"Golden Spike Lodge No. 6 Oration" Gavin K. K. Wardrope, W. Grand Orator

Excellence in Ritual

Most Worshipful Grand Master, Most Worshipful Past Grand Masters, Right Worshipful Brothers, Worshipful Brothers and Brethren all, Good Evening.

I would care to spend a few minutes discussing Ritual. You may consider that you have just had the Grand Lecturer discuss the same and wonder why now we are now hearing an Oration on Ritual. Brethren, I can assure you there is nothing untoward just a happy coincidence so settle back and relax.

However, let me start by asking 'What is Ritual?'

Everyone has their own opinions but Rituals definition is 'A religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.'

We can all agree that we certainly do not perform a religious ceremony but our ceremonies are solemn therefore it can be said that the ceremony should be done with the solemnity of a religious service.

Why does Masonry insist so strictly upon exactness in its Ritual? There is a profound reason, not to be forgotten or ignored. True, it is the Spirit, not the Letter, that gives life; but the Letter does give a Body, without which the Spirit of Masonry would be a formless blur, losing much of its meaning, if not all of its beauty. Ceremony keeps things up; without form the spirit melts into thin air and is lost.

Now that we have established what ritual is, the question now to ask is 'What is the future of ritual?'

The present form of our ritual, certainly within this Grand Lodge, has remained largely unchanged since the formation of this Grand Lodge. 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?

We have all seen a modern painting or heard some of the music that reverberates from a car parked alongside of us and wondered what could be found to be enjoyable to see a canvas splattered of paint or hear a deafening bass. It is a formless chaos.

Without lovely form the spirit of beauty fades and is lost. Ages of experience have wrought out noble forms of art and life, which we cannot defy or ignore without disaster. The same is true of Masonry. Gentle, wise, mellow with age; its gracious spirit has fashioned a form, or body, or an art; if we call it so, in which its peculiar genius finds expression. Its old and lovely ritual, if rightly used, evokes the Spirit of Masonry, as each of us can testify. The mere opening of a Lodge creates a Masonic atmosphere in which the truths of Masonry seem more real and true. It weaves a spell about us, making fellowship gracious. It is a mystery; we love it, without caring to analyze it.

By the same token, if the rhythm of the ritual is bungled, or slurred, or dealt with hastily or without dignity; its beauty is marred and its spell broken. Just imagine the opening of Lodge, or any one of the Degrees, jazzed up, rushed through and how horrible it would be. The soul of Masonry would be sacrificed, and its spirit evaporated. For that reason we cannot take too much pains in giving the ritual such a rendering as befits its dignity, its solemnity and its haunting beauty.

No wonder Masonry is jealous of its ceremonies and symbols. It hesitates to make the slightest change, even when errors have crept into the ritual, lest something precious is lost. Indeed, it is always seeking that which is lost, not alone in its great secret, but in all its symbols which enshrine wisdom gray with age, often but dimly seen, and sorely needed in our fast paced society. Is it not wonderful to take a deep relaxing breath, close our eyes and listen to some beautifully spoken ritual?

I had the pleasure a few weeks ago to travel to travel to Pocatello to hear the exemplification of the MM Degree by the Portneuf Lodges. There we all witnessed, I am sure everyone present would agree, the finest rendition of the MM Lecture they had heard. It was given with the skill of a Parliamentarian and to have been given in that manner could only have been given with a deep understanding of the meanings of that Lecture.

Take, for example, the Opening of the Lodge, we have seen it countless times, of no great importance in itself, save as a preliminary to what is to follow. Not so. Nothing in Masonry is more impressive, if we see it right. As a flower opens its Lodge, as one poet puts it, when it unfolds its petals and displays its center to the sun, which renews its life; so the opening of a Masonic Lodge is a symbol of the opening out of the human mind and heart to God. It is a drama of an inward and ineffable thing, not to be spoken of except in the poetry of symbol. Try to consider this next time you see a Lodge opened.

There are several ways that the ritual may be changed to suit the few and if we look at three of them, they are; 1. Reading it. 2. Modernizing it. 3. Shortening it.

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.

If we now look at modernizing the Language.

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.

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 modernizing the language. Is there any real evidence that the formal language is turning off the candidates or the members?

Finally, let's look at shortening the Ceremonies which 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. What does Freemasonry want to be compared to? MacDonalds, big in numbers but unsophisticated or Christopher Steakhouse, 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.

I hope I have given you some food for thought and look forward to hearing your reactions.

My own opinion, for what it is worth, is that our ritual is beautiful embrace it but more important learn the lessons given in it. An understanding of the lessons written will lead us all to be better Masons.

When we allow our perception of Freemasonry to be centered on the ritual rather than on the lessons taught by the ritual, we misread its essential characteristic. Search diligently, my Brethren and you will find their symbolic teachings almost infinite.

Most Worshipful Grand Master thank you for allowing me to say these few words and enjoy the rest of your Visitation.

Fraternally, Gavin KK Wardrope PM Grand Orator May 2, 2013

Source; Larry Porter - The future of Ritual