The Future of Masonic Ritual

by WBro Larry Porter, WM, 18th March 2006

Slides:The Future of Masonic Ritual

Slide 1. The Future of Masonic Ritual

Brethren, the subject of my address this afternoon is a rather speculative one: "the future of Masonic ritual".

The present form of our ritual, certainly within the United Grand Lodge of England, has remained largely unchanged for the past 200 or so years. There have of course been some changes but the overall content and language has remained reasonably intact.

But, as we look forward into the future, what will happen over the next twenty, fifty or a hundred years? Will the ritual continue pretty much as it is, with what might be described as "business as usual" gradual modifications? Or will it undergo radical change and transformation?

Slide 2: Topics

The talk today will be in three main sections. First we will look at some of the factors which might create pressures for changes to the ritual. Then we will look at some of the arguments against change. And in the third and longest section we will consider in detail some specific proposals for how change might take place.

Additionally, we will look forward briefly to how we will develop the theme of ritual change at our next meeting.

Slide 3: New Section: "Pressures for Change"

So the first section covers "pressures for change".

Slide 4: Pressures for Change

The factors which are creating pressures for change in Masonry in general - and perhaps to the ritual  in particular - are, I believe, already well understood and I'm not going to dwell on them at great length. Quite a bit of thought has gone into identifying these, not least by our own W Bro John Belton. And in a sense this talk can be seen as a natural development from John's work on "the missing Master Mason", but homing in on one particular area; the ritual.

So we'll look briefly at changing social conditions and, related to those, the reducing impact of the Masonic experience. Also at the effects of globalisation and the Internet.

And of course these pressures are taking place against a background of, and indeed may well be responsible for, declining membership.  Even without reducing membership, there might still be pressures for change to the ritual but it does add a sense of urgency to our deliberations.

Slide 5: Changing Social Conditions

The last twenty to thirty years have been marked by significant changes in the social environment in which Masonry operates. People are typically working longer and more variable hours. The use of technology such as computers and mobile phones means that much more work is done away from the workplace. This has led to a blurring of the boundary between work life and private life. Today's employer is quite happy for an employee to take a couple of hours off in the afternoon to attend his daughter's school sports day. He won't ask for the time explicitly to be made up. But there is a quid pro quo. He may expect the employee to be available on his mobile phone 16 or even 24 hours a day. For an employee of this new generation, to be incommunicado for four or five hours while he attends Lodge would be unthinkable.

Men now have more home and family responsibilities than ever before. Families have much higher expectations of dad and his involvement in every aspect of family life. When he's at home he's expected to be fully involved. It's increasingly difficult for him to find time to hide away in a bedroom or garden shed learning the ritual. And evenings out are normally spent in the company of his partner, not on some independent activity.

There is also a general air of decreasing tolerance in society. If something isn't delivering complete satisfaction, whether it be goods and services, a relationship, a club or a hobby, people are very quick to disengage. If young people are prepared to step quickly out of a relationship or marriage that isn't working well, then how much more prepared will they be to drop membership of Freemasonry if it doesn't immediately suit their tastes.

Education has also changed. Rote learning is positively discouraged. Young people are expected to rely on calculators and reference works and put their energies into thinking for themselves about the subject. Grammar and spelling accuracy are considered to be of minor importance. So how strange it must be for a young man to be asked to learn ritual and recite it verbatim. Certainly I've noticed in recent years, in working as a preceptor with enthusiastic young Masons, that they often simply can't perceive that the words they are speaking, although they convey the correct meaning, are actually different from what's in the ritual book.

Slide 6: Reduced Impact of the Experience

For a Brother who joined Masonry as late as the 1950's or even the 1960's, the night of his initiation was probably one of the most dramatic things that had happened to him in his life - or at least in his peacetime life.

Nowadays, the dramatic has become commonplace. The variety and the quality of leisure time activities available to us is stunning. If we take the cinema as an example, there was a watershed in the mid 1980's with the appearance of the first Star Wars movie where a new generation of special effects made the fantastic appear real. The development of these technologies has continued unabated and they are now available in the living room. It's not just young people: we all have very high standards for the drama, excitement and entertainment value of our leisure activities.  And it's not limited to the cinema - it has spilled over into the theatre and has perhaps its greatest expression in computer games where, as in Masonry, the individual is a participant in the drama.

