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Innovations and Deviations

 

By Very Worshipful Brother Gary Muir, Past Grand Lecturer

Address at Hawke's Bay Research Lodge #3054, New Zealand
Originally published in Harashim,
the quarterly newsletter of the Australian & New Zealand Masonic Research Council, issue #67

 

 

WM, I understand that as Master in this Research Lodge you have expressed a wish that Education be the theme for your year. With this in mind I have pleasure in presenting this paper which I have titled “Innovations and Deviations”. When I was a young lad at the end of World War II, a radio recording, popular at the time, referred to a young soldier who was found playing cards at his army church parade. Many of you will remember this I am sure. Just to refresh your memories and for those who have not heard the story it goes something like this.

 

The soldier was in Casino in Italy and while the scriptures were being read at the Sunday service the soldier pulled out his pack of cards and spread them in front of him. When he was caught by the provost marshal he offered this explanation for using his cards in church.

 

The Ace reminded him that there was one true God. The Two, that there were the Old and the New Testament in the Bible. The Three was for the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. Four was for the authors of the four Gospels: Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Five, for the two groups of five virgins who trimmed their lamps at weddings. Six, for the days it took God to create the Earth. Seven, for the day God rested. Eight, for the eight righteous people God saved during the Great Flood: Noah, his wife, their three sons and their wives. Nine, for the ten lepers whom Jesus cleansed, nine of them didn’t even thank him. Ten, for the Ten Commandments. King, for God the Father. Queen, for the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jack, for Satan or the Devil. There are 365 spots on a pack of cards, equal to the number of days in a year. There are 52 cards: the number of weeks in a year. There are 13 tricks, a quarter of the year. Four suits: the number of weeks in a month. And finally, twelve face cards: the number of months in a year. He then ends his story by saying, “My pack of cards serves me as a Bible, an almanac and a prayer book.”

 

What, I can see you thinking, has this got to do with “Innovations and Deviations” in Freemasonry? I have used this story to illustrate what can be done with an imaginative mind and to show how innovations can be used either rightly or wrongly to describe situations.

 

At the beginning of the ceremony of Installation the Master elect is instructed to “give your unqualified assent by giving the sign of fidelity”. Ancient Charge No 11 states “You admit that it is not in the power of any person, or body of men to make alteration or innovation in the body of Masonry without the consent first obtained of the Grand Lodge”. When we took our Obligation as Master of the lodge we undertook, among other things, “not to permit or suffer any deviation from the established customs and Antient landmarks of the Order”. I wonder how many Worshipful Brethren really understand and practice either of these two statements!

 

Over my years in Freemasonry I have seen a number of innovations and deviations in lodges and all being done without approval of the Grand Lodge. Masters are letting these innovations and deviations occur causing them to violate their promises and obligations. For the purposes of this paper I refer to one only but I am sure some of you can think of others.

 

From time to time a well-meaning Brother will, in the Third Degree and with the consent of the Master, offer what he calls the “Meaning of the Master Mason’s Apron” charge. In the first place there is no such thing in our ritual book, and I have searched it from front to back to try and find it. Just to deviate for a moment and to illustrate the danger in this type of action: a lodge that I am familiar with was conducting a Third Degree. A visiting Master had travelled some distance to be present at the meeting with the expectation that he was going to deliver this particular apron charge. The matter had not been referred to Master of the lodge before the Third Degree commenced, but it had been arranged by another Brother of that lodge who had heard it somewhere else and thought it would be a good idea to have it presented. Fortunately the Master concerned was experienced and realised what was going to happen and, in a diplomatic way, informed the visiting Master wanting to give the charge that it was not acceptable in his lodge. This resulted in a disappointed visiting Master who had travelled a distance in the belief that he was going to do this job.

 

Some of you will know the charge I am referring to as it has been presented in this District from time to time. However, no matter which way you look at it, it is an innovation. Briefly, the charge takes the symbols or emblems on the apron and expands upon them. Are they in fact symbols or emblems and do they have any worth apart from artistic forms of embellishment? In the so-called “Meaning of the Master Mason’s Apron”, we are told that all parts of the apron are symbolical. In truth, this is not so. Our New Zealand apron is based on the English Constitution apron, which was not formalised and made uniformly correct until 1814. A pattern was submitted to the United Grand Lodge of England and agreed to on the 2nd May 1814. It is from this beginning that we have the Master Mason’s apron that we know today and it has seen little modification in the past nearly two-hundred years.

 

In the charge I am referring to, the candidate is told the “the apron is a perfect square, it’s four right angles teach us Purity, Truth, Sincerity and Honesty, and are the foundations of morality. Its four sides remind us to practise the four cardinal virtues --etc”. The charge goes on to state that “the Square is a symbol of matter and four was the emblem of the ancients because they thought the earth was flat, square, and marked by the four points of the compass”.

