Bad Craftsmen always blame their tools! By Mike Lawrence

A defence against those brethren that consider our ritual cumbersome and archaic.


I don’t know how many times I have heard brethren absolve themselves from poor ritual delivery by claiming that it is archaic, repetitive and boring.  Then come the other excuses that those claimants make which suggest that our new initiates leave because of it.  This is closely followed by the debate that it causes the meetings to go on to long.

Well my friends, I must vehemently contest such complaints with the riposte that so many of our problems lie in the disorganisation of our DC’s, the unnecessary matters emanating from the Secretaries table and the monotone verbiage of some of our W.M.’s.

If you then couple this with the difficulty that many brethren face when trying to repeat verbatim, each ceremonial part and the subsequent poor presentation we have to suffer, it all goes to set us up for immediate failure.

Like so many, I am not adverse to the review or reform of any of our practices, but the claims by some about our ritual are by no means unusual, but neither are they insurmountable.  It fact, if we all took Freemasonry a little more serious, we would solve so many of the problems highlighted.

For example, it is neither rare nor uncommon for mature brethren to nod off during any proceedings, but this is not due to the ritual.  I have witnessed this during church services, theatres, cinemas, seminars, etc.

It is not through boredom, lack of attention, nor medical condition, just that which dictates that elderly people rest more frequent than their younger counterparts.  However, when younger brethren sleep during the ceremony it is generally through inebriation, total lack of interest and little or no understanding of what is going on.

Shutting one’s eyes during a ceremony to concentrate does not constitute sleeping and I know several brethren who, as they progress through the offices of the lodge, use this method to learn the ritual by repeating it in their heads the words along with whatever officer is speaking.

The problem is that very few brethren choose to learn no more about this noble science than that which is contained in their little ritual book.  This means that many brethren hear and repeat words and phrases, and carry out actions that they have no idea where they originated.

Yes! It may be said that much of the ritual which we practice today may be two hundred years old, but ask yourself this – Where did it originate?  What you will find is that so much of it predates not only the 1813 Union, but  also the 1717 formation of Grand Lodge.  In fact, much of it originates from the Old MS Charges of which some dated from c.1390.

If only lodges would use the Lodge of Instruction to do exactly that. Instruct!  Each lodge should be able to provide their candidate with a comprehensive reading list and study programme of instruction and training of which the net result would enliven all that we do.

That is where we let the new initiates down, we send them home that evening with no more than a Book of Constitutions, a copy of the lodge bye-laws and a list of second degree questions of which they have little or no knowledge about.

With regard to the lengthy Installation ceremony, all proceedings can be modified slightly without detracting from the ethos of the event.  All good DC’s with the co-operation of Lodge officers and Past Masters should be able perform a crisp ceremony with good continuity and succinct presentation.  The key lies in the Lodge of Rehearsal.  Such a ceremony warrants several rehearsals to ensure perfection.  Unfortunately, many Past Masters asked to perform certain parts of the ceremony, consider that attendance at rehearsals are beneath them.

While on the subject of ritual delivery, it is facetious to suggest, as many do, that it is no more than an admirable piece of theatre.  If that is the belief, then surely most of us should perhaps conduct ourselves like actors and put more effort into leaning our lines.  It’s a churlish suggestion, although I would propose that a dialogue coach would not go amiss.

When a brother stumbles mid-sentence, we are never short of rude brethren who try to correct him, often times so loud that it causes embarrassment to all. That behaviour also undermines that appointed officer who normally carries out that particular role as discreet as possible and generally by previous arrangement or signal.

As so many brethren are intimidated by the activities of learning and delivering the ritual, we obviously let our brethren down by not providing good teaching, training and learning methods, and this I consider should be another priority.

Minutes of the previous meeting, along with a brief report from the Almoner and Charity Steward could be sent prior to the meeting along with the summons.  This would reduce the business from the secretaries table and other officers who often believe that after two hours of Masonic ceremony, brethren cannot wait to hear from them.  I always get the impression that so many brethren need their ‘five-minutes’ of fame.

It is the inverted snobbery and pomposity of senior brethren, and all lodges have them, that is slowly affecting the membership of the Craft.  Having said that, we must also acknowledge that all age-old institutions are currently being affected by numbers joining, Freemasonry being no exception to this.

The improvement of our ceremonies lies in the hands of our past-Masters, to coach, encourage and train officers and members.  It also rests upon us all to maintain standards of decorum and dignity and to conduct ourselves with solemnity while in open lodge.  Also that we ‘put-in’ 110% in learning any assignment we may be asked to carry out and to earnestly seek help if needs be, otherwise we should gracefully decline.  There is nothing more embarrassing to a candidate than to see a brother struggling to deliver a piece of ill-learnt ritual.  How selfish we can be sometimes.

Having said that, we have all heard well rehearsed ritual. I recall the time when one brother was so enthusiastic with his delivery of the second degree tracing board lecture that those present felt sure he was about to let the Ephramites win!

Joking aside, if ritual needs be read for clearer understanding and accuracy then so be it, but please lets not blame it, alter it or modernise it just because we ourselves cannot deliver it with the respect, the learning and the understanding it demands.


