ESOTERIC CORNER - CONTINUED
Now we're going to zoom way out of one particular book, one particular set of laws, and look at the big picture. Masonry in Virginia contains a set of laws, but it is the result of a process that has been running since 1777.
A process of constant change & provenance
In 2023 Virginia Masonry, the law is the Methodical Digest, not the Constitutions. Let's review the timeline (PV refers to presentation volume, MD to Methodical Digest 2022 edition)
The Grand Lodge dates back to a first meeting of Lodge delegates in 1777 (PV p. 43). This was at the point where lodges were deciding having a Grand Master would be a good idea. No Grand Lodge laws existed, because the GL itself was just forming.
What we know as the methodical digest was very first compiled by John K. Read, member of Richmond Randolph 19, in 1790, named "A Code of Laws for the Government of Grand Lodge and all the Lodges under its jurisdiction". (MD p. iii)
The Constitutions we summarized were adopted by the Grand Lodge in 1791 (PV p. 39). Thos. Matthews, the 5th GM called it "New Ahiman Rezon" and officially sanctioned it in April of 1792. (MD p. iii). It wasn't the first!
The title "Methodical Digest" came with its second publication in 1817 by James Henderson of Manchester 14.
What we know as the Methodical Digest 2022 is the 36th publication!
Why so Many (36!) Compilations and Amendments?
The laws of Freemasonry are a constant process of change and revision. We know that Grand Masters issue edicts, and rules & law changes over time. Brethren bring changes, votes are held at Grand Lodge, and over decades these changes accumulate. New editions are printed and approved which compile all of these changes, so they are easier to follow. Rather than an accumulating-over-time set of "line-in-line-out" changes to the rules, all changes will be compiled into a latest copy.
If you've been a member for a few years, you may know that the Secretary gets a copy of all of those line-in, line-out changes when they are made. They aren't easy to read, but they are a cornerstone of good governance. Every single word in the methodical digest has a provenance that goes back to when, where, and how that decision was made. Considering the huge gap of time between the New Ahiman Rezon and the second publication in 1817, the changes accumulated must have been substantial.
The New Ahiman Rezon and US Governance
In our summary articles, you might have noticed a few things here or there that aren't how we currently run the craft. Does this mean anyone in 2023 Masonry is doing things wrong? No. In this wider scope, we see that the Constitutions of Freemasonry is just a historical document of one of the earliest compilations of Masonic Law. It is like the US Constitution, which itself has been amended 27 times since adopted. The US Constitution was also a second draft: the first draft (Articles of Confederation) was enacted in 1777, the very same year as the New Ahiman Rezon.
Just as the Constitution provides a mechanism for changing itself, so did the New Ahiman Rezon, via Grand Lodge. If you read the US Constitution, you wouldn't know how our government operated without reading everything that came after. So too it is the same with the Book of Constitutions, and later Methodical Digest (Sec. 1.17).
Continuing, we'll see further parallels to the system of governance in the United States.
Interpretation over Time
Often, the language of the law doesn't change, but new decisions are added that clarify situations, and add precedent and case law. For example, here's a simple one most Masons would know. The law of Sec 2.33. (p. 54) is that in order to be a Master, you have to have been a Warden first. But what you might not know is that a WM election in 1907 was voided because the brother hadn't served as a Warden (a decision which enforced the law), or that in 1991, a Junior Warden was elected and installed. (Being Junior Warden for one full year counts, one does not have to first become Senior Warden). This provenance of decision-making over long periods of time establishes the line of legal interpretation. Each “legal case” further clarifies and interprets the law. Later decision-makers then rely on the precedents set.
This process is a parallel to the judicial system in the United States, which interprets laws through case law and precedent. There is US law, and there is how it is applied to individual circumstances in the courts. So too there are Methodical Digest laws, and subsequent decisions.
Outside of the laws and decisions, the Methodical Digest also contains standing resolutions (MD p. 193). The very first one you have heard read at a Master Mason degree, namely that we shall "emphasize the teaching of the catechism of the Master Mason's Degree in each of the subordinate lodges". Some standing resolutions end up being rescinded when they are incorporated into the law. One thing about the Standing Resolutions most mason's won't know: the Grand Lodge is required to operate on a balanced budget. Adopted February 11th, 1986: expenditures shall not exceed income during any fiscal year. (MD p. 196)
The Methodical Digest also contains Grand Master Edicts, which Masons are required to comply with. These can accomplish a wide variety of purposes: they can for example forbid Masons to build any building using federal funds (E-1-1966, MD p. 164). They can declare other masonic bodies Clandestine, as they did with the Universal League (E-1-1976, p. 165), or, most recently - permit certain members to carry firearms in lodge (E-2-2017, p. 190). Some edicts constitute amendments to the methodical digest, when voted & approved by delegates at the next grand communication, as in (E-1-2010 p. 189)
The Unwritten Laws
The most conspicuous thing missing from the methodical digest are the Landmarks of Freemasonry, elsewhere referred to as the unwritten laws. Virginia has not adopted a list of landmarks! In Mackey’s Jurisprudence of Freemasonry, he notes unwritten laws are those whose:
“which either gradually grew into operation as rules of action, or if at once enacted by any competent authority, were enacted at a period so remote, that no account of their origin is to be found in the records of history. Both the enactors and the time of enactment have passed away from the record, and the Landmarks are therefore of higher antiquity than memory or history can reach”
According to Mackey, this forms a basic three-fold system of Masonic law:
Landmarks (unwritten laws)
General Regulations (akin to our methodical digest)
Local Regulations (akin to our lodge bylaws)
The Book of Constitutions and the 2022 Methodical Digest are two different "frozen moments of time", documents of an ongoing process of governance and change spanning from 1777 - 2023. The documents themselves are important as records of the process, a process itself modeled very similarly to the US Constitution, its amendments, subsequent law, and interpretation via caselaw. It will continue to change over time so long as the Grand Lodge meets, Grand Masters issue edicts, and the Brethren vote on necessary changes.
On this overall process, I'll leave you with the same quote found at the end of the Book of Constitutions and a thought for reflection:
"Solomon, my son, forget not my law, but let thine heart keep my commandments, and remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set"