Matthew Scanlan talks to George Francis about the Royal Arch
For the last five years George Francis has been Second Grand Principal of the Supreme Grand Chapter, the governing body of the Royal Arch. And at the Supreme Grand Chapter meeting held on 10 November at Freemasons’ Hall, London, he officiated as Acting First Grand Principal and spoke about the order’s upcoming bicentennial celebrations as well as the creation of a bicentenary research fund appeal for The Royal College of Surgeons. Consequently, Freemasonry Today decided to catch up with him to discuss his involvement with the Order at an interesting moment in its history.
George Francis was born in March 1947 and was educated at Eton College and the Universities of Aix-en-Provence and Birmingham. A solicitor by profession, he joined Freemasonry in April 1992 and rose quickly through the ranks. And after serving as both Deputy Grand Director of Ceremonies (2001-4) and Senior Grand Warden (2006-2008) in the Craft, he was installed as Second Grand Principal in November 2005 by the then Pro Grand Master, Lord Northampton.
Five years on, almost to the day, I sat down with him in one of the spacious offices at Freemasons’ Hall, London, and it quickly became apparent that he clearly enjoys his role as one of the rulers of the Order, despite the not inconsiderable demands on his time; for as he explained, he has visited no fewer than forty-six provinces during his five years in office.
I began by asking, what motivated him to become a Freemason in the first place?
‘I was always vaguely curious about Freemasonry’, he replied, ‘my grandfather was a mason, but my father was quite anti’.
Therefore, I queried, what made you make that final leap of faith?
‘It was a personal thing and my involvement began through my school connection. I was always interested in deeper stuff and I was interested to know if Freemasonry held any answers to the meaning of life. As soon as I was initiated I felt comfortable and I liked the language; I have always found the thought provoking side of it most alluring’.
Do you remember your initiation?
‘Yes, very well. I was initiated in Old Etonian Lodge, No. 4500 in a ceremony held in the chapel at Castle Ashby, the ancestral home of the former Pro Grand Master, Lord Northampton. It was interesting because the Wardens were in the West of the lodge as they once used to be. It was a very impressive ceremony and Lord Northampton was in the Chair’.
He was subsequently passed in Lancing Lodge, No. 6352, raised in Old Etonian Lodge, and, two and a half years later, exalted in United Studholme Chapter, No. 1591, a chapter that was once the haunt of Edward VIII when he was Prince of Wales (latterly the Duke of Windsor).
What was your initial impression of the Royal Arch?
‘Well, I first heard about the order after I had taken my second degree and someone mentioned said there was a sort of optional bolt-on degree at the end of the three Craft degrees. But I didn’t hear about it properly until I was relatively far down the track, as it were. When I was finally exalted I found the ceremony very impressive, although since that time I have often felt that the beginning could be a little more dramatic as I don’t remember much about it. Perhaps it could be held in the dark, but that’s just a personal view.’
Did the degree make any sense to you?
‘Well, the Royal Arch is not an easy concept to understand. It has been described as the keystone of masonry because it emphasises the existence of a higher power, i.e. God. And whereas the Name of God is more implicit in the Craft, in the Royal Arch it is more explicit. You are thus made to realise that there is an all-powerful Supreme Being, a power larger than yourself, and this should hopefully remind the candidate to be humble and not let one’s personal ego obscure or obstruct one’s relationship with this omnipresent force.’
It was evident from talking to Companion Francis that he is keenly interested in the Order’s history, most especially its enigmatic origins and its true relationship with the three Craft degrees, two key aspects of the Royal Arch which are still hotly debated by historians of Freemasonry today.
The precise origins of the Royal Arch, rather like the Craft itself, remain something of a mystery. Nevertheless, several pieces of evidence strongly suggest that either it, or something like it, was being worked by the second quarter of the eighteenth century.
And somewhat intriguingly, the most important early references to the Royal Arch all appear to point toward Ireland.
