"Comity" is not a familiar word, not even in Freemasonry where it has so large a use; it is not a friendly looking word, or a poetical word, and it is not a word that the rank and file of ordinary men will ever use in their daily speech because it sounds too stilted. It is all the more necessary, therefore, to become acquainted with this word itself, because in these studies it must stand up high and large and carry a heavy freight of meaning.
The Romans made much use of their prefix com, which they also wrote as con, because by it they denoted many words in that large family of terms which had the general meaning of association, of gathering together, or collectivity, or joint action. This prefix, along with many words formed from it, was transplanted into English, and it has there, as prefix or as root, fathered possibly 200 of our words. Thus, we combined corn, together, with mitto, which meant to send, and produced committee, the name for a small group sent out, or told off, or set aside to act for a whole group. By combining it with foedus, to league together, to join up, we made our word confederate. If a man were to select out of English the large number of words with con or corn in them, at first hand or at second, he would see a picture, as in a mirror, of what English speaking people have always understood collective, or joint, or associative action to be. As a digression, the picture would show that English-speaking people are too individualistic to like associative action, and nearly always must be forced, or coaxed, or persuaded into it!
The sole purpose of this paragraph on con, or corn is to say that in spite of both appearance and sound our Masonic word comity has no connection with it, even though in a very large and loose sense the meaning of the one is similar to the meaning of the other; and it is probable that our confusing comity with committee and other such words as are derived from con and com explains why Masonic comity is not as well understood as it ought to be. Comity is from the Latin comes, not from it, but rather is it, for in this instance as in so many others a term was transferred bodily from Latin to English; comes meant kind, friendly, congenial, warm hearted. A comity is a system, or set of usages, or an order of courtesies by which separate individuals or separate organizations can remain friends with each other. It will be instantly seen that instead of quashing out individuality in order to combine individuals, comity does the opposite; it presupposes that individuals will continue to be individuals, that independent organizations will continue to remain independent, but may nevertheless work together and be friends together.
It was of life-and-death importance for Freemasonry in the United States to find a system of comity at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century to keep American Freemasonry from destroying itself by pounding itself into separate pieces. Freemasonry in the United States found such a system, established it, universally accepted it, and has been successfully using it ever since; its ability to do so is the highest achievement of American Masonic statesmanship thus far.
From about 1730 A.D. until the Revolutionary War Lodges in the American Colonies were chartered by the Modern or Ancient Grand Lodges of England, by the Grand Lodges of Scotland and of Ireland, and in a few instances by French Grand Bodies; had this process continued there would in time have been Lodges chartered by Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Swedish, etc., Grand Lodges. These charters were granted directly by Grand Lodges abroad, or indirectly through their Provincial Grand Lodges, in which they appointed the Provincial Grand Masters. It was a creaky, ill-formed, unsatisfactory system, and was so for reasons over most of which nobody had any control; Europe was far away, in both space and time; foreign Grand Masters could know little about the American scene; the jurisdictions and the prerogatives of the Provincial Grand Lodges overlapped and were otherwise ill-defined; Provincial Grand Masters were given no clear directions or full authority. To complicate these difficulties Americans began to resent foreign overlordship as early as 1750 A.D., and the contempt with which Americans were treated after the fiasco of the French-Indian War added bitterness to that resentment. Masonic tics, like other ties, began to be strained before the Revolutionary War had begun.
During the War these ties were broken, not only with Britain but with Canada also, and for some six years American Lodges were adrift; their Provincial Grand Lodges functioned as well as they were able but they continued nevertheless to be provincial. Once the War was over, and indeed before it was over, a number of American Masons believed that all those Provincial Grand Lodges should be dissolved and that the thirteen new states (which thought of themselves as sovereign nations) should unite under one Grand Lodge. This demand was first made at a meeting of Masons in the army which was held at Morristown, New Jersey, on December 27, 1779 A.D., with General George Washington present; from then until the end of the Civil War meetings and conventions were held one after another for the same purpose (Henry Clay was one of the leaders) but without success. In reality the proposal for a National, or General, Grand Lodge slid not at any time, even at the beginning, have any prospect of success, and for the same reasons that gave us in politics a union of sovereign states instead of a single national state. Since the Civil War Masonic constitutional law has been so much improved and strengthened that it would now be out of order to introduce a discussion of a National Grand Lodge on the floor of any Grand Communication a Grand Lodge could not legally vote itself out of existence.
Nevertheless while the attempt to set up one National Grand Lodge failed, and failed for sound reasons, and could never have proved satisfactory in practice because no man could be Grand Master (except in name) of over three million Masons and over fifteen thousand Lodges, its champions had a well grounded and wise fear of what would be the results if the Fraternity went to the opposite extreme. Those who stood at that opposite extreme championed a Masonic system which would have been as unworkable as a single Grand Lodge and would have been in practice even more disastrous, because they proposed that Lodges should be completely sovereign, and that Grand Lodges should be nothing more than an annual meeting of Lodges, and that each Grand Lodge, although it would be nothing but a phantom, should be absolutely independent of other Grand Lodges. This would have been a form of atomism. There are now five Masonic Rites in the United States: Ancient Craft Masonry, Capitular Masonry, Cryptic Masonry, Templarism, and the Scottish Rite; in Ancient Craft Masonry alone there are 49 Grand Lodges and over 15,000 Lodges, and in the other Rites, correspondingly to their membership, are an equally large number of local and state bodies; if the champions of localism and parochialism had won their way there would be not one Masonic Fraternity in the nation but there would have been thousands of separate Freemasonries.