But aren't computer games just for teenagers? By no means! One of the prime market segments for computer games today is men in their thirties and forties. I shared a car home the other night with a Provincial Deputy Grand Director of Ceremonies who was enthusing over his recent purchase of a PlayStation!

Contrast the increasingly high standards of the alternatives with the variable quality of our ceremonies. The quality varies most in those Lodges with a UGLE-style arrangement whereby the majority of the ritual is carried out by the Master and the Master typically changes every year. Brethren we've all experienced high-quality ceremonies and we've equally experienced low quality ones. Poorly-executed ceremonies can turn off our Candidates and newer Masons and we know that nowadays when they get turned off they are very quick to vote with their feet.

Slide 7: Globalisation and the Internet

With the increasing frequency of international travel and the advent of the Internet we are much less isolated than ever before. In particular, as Masons we have much more contact and interchange with other Masons around the world. This Lodge is a perfect example. Fifty years ago the average Brother had little experience of the practice of ritual beyond that in his own and neighbouring lodges. Nowadays many of us have experienced ritual from other Constitutions around the world and have been participants in or onlookers of discussions about ritual over the net. Gone are the days when the Lodge DC could tell you "this is the only correct way to do it".

Globalisation and the Internet is not so much a pressure for change as perhaps an enabler for change. For example, if in the future the Rulers of the Craft were to decide to introduce significant changes to the ritual, then I suspect they would encounter a much more receptive attitude in the Brethren at large than they would have in previous times.

Slide 8: New Section: "Arguments Against Change"

In the next section we are going to look at some of the arguments against change and at this point I'm only concerned with the major arguments in principle. When we come to look in detail at particular ways in which the ritual might change we will encounter many detailed arguments against specific changes. Here we'll just consider the overall arguments.

Slide 9: Arguments Against Change

We're going to look at these four major arguments against change:

  • The fashion cycle
  • the appeal of antiquity
  • there is nothing that can compete with the Masonic experience
  • and the difficulty of pulling it off convincingly

Slide 10: The Fashion Cycle

This is the argument that says we are over-reacting if we launch into major ritual change in response to the pressures listed above. That, like many endeavours, the popularity of Freemasonry is subject to a cycle. That the wheel will turn and we will see membership increase again in the future.

Also, that the answer to what will bring Freemasonry back into fashion doesn't lie in changing the ritual.  There are other factors which are likely to have a stronger effect:.

For example, suppose we were successful in attracting some really prominent members. People who are icons of their age. We can look back to what happened when Queen Victoria's son and heir, Prince Albert Edward, was initiated and went on to become a committed and enthusiastic Grand Master. Masonry became very fashionable and experienced a period of unprecedented growth. I don't know who would have an equivalent effect nowadays - perhaps a David Beckham or a Bob Geldof.

The search for a spiritual outlet is a common human theme and one that tends to run in cycles. It may be that at some time in the future when people are looking for something more spiritual in their lives that Masonry could be attractive as a provider of spiritual experience and moral values. However, as we'll see later, ritual change may have a role to play in making Masonry more attractive in this area.

Another possible influence to swing the pendulum back in our favour is the interest generated by our charitable activities. Some have argued that there should be less emphasis on the financial support given by Masons to charity and more on hands-on involvement in charity work in the community. This would provide a better outlet for men who are hoping to "put something back" through personal involvement, not just by dipping their hands in their pocket to support a raffle.

Slide 11: There Is No Competition

This argument says again that we are over-reacting - this time to fears about competition from alternative forms of "entertainment". There is nothing that can match the very personal experience of taking part in a drama with other real live people.

Now we might say that those who make this argument are guilty of complacency. But there is something in this. When the ceremony is done well, there is something special about the face-to-face ceremony, the physical contact, that can't ever be replicated - even in the best forms of interactive computer simulations.

