On 27 April 2011, at the Festival meeting of Grand Lodge, after investing those brethren who were to hold active rank in Grand Lodge for the ensuing year, the Most Worshipful the Grand Master, His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent, proceeded to invest 317 further brethren with ‘Past Grand Rank’.
Of those, 195 were promotions to a higher Past Grand Rank of brethren who were already Past Grand Officers and a further 122 being new appointments.
The common factor was that none, I repeat none, of the promoted brethren nor any of those newly appointed, had ever held in Grand Lodge the ‘active’ rank the regalia of which each was now entitled to wear on all Masonic occasions in the Craft.
The discussion of Provincial Honours amongst UGLE members appears to be ever contentious – in a friendly way – so I thought that a few words on the subject might be appropriate.
I don’t intend to go into how it all started, about a hundred years or so ago, but just to have a brief look at some aspects and to take a wider view elsewhere.
Nor will I go into how Provincial appointments are recommended in the Provinces; by the Visiting Officers in some, by lodge committees in others and by individual lodge secretaries in yet more. It appears to be one of those mysteries not to be found in nature and I’m certainly aware of no such science!
Grand ranks number some forty-eight, while Provincial Grand Ranks number about twenty fewer. That’s seventy-six different ones, plus the far fewer grades in the London Metropolitan area!
We all know that Grand and Provincial Grand Secretaries and Treasurers are active posts in looking after the administrative and financial aspects of our institution at central and local levels, just as our Lodge Secretaries and Treasurers do at lodge level.
But did you know that, for example, the one and only Grand Superintendent of Works, rather than holding simply a ceremonial rank, has to be professionally qualified in architecture and that he looks after the maintenance, contracting and all other related matters concerning the Grand Lodge building in Great Queen Street?
It’s not ceremonial at all; it’s a real practical job.
During the nineteenth century it was common practice for the holder of an active Grand Rank to hand his regalia on to his successor in office, then to relinquish his seat in Grand Lodge and revert to a light blue apron. 
Now, there’s a really great lesson in humility.
The plethora and fine granularity of all these different ranks has the tendency to confuse not only brethren in other constitutions but us as well.
Appointment directly to the ‘past’ rank of an office one has never held, or promotion from one ‘past’ rank to another ‘past’ rank must be to all a completely illogical mystery.
But then, hasn’t Freemasonry always been about mystery, and when has it ever been logical?
Nor can it be denied that the conferring of over three hundred Grand Lodge honours in a year brings to Grand Lodge and to the Provincial and District Grand Lodges quite significant amounts in honour fees.
The regalia manufacturers don’t do too badly either!
While travelling in Ireland and questioning why there seemed to be hardly any Grand or Provincial officers at lodges, I was introduced to the system they have in place and which, to my mind at least, appears to be entirely logical.
It runs something like this: If you are useful and willing, you may be appointed to a practical and active Provincial or Grand Office, which you keep for as many years as you are able or needed.
Much the same applies in Scotland as well. When your term comes to an end, you keep that as your past rank – forever.
There are no appointments directly to, or promotions within past ranks. Now, isn’t that simple and meaningful?
What’s more, when such a brother is in his own lodge and carrying out his lodge duties, he discards his high rank regalia in favour of the normal rosetted lodge apron and collar of his lodge office.
Here I should mention that Irish lodge regalia is similar that of our Master Mason – light blue lining and rosettes, even for those in, and past, the chair.
What I like about this is their adherence to the lesson taught through the principle of the Level.
Because Freemasonry was spread across the four quarters of the globe, before the 1813 Union, largely by the British regiments of Scottish and Irish Masons, is it any wonder that their system pervades, while the UGLE one mainly restricts itself to these shores.
The apron here illustrated  is that of an Irish active or past Grand Officer below that of Warden.
I realise that it would be very difficult to translate such a system to UGLE these days but I have to express my admiration for our Metropolitan Grand Lodge in making a move in that direction as regards reducing the fifty shades of blue within their ranks.
In conclusion, we have in UGLE a system of sorts that more or less works but none of us in the trenches knows how – and probably just as well!
Article by: Hugh O’Neill
Past Master of Craft lodges under the constitution of the United Grand Lodge of England. Member of Quatuor Coronati Lodge 2076, the world’s premier Masonic research lodge. Masonic historian and orator on Masonic topics.
 Vide ‘Past Grand Rank’, Bro C. John Mandleberg in this volume of AQC.
 From R F Gould’s History of Freemasonry, Volume V.