 

Let’s look at this statement to see if it fits. In the early days of Freemasonry aprons were all shapes and sizes and this can be seen in many Masonic reference materials. They were often hand painted with various symbols on them – both Masonic and non-Masonic – and it was not unknown for the aristocracy to paint or embroider their Coat of Arms onto the apron. Even today some constitutions aprons are not square but are rounded at the bottom edge. Our Masonic apron as we know it probably developed from the old Operative masons in the middle ages. It was probably made of an animal skin, most likely sheep, and was large enough to cover the wearer from chest to ankle. Anyone having done his Mark Degree will be familiar with this type of apron.

 

The apron was tied by two leather thongs around the waist finishing in the front with a bow. The ends of the bow tended to fall as end strings. Variations of this apron remained until the formalisation of the apron in 1814. Ryland, a Masonic writer of the time, made this among other comments on the apron: “it was quite within the power of each mason to invent for himself almost any apron he pleased”.

 

In 1814 it was decreed that the apron would be made of white lamb skin, 14 to 16 inches wide and 12 to 14 inches deep square at the bottom. The charge continues on by saying “the flap is a triangle whose three sides teach us to relieve a distressed brother, to be kind and friendly in dealing with our fellow men. The triangle is the threefold revelation for God, or Devine Wisdom”. Again, this does not fit the actual. In the early days the flap on the apron was designed to be worn up and fastened by means of a button-hole to a button on the coat or waistcoat. Any of you who have followed the TV programme “Downton Abbey” will have seen an excellent example of this use of an apron by male servants. The flap would have been originally the upper or bib part of the apron used by the operatives and the speculative used this in the manner stated. The fashion of wearing the flap up soon fell into disfavour and was either cut off or worn down as a fall as we see it today. The charge goes on to say “The EA apron should have the flap pointing upwards, indicating that Devine Wisdom has not yet truly penetrated the gross matter of our bodies”.

 

There is much more stated in the charge, such as the equilateral triangle teaches us the threefold personal revelation of God, it is a symbol of the Deity, that in geometry a single line cannot represent a perfect figure, neither can two lines but three lines which constitute a triangle symbolises the Eternal God. It also says that the triangle is to the Jews the three periods of existence, and to the Hindus: creation, preservation and renewal, while to the Chinese: heaven, earth and water. In all this I wonder about the statement where we are exhorted not to discuss matters of religion in our lodges.

 

The next portion of the Charge says “the flap on a Fellowcraft’s apron points down indicating 1; that wisdom has begun to enter and therefore control matter, and 2; that the soul and body are acting in unison. The two rosettes stress the dual nature of man and have a clear reference to the two pillars. The two rosettes also point out that the Fellowcraft has not yet completed Freemasonry as it requires a third rosette to form a triangle. In the case of the MM’s apron the third rosette forms the triangle pointing upwards. A triangle, point upwards, represents Fire or Divine Spark. It is the emblem of Shiva, the third member of the Hindu Trinity. It also represents spirit. The triangle of the flap and the triangle of the rosettes form a square where they overlap. This square represents matter. Thus we have the union of Body (square), Soul (top triangle), and Spirit (lower triangle)”.

 

The facts of the matter are this. The origin of the rosettes on the FC and MM aprons is unknown. They were a late introduction in England and were not officially recognised until 1815, when they were specifically designed to differentiate between the three grades. From 1731 onwards the apron began to assume a more convenient shape, usually knee length and leather gave way to softer fabrics like silk, satin, velvet, linen and chamois–leather. The flap, when retained, was either cut to a triangle form or in a semicircular line. The latter method was increasingly adopted by the MM’s, presumably to mark their distinctive rank. At no stage in any New Zealand lodge has the apron been worn with the flap up.

 

According to the charge the tassels also have story and represent “The seven Liberal Arts and Sciences” and, after naming them, states that the number seven appears in nearly every ancient institution: Seven or more make a lodge perfect King Solomon was seven years and upwards in building the temple to God’s Service Seven was the perfect number of the Pythagoreans because it was composed of three and four – the sum of the points of the triangle and the square – the two perfect figures . There are six more representations but I am sure you are getting the picture. The final statement on the tassels is “The sum of the strings in the two tassels is fourteen, which is the number of pieces into which the body of OSIRIS was divided”.

 

This too is mere fantasy. The symbolic origins of the tassels and their seven chains are shrouded in mystery. It is likely that they are left over from the old operative mason’s apron where the ends of the tied bow hung down. It is better by far to accept the probability that the regalia makers from 1830 onwards contrived to symmetrically design the apron by placing tassels with ornamental chains on either side of the apron.