Slide 12: The Appeal Of Antiquity

One of the fundamental attractions of Masonry is its antiquity. It is deeply satisfying to be involved in something that has been in existence, relatively unchanged, for centuries. To be speaking the same words that have been spoken by Brethren all those years ago.

The language in which the ritual is spoken, in UGLE and many other constitutions it's still largely in Victorian English, is wonderful. The grammar, the clarity is of a very high standard.

If we were to "modernise" the language we would really be in danger of losing something significant in terms of the style, substance and therefore impact on the candidate.

Slide 13: Difficult To Do Well

Experience has shown us that making changes to the ritual is extremely difficult to do well.  This is an argument of practicality rather than of principle but it's nevertheless a crucial issue.

Even a small change can cause problems. For example the most recent changes to the rituals in English Freemasonry have been to the Royal Arch. These have been done for good reasons and a good deal of thought has gone into them. However the execution hasn't been perfect. For example in one of the reworked lectures the same word appears twice in one sentence. This is a very small item but when you think about it, generations of Royal Arch companions are now condemned to experience this small awkwardness when learning this passage. Moreover companions listening to the lecture who don't know the lecture verbatim, and of course that's most of them, will assume the lecturer has made a small error. In turn the lecturer will be conscious as he's delivering that sentence that people may be thinking that he's made a mistake and that may affect his performance.

When you make a change to the ritual and publish it, you have to get it right first time. This is different from most other organisations or businesses where, once you think your material is about right, you can publish it and, on the basis of feedback, update it year on year until it reaches maximum quality and effectiveness. But with ritual we all need to be learning the same words, year after year, with only infrequent update. Indeed it could be argued that once in ten years is too often.

Of course an  exception to this rule is when the ritual is read and not memorised, in which case it can be changed relatively frequently. We'll come back to the pros and cons of reading the ritual a bit later on.

Another major problem, when considering ritual reduction, is what to leave out. Some elements which may appear superfluous or ancillary may actually have key symbolic or historical importance. Even if there is no known reason today why something cannot be safely omitted, research in the future might reveal it to be of crucial importance.

Of course there is the opposite argument that if an item's importance is so obscure as not to be immediately recognisable by Masonic scholars then the likelihood of its importance being recognised by candidates or even the rest of us is negligible.

But supposing you were given the task of cutting the charge after initiation by fifty percent. What exactly would you leave out? Would you try to keep all the major ideas and make the text more succinct? Or would you drop out some of the individual areas altogether - say the bit about loyalty to one's country or the study of the liberal arts and sciences? It's not an easy task!

Slide 14: New Section: "How The Ritual Might Be Changed"

Let's now move on to some specific examples of actual changes which could potentially be made to the ritual or to the way in which it is presented.

Slide 15: How The Ritual Might Be Changed

Listed here are nine proposals for ritual change:

  1. reading it
  2. modernising it
  3. shortening it
  4. removing unnecessary difficulties
  5. moving the work to different Brethren
  6. increasing the realism
  7. ...the drama
  8. ...the spirituality
  9. and adopting examples of good practice.

We will look at each of these in turn and consider the pros and cons of each type of change.

Now there may be other candidates for proposed changes to the ritual and also additional pros or cons. What I'm hoping to do over the coming year is to collect ideas from members of the Lodge and incorporate them into an updated version of this presentation.

Slide 16: Reading The Ritual

Let's start with one of the more controversial proposals: reading the ritual. At a stroke this provides some very easily won benefits. A massive reduction in the ritual workload of the officers outside of the Lodge, which significantly reduces the impact of Masonry on family and leisure time.

It would certainly increase the consistency of the standard of the work.

It would increase the accuracy of critical passages like the obligations. Many of us will have heard obligations taken which were somewhat different from what it says in the ritual book! This depends on how important you believe it is to be accurate on obligations. Do you see it as equivalent to a legal contract where you are committed to exactly what you've signed up to, exactly what you've said? Or is it fine if the words are in the right ballpark because we all accept that the obligation we keep is the version in the book not the one we spoke during the ceremony.

