated by Walton Hannah’s attack on Freemasonry Darkness Visible. Incidentally, I often wonder if Fr. Hannah knew that his book might encourage people to become Freemasons.
What I had been told was that the lodge I was to join was a lodge of ritualists, and the idea of taking part in an arcane ceremonial sent a small frisson of excitement through me. But no, it was the prospect of closer comradeship with, I hoped, like-minded people that really attracted me. It goes without saying that I had little idea about hierarchy, beyond knowing that there was a Master who govemed the lodge with his Wardens; still less did I know about promotions and adornments of elaborate regalia.
Of course I was soon disabused of my naivety. The attention paid to giving precedence to Grand Ranks in the 1960s was enormous. And still earlier in the lodge’s history, I found that it had been the practice, in the 20s and 30s, for ‘junior’ Brethren to address those holding Grand Rank as ‘Sir’, and for them to address the ‘junior’ Brother by surname only, as in a boys’ boarding school, without even the benefit of the title ‘Brother’.
Well, that sort of thing has changed, and a good thing too. But it would be a mistake to suppose that, as an Order, we have ceased to be obsessed by rank. At the close of a meeting of one of the London Groups recently, the Chairman asked, despairingly, if there were any further questions, but not to do with promotion. London, of course, is rather better off than the Provinces, in not automatically commuting active ranks to past ranks, and indeed in not awarding past ranks like confetti in the first place. But the constant hankering after rank in all parts of the country seems not to have abated, however enlightened we seem to have become.
Up until the last issue of Freemasonry Today, at least, some of our readers seemed to share this obsession. I say some of them, because my own postbag bears ample testimony to the fact that for many of our readers the subject of promotion is profoundly boring. I had an email not so long ago from a Brother who said ‘It would be nice if we could rid our wonderful Craft of masonic graffiti. I love Masonry, and all it stands for,’ he continued. ‘But more and more I am dismayed by the number of Brethren I encounter who seem hell-bent on seeking rank, not as a way to serve, but to bolster their ego.’
There are two aspects to a Grand Lodge or Provincial Grand Lodge opening and closing, involving as they do very complex arrangements for processing in and out. On the surface, it looks very much like pomp and circumstance. But of course ceremonial plays a crucial part in everything we do as Freemasons. The opening of Grand Lodge is as much a way of raising our consciousness as is the opening of any private lodge. If we can concentrate on that, we may be getting somewhere.
But, sadly, there are some for whom rank and precedence are the essential part of this. As Freemasons, we lay great stress on the importance of the Centre, that being a point in ourselves from which we cannot err. To know your centre is crucial, but it is important to distinguish between self-centredness, which may be largely egotistical, and being centred on yourself, which is to know and understand yourself, what we might call self-awareness or self-validation. In our ceremonial, our aim is to become centred on ourselves and the group of which we form a part. In rank-and-precedence scenarios, the aim, I am afraid, may all too often be self-importance.
All this sounds rather negative. But let me say that it is always revealing and heartening to see how many Freemasons happily pursue their masonic tasks without any thought of personal reward. Of this, my postbag also bears ample testimony. These Freemasons are those for whom the inscription on the Round Table in the film Camelot is true: ‘In seeking to serve others, we become free’. And as Free-Masons, what could be more worthy of aspiration than freedom?
Another two quotes come to my mind. One is from the Pro Grand Master of UGLE in his inspiring talk Whither Directing our Course at last summer’s Cornerstone Conference. He said, ‘I have read many booklets produced by different Provinces to explain Freemasonry to their candidates. So many of them, however, deal with the form and etiquette of the Craft and do not give any real explanation of its purpose and content.’ He was at pains to remind us that we need to understand what our Craft is and what it does for us as individuals. My second quote does in a way mirror the first. A young Freemason, initiated not long ago, was told by a Past Master of his lodge before an installation meeting: ‘What goes on in there is all theatre. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a show’ Happily, not many Freemasons subscribe to that view.
Let’s get down and get to grips with this potentially wonderful system. Let’s forget self-promotion. Let’s clean up the graffiti, open up, and think for ourselves.