Filed under Freemasonry, Masonic, Masonic Ritual, Masonic Traditions, Uncategorized

8 responses to “Bad Craftsmen always blame their tools! By Mike Lawrence

  1. Trev C

    Another excellent and thought provoking article Mike

  2. Stephen

    Some good points but also the reiteration of what is so wrong with the Fraternity today. It is not the ritual, the delivery of it, or its age. The finger pointing inside our Lodges is killing us. The Master should have done this, the Past Masters should have done that, why didn’t the Secretary do whatever… As a Past Master and sitting Secretary I can attest that both officers are overwhelmed and doing the best they can. Have you offered to help either? Have you picked up the phone and called a Brother that hasn’t been to Lodge recently? Did you notify anyone of the upcoming degree? Did you write a sympathy letter to a widow? How about tracking down someone that didn’t pay their dues, or a 50 year AWG member you never heard of? Oh well, that’s THEIR responsibility anyways, and by the way why didn’t they do better at ________….

  3. There is nothing wrong with our ritual that needs updating. What needs updating is our comprehension of it and a demand that our own members understand and teach others.

    I honestly believe the greatest disservice we have done to the Craft of the 21st century is to provide more and more printed material for the learning of the ritual, instead of the centuries-old mouth to ear method of instruction. When taught by a GOOD Mentor who truly understands the ritual and what it actually says and means, that method passes along the understanding that solitary reading and rote memorization cannot.

    Delivering ritual effectively is nothing but public oratory or acting, something fewer and fewer of our new members have ever encountered in life before. And EVERY actor needs feedback from an audience or a critic to improve. But no audience member or critic ever said to an actor after a performance, “You did great. You memorized every word perfectly.”

    In a perfect world, a Mentor should not just be another Brother who repeats the words. A serious Mentor has made a study of the work, has looked up the words that were unfamiliar, has read the Biblical passages that much of it sprang from, and sought more understanding on his own. A Mentor can gently remind you to say “trowel,” not “traaal.” A Mentor can stop and explain what “vices and superfluities” are (or “knobs and excrescences,” if that’s your local variant). Or tell you what a hecatomb was, and why anyone sacrificed one. Or what that whole single-shoe business was about in the Book of Ruth. A Mentor can tell you WHY we do what we do. A Mentor becomes a guide, a friend, an acting coach, a drama critic, and an older brother who has gone this way before to lead you, just as surely as the Senior Deacon once did. A cipher or a printed ritual can do NONE of that, and this fraternity was never intended to be practiced and reinforced as a solitary activity.

    • You make some interesting points, but did you know that ritual aide memoirs have been in use since 1696, so I think they are more of an institution than we realise. I do agree however that some form of coaching would be good, but ritual no longer is the flavour of the month and many lodges are just happy enough to get through the ceremony.

  4. Of course I’m well aware that the biggest purchasers of Masonic ritual exposés since 1700 have been Freemasons themselves trying to memorize the work. Personally, I despised memorization myself, and have never claimed to be any good at it. But I freely chalk 50% of that up to having zero assistance from anyone, and being left entirely on my own to learn it. I had to seek out fully printed substitutes from the outside world because I had no choice. We had just one Past Master in our lodge who truly knew all three degrees, top to bottom, and delivered them with emotion, conviction and understanding. But as a result of a decimated officer’s line, we had to take drastic steps. I was short-sheeted into a one-day event, and I was advanced FAR faster into the East than I ever should have been.

    That said, that one Past Master became a model for at least two of us to emulate. The impact of the way he delivered his parts was what we both sought to achieve, in spite of the speed and crutches we had to use to memorize the words. Consequently, I know what I missed by not having a true Mentor to learn each degree part from. To this day, I am deficient in far too much because I never had to learn everything, and learn it well. Instead of rote memorization of all three degrees, I concentrated on coming to an understanding of what those words meant, where they came from, their intent, their history. That’s a different kind of learning that’s just as important, but I wish I had the words in my head to go along with it.

    Not the “Flavor of the Month”? Perhaps not, but it’s not unimportant either, because a man only experiences the three degrees once in his lifetime. If we his brethren dilute or shrug off the importance of that, then shame on us. None of us joined a memorization club, and a successful Masonic lodge is certainly made up of something much greater than just the delivery of its ritual. But that ritual is a vital part, a supporting leg, a link in the chain that connects us to what came three centuries ago, and more. Let’s not blow it.

    • I think the most important issue here is that each Brother is encouraged to achieve his full potential, but sadly not everyone can be a Laurence Olivier or Richard Burton, but once they have accepted the appointment they must ‘put-in’ 100% effort, but this should be met by 100% support from the Lodge and its Officers.
      The other issue you rightly raise is one of education. How do we educate our people to understand what they are saying? If we manage that then they will own every word of their delivery and not just spout rote-learned words.
      Many, many years ago when I was learning the answers to the questions in readiness to receive the Degree of a Fellowcraft, I kept repeating the following answer wrong:
      “Just, upright and free men…”
      I kept saying “Just upright and free men…” Missing the comma, which small nuance or pause gives a completely different meaning to the phrase, i.e.
      ‘Just,’ with a comma means a person that is fair or impartial etc., as opposed to ‘just’ without a comma, meaning just about.
      My proposer pointed out the difference and from that day on, I realised each pause, hesitation or nuance we add to our delivery makes a whole lot of difference.

      • Then there’s the age old proposal of ADDING a comma “To learn to subdue my passions and improve myself in Masonry” vs. “To learn, to subdue my passions, and improve myself in Masonry.” 🙂

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