And of course, as we've already mentioned, it has the tremendous advantage of allowing gradual refinement and improvement of the ritual.

On the other hand it's not a panacea for poor quality work. Badly read ritual can be truly awful. Ritual spoken well from memory has more drama and impact and will always be superior to ritual which is read.

In reading the ritual you have taken away one of the great challenges involved in Freemasonry. Past Masters have a special bond and that bond is created partly because they've all been through the same challenging experience of learning the ritual.

And notwithstanding the fact that there are Grand Lodges, particularly in mainland Europe, where the ritual is commonly read, there is an argument that recitation is part of the fundamental fabric of Freemasonry as practiced in England, Ireland, Scotland and many other countries. Something that shouldn't be changed and that would be changed at our peril.

Slide 17: Modern Language

Most attempts I've seen at reworking the ritual have involved bringing the language up-to-date, the main objective being to make it more readily understood by candidates. There is a worry that modern candidates may find the language rather quaint and perhaps lead them mistakenly to feel that the teachings of Masonry are equally old fashioned.

There is also an argument, which I don't think that everyone would accept, that it makes the ritual easier to learn.

On the other hand, having said that ritual change is difficult to do well, translating it into so-called modern English is extremely difficult to do well. One man's modern English is another man's jargon and management-speak. Done badly it becomes laughable. I don't mean to have a down on the poor old English Royal Arch, but it's the only example of recent ritual change that I'm familiar with.  In the amended ritual there is one new sentence which seems more appropriate to the board room than to a Masonic Temple, and I'm sure that many Royal Arch companions find it quite jarring and detracting form the important message it contains.

Certainly if you are amending  the ritual as opposed to rewriting the whole thing, there is a strong case for not introducing any vocabulary or new words that don't appear anywhere at all in the existing ritual. The existing language is very rich already, so I'm sure it's very unlikely that there is something to be added which couldn't easily be done using words that can already be found in the original lexicon.

Using modern language reduces the sense of antiquity which, as we've already noted, is an important attraction of Freemasonry.

And it can be argued, contrary to expectation, that the older form is actually easier to learn. In olden times recitation, by bards and the like, has tended to be in a more formal language than everyday speech. It may actually be easier to learn when the language is distinctive and rather different from everyday language.

So the question becomes, what is the problem we're trying to solve though modernising the language. Is there any real evidence that the formal language is turning off the candidates or the members?

Yes there are a few small areas of difficulty, where the use of language has changed so much that it potentially obscures the meaning. For example the word "peculiar" has very different connotations nowadays than it had in Victorian times and it could usefully be replaced by the word "particular". But do we really need to go to the lengths of modernising the whole thing?

Slide 18: Shortening The Ceremonies

Shortening the ceremonies is perhaps the most frequently-quoted suggestion for change. A shortened ceremony would be part of a much shorter evening in general, which would fit much better with modern life styles and go a long way towards solving our problems of retention of members.

Proponents argue that it can be done not only without detriment to the ceremonies but that it can potentially improve them.

Opponents argue that the ceremonies are basically what we are here for and if we start to dilute them that we are actually diluting Freemasonry itself. And you can make the analogy with the fast food chain as opposed to the posh restaurant. Which does Freemasonry want to be? Like MacDonalds, big in numbers but unsophisticated or small in numbers but sophisticated and select?

And again the question of what to leave out. Will we throw the baby out with the bathwater?

Who is right and who is wrong? We'll only really know the answer to this when we've seen some examples of shortened ceremonies and tried them out. And not just one example, but when we've explored various different approaches to shortening the ceremony, with and without some of the accompanying ideas for change which we've listed here.

Slide 19: "Removing the Gotchas"

The Masonic ritual is full of little traps for the unwary. Lodge DCs and preceptors see the same little errors occurring time after time, week in week out. Taking the EC Emulation ritual as an example.  How many times have you heard the WM open a Lodge for the "purposes of Freemasonry in the second degree", only to hear a little gasp from the IPM, and correct himself with "oh sorry, for the instruction and improvement of Craftsmen". In that moment he's been made to look slightly incompetent. The dignity of his office has taken a slight dent.

