Celebrating 300 years

The President's Conundrum

Saturday, 19 April 2008

The Royal Arch - An Order or a Degree?

One of the problems in uniting the Premier Grand Lodge, sometimes referred to as the Moderns, and the Antients Grand Lodge, was how each Grand Lodge regarded the Royal Arch. The Premier Grand Lodge did not recognise it, while the Antients Grand Lodge embraced it wholeheartedly and worked it as a Fourth Degree in their Craft lodges. A compromise was found that placated both Grand Lodges. The Royal Arch was accepted as being part of pure Ancient Masonry but had to be worked in separate Chapters and no longer within Craft lodges. A pronouncement was made in the Act of Union of 1813, that pure Ancient Masonry consists of three degrees and no more, namely those of the Entered Apprentice, the Fellow Craft, and the Master Mason, including the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch.

Following the formation of Supreme Grand Chapter in 1817, the Regulations have on their title pages ‘Abstract of Laws and Regulations for the Order of Royal Arch Masons.’ So the matter is settled. The Royal Arch is an Order. Or is it? To this day the ritual books are ambiguous. 

In the Exaltation Ceremony, MEZ informs the Candidate that he has not taken a Fourth Degree, but that it is the Master Mason’s degree completed. MEZ then promptly states that he will explain the mystical portion of this Supreme Degree. The Exaltation Ceremony repeats this anomaly on several occasions, referring to the Royal Arch seven times as an Order and eleven times as a Degree. The first words MEZ addresses to the Candidate are “... as you seek preferment in our Order, and have been entrusted with the Passwords leading to this Supreme Degree...” The Symbolical and Mystical Lectures also refer to the Royal Arch as a Degree, while in the Installation Ceremony it is referred to both as an Order and a Degree. 

Researchers, the Ritual Associations and the Aldersgate Chapter of Improvment have all reviewed the ritual on various occasions but have never seen fit to regularise the wording. Indeed, the Preface of the Aldersgate Ritual states : “This Supreme Degree is the climax of Freemasonry.” 

It could be that the anomaly is part of the charm of the Royal Arch, a quaint old-fashioned tradition that Companions would not like changed, or maybe those scholars and scribes who have researched the ritual have other reasons for the retention of both references, but if I am confused, so must the Candidate be, and spare a thought for those Companions who have to explain it to the Candidate. 

The author, Michael Reader, is President of the Committee of General Purposes.

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