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Four Fellowcrafts and an EA

Sounds like the start of a standup joke, doesn’t it?

Four Fellowcrafts and an Entered Apprentice walk into a bar…

…and so the bartender replied “You know, the jokes were a hell of a lot funnier back in my year.”

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve gone to a couple of degree rehearsals, have seen three Fellowcraft degrees in my district, filled in for my counterpart (who came down with something the night he was supposed to recite the Letter G lecture) down south in the 4th District , and finished up by going to a nicely done Entered Apprentice degree in one of my other lodges, the one that’s not quite up in Massachusetts.


Don’t get me wrong – I really enjoy degree work. I enjoy watching it, and even more, I enjoy doing it.

But why do we shmush them all into the same time period?

Oh, yeah, I remember; because most lodges in Connecticut start their year in January, so they schedule an EA for February, and then follow up a month later with an FC. Then they give themselves a bit of a breather, and sometime in May, the Master Mason degree season will be upon us. Guaranteed there will be one scheduled on my wife’s birthday, too, so not only will my gas bill and dry cleaning bill be up, I’ll need to put aside something for the florist bill.

Anyway, one of the neat things about seeing so many degrees so close together is that I can really compare little details that I might otherwise have forgotten. Most notable among these is the floorwork of the ceremonies; the positions, the walking paths, the stances, and all those other little things that aren’t found in our ritual book.

Yes, it’s true: As I’ve mentioned before, Connecticut does have an “official” ritual manual, which is occasionally even  used by some of our own lodges. Unfortunately, the ritual is, in places, somewhat unclear (some would say “ambiguous”) in the matter of floorwork. Without boring anybody with the details, we take it for granted that at certain times different people will walk from place to place in the lodge in order to do certain things. How they manage to get there, though, is sometimes open to  interpretation. And that is what makes for the interesting differences from lodge to lodge.

It would be easy to suggest that we simply write a floorwork manual, as they use in some other states. That would, of course, necessitate that we rewrite our actual ritual monitor, which would correct the mistakes in our current monitor, which had already been rewritten to correct that mistakes that the previous rewrite was supposed to have done.

Did you get all of that?

I’ve heard this suggested for several years now, and at one time I agreed with the idea. Now, however, I’m of a different mind. There is an old expression that what passes for a lodge tradition is really  a mistake that somebody made, and then the people behind him continued. I admit to finding that amusing, but when you give it some thought, it’s a very cynical way of looking at the variety of fascinating idiosyncrasies displayed by the various lodges around the state. Yes, no doubt that some lodges have a tradition that actually did originate as a result of a mistake or a careless interpretation of a section. But of those lodges that insist that they do things “because that’s the way we’ve always done them,” I’m sure that you can go back in time – in some cases, less than a decade – to discover when it actually did happen. More likely, when somebody in a lodge claims that “we’ve always done it that way,” what he means is that “that’s the way I always remember it being done,” which is really something quite different.

But as to the idea of traditions or customs always arising from  a mistake in the workings, not only is it cynical, it’s also wrong. Lodges perform the workings differently from  each other simply because our own interpretations of the workings are always going to vary over time and distance, especially when those workings leave room for interpretation.But that doesn’t mean – and some of you may be surprised that I’m writing this – that I’m in favor of codifying our floorwork, or even making our ritual so ironclad that it leaves no room for interpretation. To the contrary, I think that the evolution of ritual is a natural and even necessary process.

I’m aware that some jurisdictions are very strict about passing down their workings “from mouth to ear” and that officers are watched very closely for even the smallest transgressions. While I applaud their determination, I often wonder what’s the point? What are they preserving? Our own ritual in Connecticut is one of the many variations of the Preston-Webb workings that were developed and spread thought out the US after the Civil War in the mid-1800s. Those workings are a compilation of ritual that was performed  in England, where there are several other workings which don’t even resemble what is typically done in the US. Even Canada, our neighbor to the north, has a variation of the Preston workings, plus their version of the Emulation workings (which is seen in other parts of the UK) and at least one other set that isn’t quite either one.

I have a copy of the workings from a jurisdiction in Australia, which is a variation on the Emulation workings. I’m calling it a variation because it’s almost, but not quite like the version of Emulation used in parts of Canada, and again, not quite like what is used in parts of England. But it’s defintiely recognizable as Emulation, just as despite the variations from state to state, anyone from the US will recognize workings in any other state.

My point is that ritual – our workings – have evolved  over time and space. At what point did some committee of ritualists decide to pick and choose which version would be the “official” workings? And after that, when and why was it changed? Because there has to be a reason that while we are all Freemasons, we use so many small and fascinating variations on workings that, in actuality, aren’t even all that old?

Now, there’s no question that I like some of those variations better than others. In fact, after watching one of the degrees last week, I was discussing the small differences between that lodge and my own, and I had to ask myself if I was biased in my preference simply because Friendship does something differently. That question, in fact, is something that I ask myself just about every time I help out a lodge at a rehearsal; I want a lodge to do their own variation in the best way possible, but sometimes I have to stop myself from suggesting that they do something differently, simply because it’s what I learned, and not because it’s inherently better.

In the last few years I’ve been to about twenty  different lodges around the state, and no two of them do things alike. I know that this makes some of the purists absolutely crazy, but lately I’ve begun to appreciate the little differences. And I’ll really try to keep that in mind when I do the next round of degrees in another month.

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