Or take the small but mildly complex variations in the words to invest the Senior and Junior Deacons on installation night. I doubt if you hear it done "correctly" in more than one case in ten.

Are these variations really necessary? If Masonic scholars can provide us with a rationale for their importance then of course we should keep them, but if not then why not simply remove them?

Of course some variations may be of importance, for example the Great Architect versus the Grand Geometrician versus the Most High. But if we are going to have subtleties like this in the ritual should it really be the progresing Officers and the WM who have to cope with them. Which brings us nicely to our next suggestion for change.

Slide 20: Redistributing the Work

Redistribute the work - basically give it to the old pros, the Brethren who enjoy it and who are good at it. You get better ceremonies, which everyone, not least the candidate, enjoys and appreciates, and you take a lot of the stress away from the junior progressing Officers and the Worshipful Master. Not just stress on the night but stress on their home life.

It also has the benefit of keeping Past Masters motivated through active participation in the ceremonies. And indeed Junior members who have the aptitude and the interest can be involved if they wish by taking on parts of a ceremony as soon as they feel able.

Some Masonic thinkers feel that this is the single most effective thing we could do to improve retention.

On the other hand it would completely change the character of Masonry, or at least of English-style Masonry. Many members of Internet Lodge would simply not recognise the problem here since this is the normal way that ceremonies are done in their native Grand Lodge.

Recently I was speaking to an Irish Mason who was bemoaning the fact that so much ritual is done by the same old faces, not just within the Lodge but, taking it to the next level, Brethren who were much in demand travelling around various Lodges to conduct major parts of ceremonies. This Brother thought that the English system was much to be preferred!

There is also the argument that, by reducing the challenge in carrying out the duties of Master, that the role is devalued. And also reduces the camaraderie between Past Masters that we mentioned earlier.

Slide 21: Increased Realism

Some new Masons may be put off by aspects of the ritual which are unrealistic or simply not true. A close examination reveals that there are quite a few of these. The most obvious example is the line about "3000 years after the creation of the world". These items may lead candidates to assume that its all a kind of "hocus pocus" and to miss the important messages that the ritual contains. It would be a fairly straightforward process to remove some of them and refer to others explicitly as legends.

Recently I heard an experimental version of the second degree tracing board done with no changes apart form the complete removal of the section about the Ephramites. Although something was obviously lost, most of the Brethren present felt that this was more than compensated for by the increased focus and impact of the whole piece.

On the other hand you can argue that any reasonable person can distinguish between what is obviously legend and allegory and reality. That we've being doing this for years without any noticeable problems, despite having many eminent historians, scholars and scientists as members.

Slide 22: More Drama

One way of combating the perceived competition from other forms of entertainment is to introduce more drama into our ceremonies. Masonic ceremonies, by their nature contain a large element of drama. But as we go round the world we find considerable variation in the amount of drama. Experience shows that highly dramatic ceremonies, when well carried out, are invariably well received, especially I think by candidates and newer Brethren.

I can remember being on a Lodge visit to see a very dramatic ceremony in Bristol and one of our young Master Masons telling me that this was much more like how he had expected Masonry to be before he joined. And of course if a new Brother has been particularly taken by the drama of his own initiation, passing and raising he is much more likely to commend it to friends who express an interest.

Of course there is plenty of scope for increased drama. Just within UGLE we can find use of swords, gongs, trapdoors and so on. If we look at regular Freemasonry around the world we find almost endless scope.

But there are also obvious pitfalls. We wouldn't want to engage in cheap thrills or reduce the dignity of the ceremony. And at all times we must preserve the dignity of the candidate.

Slide 23: More Spirituality

Man seems to have an inbuilt need for a spiritual outlet and the expression of this need appears to be cyclical in nature. When a society becomes more materialistic, after a time there seems to be a reaction where people begin to look for spiritual values. At some time in the future Masonry might be well positioned to benefit from a return to spiritual and moral values. The question then becomes, do we have enough explicitly spiritual content in our ceremonies to retain the commitment of candidates who come to us primarily for these reasons. Some would argue that we don't and that this is an area ripe for ritual change.