In place of atomism on the one hand, with its localism and parochialism and separateness, and of a national Grand Lodge on the other hand which would not have given us Masonic unity, because it would have left nothing to unite, but would have given us a despotism, the American Craft solved the problem in a wholly different manner, and on another principle, by developing the system of Masonic Comity. It was not invented or devised by any one man or any one Grand Lodge or at any one time or place, nor was it discussed in conventions or voted on in Grand Communications but was built up and expanded and is now still in process of being completed, one step at a time, as wisdom and experience have dictated.
1. The forty-nine Grand Lodges and the corresponding number of Grand Bodies in the other four Rites are each one sovereign and independent, and the jurisdiction of each one, including the jurisdiction of each local body, is inviolable. The function of Comity is to maintain a unity among these many Bodies without invading the sovereignty of any one of them, so that in spite of many sovereignties there is in the United States not many Freemasonries but only one Freemasonry.
2. This Comity consists of official acts, agreements, and conventions by Grand Bodies and by local Bodies; it is therefore not an aspiration only, or an unattainable ideal, but is a working system composed of actualities and realities; and it is now in operation. These official acts and agreements are not as between Bodies and Grand Bodies within one Rite only, but are also between Bodies and Grand Bodies from one Rite to another; they therefore constitute Masonic diplomacy, and since Freemasonry does not stop short at national political boundaries, these acts and agreements also are as between Bodies and Grand Bodies of one country with those in another country; Masonic diplomacy is therefore an international diplomacy. An agreement between a Grand Body in the United States and a Grand Body in Egypt is as binding as one between one American Grand Body and another.
3. By Recognition is meant an official declaration by one Grand Body that another Grand Body is regularly and duly constituted, and practices Freemasonry according to the Ancient Landmarks. If Grand Body A refuses to grant recognition to Grand Body B the former will carry on no official correspondence with the latter; its members cannot visit or demit to local Bodies under Grand Body B; as far as Grand Body A is concerned it is as if Grand Body B did not exist.
4. Grand Bodies themselves when in Grand Communication and their appropriate Grand Officers, at any other time, carry on correspondence with other Grand Bodies recognized by them.
5. Grand Bodies and Grand Officers and local Bodies and local Officers may visit in any recognized Masonic Body, personally or by deputy.
6. In its own published proceedings or transactions a Grand Body may review and discuss the proceedings published by any other recognized Grand Body. In Ancient Craft Masonry many such reviews are published and have been for more than a century; taken as a whole, and over that century of time, they have had an immense importance because they have served as a national Masonic forum, and as such have been a far better forum than a Grand Communication of a National Grand Lodge could have been. A large part of the unity of thought and practice among 49 Grand jurisdictions is directly traceable to these reviews.
7. Masons and Masonic Bodies in one Rite or Grand jurisdiction may extend Masonic relief to Masons in another Rite or Grand Body.
8. A Grand Body in one Rite may require of its own Candidates that they shall be members in good standing in a preceding Rite thus, no man can become or remain a Royal Arch or a Scottish Rite Mason unless he already is a member in good standing in a regular Ancient Craft Lodge.
9. In periods of war, calamity, hurricanes, distress, famine, the Masonic Bodies of the states and Rites can act cooperatively or concurrently to extend relief.
10. There are, in conclusion, a large number of more or less unclassifiable practices in Comity which, though of a great variety, and independent in themselves, act to the same end, which is to knit the many Bodies and Rites into a single Fraternity; among these are: the holding of such conferences as the Grand Masters' Conference and the Grand Secretaries' Conference in Washington, D. C., each February; the exchange of literature; the publication of Masonic periodicals; the sharing of facilities; Masonic speakers; Masonic mass meetings; courtesy Degrees; etc., etc.
Comity itself is of two kinds: External, and Internal. External Comity consists of the above described practices as carried on between a Body or Grand Body in one Rite and other Bodies and Grand Bodies in the same Rite which are in other states or countries. Internal Comity consists of the same practices between a Grand Body and its own local Bodies. A Grand Body has many forms of relations with its own local Bodies; Comity is but one of them, but it is as official and as necessary as are any of the others.
It will be seen from the above descriptive notes (an exhaustive description would fill a large volume) that at each and every point Comity is strictly and rigorously official, either in the sense that it consists of actions taken by Masonic Bodies and Grand Bodies, or actions approved or permitted or allowed by tacit consent, and for that reason much interchange of Masonic thought and knowledge and many forms of sociability do not come within Comity though they may in their own way help to maintain a unity of thought and feeling throughout the Fraternity thus, the publication of Masonic books, Masonic banquets, etc., etc., do not belong to Comity. Its practices are strictly organizational and official. Therefore while Comity is very large and is (Masonically) completely inclusive, and extends itself to the farthest bounds of the Fraternity, it extends itself so far but no farther, and does not go beyond those bounds. In the very act by which it fastens a universal unity within the wide reaches of Freemasonry it shuts Freemasonry up within itself, and shuts nonMasonic bodies out; if it did not do this Comity would defeat its own purpose because it would draw non-Masonry into Masonry, and instead of preserving the unity of Masonry would destroy it, because if just any body or society could go about calling itself Masonic nothing would in any real and true sense be Masonic.
Comity is one of the subjects in which a
Mason ought to begin to take pride as soon as he is raised. We
American Masons are proud of it, and without boasting or self-conceit.
It solved a problem which good and wise men declared at one time
to be unsolvable, and solved it in the grand style and on an imperial
scale. It has bound together hundreds of Grand Bodies and thousands
of local Bodies in a living and working unity and yet has done
so without encroaching upon their sovereignty or trespassing upon
their jurisdictions. Had it failed, Ancient Craft Masonry would
itself have broken down into 49 separate Masonries; so, in turn,
would each of the other four Rites; we should by now have hundreds
or thousands of separate, atomistic, unrelated Freemasonries,
which is a way of saying that we should have no Freemasonry at
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