Therefore it is not entirely surprising to discover that when, on 17 July 1751, five lodges assembled at the Turk’s Head Tavern in Greek Street, Soho, and founded a new organising body called The Grand Lodge of England according to its Old Institutions, they were almost entirely composed of Irishmen. Styled the ‘Antients’ they quickly became rivals to the premier Grand Lodge (who they successfully dubbed the ‘Moderns’) and attacked them for several alleged changes and non-observances, most particularly for not practising the Royal Arch which they considered to be ‘the root, heart, and marrow of masonry’.
For the next sixty years or more an uneasy relationship existed between the two grand lodges as the Antients continued to promulgate the Royal Arch much to the chagrin of the premier Grand Lodge, who steadfastly refused to recognise the degree despite the widespread interest of many of their own members in its mysteries.
However, their rivalry came to an end in 1813 when a union of the two grand lodges was achieved under the leadership of the Duke of Sussex in 1813, a move that saw the creation of the United Grand Lodge of England. And within four years of this celebrated union, the Royal Arch was recognised as an integral part of pure ancient Freemasonry, and ever since its chapters have been attached to Craft lodges in both England and Wales.
The Royal Arch today
History aside, I asked George Francis about the current state of the Royal Arch; was the Order in good health after more than two centuries?
‘Overall, the decline in our membership has slowed and the number of exaltations is rising in some places. Across the country about forty percent of Craft Freemasons join the Royal Arch, around 100,000 members, and that figure may hopefully rise to around fifty percent In Lincolnshire, where there is a much more ingrained tradition of Royal Arch masonry, the percentage of Craft masons joining is high at around fifty-five percent and West Lancashire is another very strong province in this respect, whereas in London only about thirty-two percent of masons are exalted.’
‘However, the Order is currently doing well in most rural areas and the decline in membership has flattened out and we are now building a good new base of many new exaltees. Therefore I am confident about the future provided that we all keep working on the retention of existing members as well as bringing in new and younger members. With that in mind, I would like to see that every new initiate is informed about the existence of the Royal Arch at a much earlier stage, so that the newly initiated candidate clearly appreciates both its place in importance within the whole ritual schema’.
The focus of our conversation then turned to the coming bicentenary of the Royal Arch in 2013, a date which marks the official recognition of the Royal Arch as ‘the completion of pure and ancient Freemasonry’. ‘We will then celebrate our official birthday’, he said, ‘or to put it another way, the full emergence of the Royal Arch as we know it, 200 years ago.’
As he explained, the Supreme Grand Chapter is planning to hold a lunch at the Connaught Rooms next to Grand Lodge on 16 October 2013, and this will be followed by a celebratory convocation in the grand temple and an evening dinner at The Savoy, both hosted by the First Grand Principal, HRH the Duke of Kent.
Another important element of this milestone event will be a fund-raising exercise which will take place over the next three years, which is intended to provide a permanent memorial of the anniversary. The sum raised will be used to create a Research Fund for the benefit of the Royal College of Surgeons which will be administered at no extra cost alongside the Craft’s 250th Anniversary Fund for the purposes of research by the Royal College.
‘Grand Lodge has supported the Royal College since its foundation in 1800 and, more specifically, since the 250th Fund was set up in 1967 to provide support for the Fellowship Scheme. And as the Royal College is a registered charity and receives no direct funding from the NHS, it relies heavily on private donations and therefore our appeal will help reinforce our support for this highly important work’, he said.
To help to meet this goal the Supreme Grand Chapter has recently opened a Relief Chest with the Grand Charity into which all donations will go, and, as George Francis enthusiastically explained, ‘the aim is for every Companion to give a minimum of £10 plus Gift Aid, i.e. little over £3 a year, and this will hopefully raise more than one million pounds, although it would be fantastic if we could exceed that amount, as this is a unique fund-raising event for the Royal Arch and it would be wonderful to mark the Order’s bicentenary with a generous contribution to a really deserving cause’.