On the other side it could be argued that the deliberate introduction of spiritual components would be artificial and unconvincing and that it's much better left as it is today.  That is, where spirituality is a natural by-product of the ceremony rather than an explicit component.

Slide 24: Adopting Best Practices

One of the standard methods by which businesses and organisations go about improving themselves is by looking round for and then taking on board the proven best practices in any particular area. This is much easier to do now than ever before because of the growth of the Internet. So we could look at the ritual as it's practiced in different Lodges within different Grand Lodges around the world and simply pick the components which are the best and seem to be most effective.

But how do we identify what is best? How do we measure and verify that one particular ritual component is done better in Grand Lodge A than it is in Grand Lodge B.

Will the result be some horrible hybrid that has no historical integrity.

And if carried to the extreme work within all the Grand Lodges would converge on a common practice and the unique characteristics of different Grand Lodges would be lost.

Slide 25: New Section: Conclusions

So what can we conclude from all this?

Slide 26: Conclusions

Well perhaps the main conclusion should be that there are no easy conclusions!

Certainly, while there are significant pressures and hence arguments for change, there are also substantial arguments against it.

When you look at any detailed proposals for change then it quickly becomes apparent that change is not easy to accomplish and is not to be undertaken lightly.

Finally, more research is needed before embarking on change.

Firstly a scholarly analysis of the ritual, almost on a sentence by sentence basis, to understand the relative Masonic importance of all the components that are there today. And this should include comparative analyses of different rituals both at a lexicological level and at the conceptual level.

Secondly we need more experimental and exploratory work with updated rituals. And not just a few examples but perhaps as many as 50 different complete versions, each one with a commentary listing the objectives and rationale behind its construction.

The aim would be that, should the rulers of the Craft at some time in the future elect to make fundamental changes to the ritual, that this could be done on the basis of a large body of carefully constructed knowledge and not be something plucked out of the air on short notice.

Slide 27: New Section: Next Meeting

Before I finish I'd like to say a few words about how we'll be continuing with the theme of ritual change at the next meeting.

Slide 28: Next Meeting

Our August meeting will be in Durham. Only in Internet Lodge would I need to qualify that as "Durham, England"!

The main agenda item will be a demonstration of some fragments of the Masonic ritual as it might be practiced in the year 2106, that is one hundred years from now.

I should emphasise that this is not a proposal for how the ritual should be done, it is a piece of Masonic research, aimed at understanding the practical issues in changing the ritual.

Now anyone who has been involved in strategic planning exercises will know that, in trying to predict the future, what is most important are the assumptions you make. When the Chancellor of the Exchequer plans his budget, it's based on assumptions about inflation rates, interest rates, growth rates, unemployment levels and so on. Similarly in predicting what the ritual might look like we need to make some basic assumptions.

So, in preparing the 2106 ritual, I will be making the following assumptions:

Slide 29: Assumptions For 2106 Ritual

Not everyone will agree with these assumptions. In fact I'm not sure I agree with all of them myself, but this is the basis on which the ritual fragments will be developed.

Firstly that the ceremonies are significantly shortened. That a typical Masonic meeting will last 75 minutes, fifteen minutes of administration and one hour of ceremony. This could even go down to 60 minutes on the assumption that technology will allow all the general business of the Lodge to be conducted outside of the actual face-to-face meeting.

And that within that shortening there will be some smaller amendments to increase the consistency and coherence of the material.

Secondly, that the work will be done by expert ritualists and not by the Junior members or the Worshipful Master.

And, with apologies to W Bro John Belton because I know he is in favour of reading the ritual, that it will continue to be spoken from memory.

That more dramatic elements will be introduced.

That a spiritual dimension will be explicitly added.

And finally, perhaps the most controversial assumption of all: that it will continue to be spoken in that wonderfully formal and evocative Victorian language.

I hope as many as possible can make it along to that meeting in Durham .

Slide 30: The End

Brethren, that's the end of my address. Thank you for your attention.