 

Our aprons are edged in blue ribbon and in the charge it is suggested that it has a deep symbolical meaning. It refers to the Volume of the Sacred Law - the Book of Numbers 15:37-41, with possibly verse 38 being the most meaningful for this purpose and it states ”Speak unto the Children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments, and they put upon the fringes of the borders a riband of blue”. The charge continues with “According to Mackey, the blue border was added - the colour of the firmament enveloping the globe - emblematical of universal friendship and benevolence, instructing us that in the mind of a Freemason these virtues should be as extensive as the vault of Heaven itself”.

 

In a resolution of the Grand Lodge on March 17th 1721 it was ordained that: None but the Grand Master, his Deputy and Wardens shall wear their Jewels in Gold or gilt pendant to Blue Ribbons about their necks and White aprons with Blue Silk; which Sort of Aprons may also be worn by former Grand Officers.

 

By 1745-50, Grand Officers were beginning to edge their aprons with purple ribbon. The light blue, gradually given up by Grand Officers was soon adopted by MM’s, and since there was no official ruling on the subject (until 1815), blue edged aprons became fairly common with the rank and file of the Craft from about 1745 onwards. Today the official ruling is that the aprons of a MM are to be edged with ribbon “not more than two inches in width”, that “silver tassels” must hang over the face and that the strings must be “light blue”.

 

“Standing erect the form of the apron gives two levels, one at the top, and one at the bottom. The lower level is laid in the earth. It is symbolical of the level of time along which we walk towards that place from which no traveller returns. The level above it is laid in the Heavens - a spiritual level. It is a promise that those who walk uprightly before God and man (which is symbolised by the two perpendiculars on either side) shall walk eternally on the spiritual level. The plumbs or sides, admonish rectitude - rectitude of conduct, rectitude of morals, and rectitude of life”. So goes the next section of the charge and this is followed by references to 2 Kings 21:13, Isaiah 28:17, Amos 7:7-8 and Zachariah 4:10.

 

This part of the charge is referring to the levels on an Installed Master’s apron and it is interesting to note that while I have just noted the verses they are actually quoted to the candidate. If you are still with me you will realise that Amos 7:7-8 are part of the Installation ceremony so why is a newly Raised Brother being told this?

 

Again there is no official name for squares and levels which decorate the apron of a Master or Past Master. The 1815 English Constitution described them as “perpendicular lines upon horizontal lines, thereby forming three several sets of (two) right angles” and originally they were to be of inch wide ribbon. They were designed only for the purpose of distinction.

 

Over the years an incredible exaggeration to symbolism has been taught and many sincere and famous Freemasons, such as Oliver, Paton, and Wilmshurst have influenced this. The modern craft is essentially speculative and every mason must be to some extent speculative, but there has been a tendency towards overuse of speculation to the detriment of the Craft and the proper understanding of its moral demands and teachings.

 

The symbolic explanations which are virtually standardised in our modern rituals are clear, simple and wholly satisfying. It is the unchallenged right of every Freemason to seek such interpretations that may fill his spiritual need. He should however remember Tennyson’s line on “The falsehood of extremes” and be slow to accept the “wider explanations” until he can do so with full conviction.

 

By now I suggest you are totally bewildered, your heads must be spinning and you are all experienced Masons, most of you are PM’s and some of you are Grand Officers. Can you imagine how the newly Raised Brother must feel after hearing all that and having just completed the major part of his Raising? He is bewildered enough as it is without all that being said to him, and don’t forget I have shortened and cut out a lot of it.

 

Brethren, I have no doubt in my mind that reciting this so-called charge immediately following the approved Apron Charge is an innovation and deviation from the ritual and should never be allowed in any New Zealand Constitution lodge. I personally have banned it twice in one lodge I belong to and will continue to do so, so certain am I that it is wrong. For official clarification I checked with our Grand Secretary on the subject. He informed me that it should never be part of the Third Degree ceremony but could make an interesting discussion subject at some lodge meeting where the pro’s and con’s of the subject could be openly discussed and it is with that thought in mind that I present this paper.

 

Innovations and deviations are creeping into our lodges, and they are not needed. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with our present ritual and ceremonies and by Masters allowing these innovations and deviations they are letting themselves, in particular, and the whole Craft in general, down.

 

Brethren, I urge you to watch for and if possible eliminate all innovations and deviations.

 

They are not needed.

 

 

References:

The Deck of Cards – Wikipedia
Transactions of the QUATUOR CORONATI LODGE 2076 (London) – “The Apron and its Symbolism” – Bro F R Worts, PAGDC
The Victorian Lodge of Research No 218, UGLV – “The Symbolism and Design of the Masonic Apron” – WBro C J E Hudspeth - 1949 en.