One of the most confusing aspects of Freemasonry to the newcomer is the structure with which the fraternity and its appendant bodies operates. This can be an issue even for new candidates who have been initiated and it can take some effort to sort out where everything fits. Something that compounds this fact is that much of the information available on the internet is referring to the structure as it exists in the United States of America, and other non-Masonic sites quite honestly are repeating age old misconceptions born out of conspiracy theory.
This section will attempt to unravel the seemingly convoluted maze of Masonic orders and jurisdictions. Of course, it is just not possible for us to cover absolutely everything here – so if you have any questions that are not answered then please feel free to ask on our group.
To begin with, a quick word on Masonic jurisdictions.
Freemasonry, despite what many may say, is not a single global organisation but rather a collection of Grand Lodges that lie in amity with one another. What this means practically is that each Grand Lodge is autonomous and the lodges that meet under its authority are likely to manifest in slightly different ways and with different customs.
Although the United Grand Lodge of England is the oldest and one of the most influential Grand Lodges around the world, it is by no means the only one and indeed there are dozens if not hundreds around the globe that are acting under their own authority – recognising each other according to an agreed upon set of tenets as to what is ‘Regular Freemasonry’.
In later sections we will get into just what it means for a Masonic body to be deemed ‘Irregular’ or ‘Clandestine’, but for now it is enough to know that there is no single authority structure for Freemasonry around the globe. Because of this, the structure can vary somewhat from area to area.
For most people who research the structure of Freemasonry on the internet they will come across the concept of ‘York Rite’ and ‘Scottish Rite’, and indeed many of the illustrative depictions display things according to this dichotomy. It is stated within this model that there are basically two paths of advancement for the Master Mason, paths that successively go through different appendant orders on the way to the ‘top’.
Firstly, it must be stressed that there is no ‘higher’ degree than a Master Mason. Upon becoming involved with Freemasonry, the candidate will be initiated into what is known as a ‘Craft’ or ‘Blue’ lodge. It is here that they go through the three ceremonies that impart upon them the degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and finally Master Mason.
Upon being raised to the degree of Master Mason, the individual then has
the ability to join other orders that lie under the Masonic umbrella. These
orders are not considered to be ‘above’ the Craft lodge, but rather serve
to flesh out various aspects of Masonic lore and practice in different ways
– hence why they are referred to as ‘side orders’.
The terms ‘York Rite’ and ‘Scottish Rite’ (as referring to separate streams of advancement) refer to the way Freemasonry is structured in the United States of America. It is here that many of the side orders have been collected together to form what is known as the York Rite.
The Scottish Rite actually refers to one sole side order, which because of its history and development contained a very large number of seperate degrees. We will get into more detail about the individual orders in different sections, but for now it is useful to understand these simple aspects. Under the term ‘York Rite’ exists a number of different side orders.
Mark, Holy Royal Arch, Royal and Select, Red Cross of Constantine, and the Knights Templar are all side orders that are included under this description. Here is where it gets a bit confusing for many, because in many other areas of the world (such as the UK, Europe, and Australia) these orders exist as their own separate and independent bodies and are not collected into one over-arching ‘York Rite’.
For example, one can join the Holy Royal Arch without first joining the Mark. Some of these orders however, do require that a Master Mason also be a member of another side order before being admitted (this needed side order is most usually the Holy Royal Arch) – so you can see that the confusion is certainly understandable!
When we look at each individual order that exists in Freemasonry we will delve into more detail about how they all interact. For this section though it is important to recognise two main things. Firstly, that each jurisdiction of Freemasonry (demarcated by the formation of a Grand Lodge) is completely autonomous and exists in amity with other such jurisdictions around the globe.
Secondly, that there is no overarching hierarchical nature to the orders and degrees within Freemasonry beyond the three degrees found within the Craft. Once you are a Master Mason you have achieved the highest level that Freemasonry recognises, anything else you join after this is seen as a side order – something intended to widen your Masonic knowledge and allow you to pursue different interests and avenues according to personal preference. We’ll certainly be discussing various aspects of this in more detail, but for now I think enough has been said to help clear up the waters a bit!
For a graphic representation of how Freemasonry is structured in the United Kingdom, please see this flowchart provided by the Province of Cumberland and Westmorland.
For more information about the structure of Freemasonry, please see the different sections below that will explore the different orders and appendant bodies and how they interact.