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’.
10 November 2010
An address by the ME Second Grand Principal George Francis, Acting First Grand Principal
Companions, it is now five years, give or take a day, since I was installed as Second Grand Principal here in Supreme Grand Chapter in November 2005, by the then Pro First Grand Principal, the Marquess of Northampton, DL, and it continues to be a most enjoyable and rewarding office. During that period, I have officially visited all but one of our forty-six Provinces and, of course, London on several occasions (and I hope to visit that last Province shortly). On each and every visit I have been struck by the enthusiasm and commitment of all Companions, and I sense everywhere a new confidence and an awareness of our future; the decline in our membership numbers over many years has slowed considerably, and in some Provinces our numbers are gradually increasing again; more importantly, the number of exaltations is holding steady and I believe they will also begin to increase, reflecting the hard work being put in by many Companions, Chapters and Provincial teams.
The focus of our attention is now moving to the celebration of the Bi-Centenary of the Royal Arch in 2013; to mark the official recognition of the Royal Arch as “the completion of pure and Antient Freemasonry”, at the of the two great English Grand Lodges in 1813, which also created the United Grand Lodge of England. We therefore celebrate our official birthday, or to put it another way, the full emergence of the Royal Arch as we know it, 200 years ago.
A key item is the programme for a celebratory Convocation on 16 October 2013 (to replace the normal November Convocation that year). There will be a lunch in the Grand Connaught Rooms beforehand, followed by the Convocation to be held later in the afternoon here in the Grand Temple, in the presence of the First Grand Principal, followed by a guest dinner to be hosted by him at The Savoy in the evening. Details of who will be able to attend each event will be communicated to you by your Grand Superintendent, in due course.
Another important element in the programme is a fund raising exercise over the next three years to provide a permanent reminder of our celebrations. The amount raised will be used to create a Research Fund for the benefit of the Royal College of Surgeons, to be administered at no extra cost alongside the Craft’s 250th Anniversary Fund for the purpose of research by the Royal College. As soon as this Convocation is closed, and before the outgoing procession, we will be hearing a presentation by members of the Royal College about their research work, so their presence here today gives me the opportunity officially to launch The Royal Arch Masons’ 2013 Bi-Centenary Appeal for the benefit of their Surgical Research Fellowship Scheme.
Grand Lodge has always 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. As you will see from a leaflet you should all have received this morning, our Appeal will reinforce our support for this vital work, bearing in mind that the Royal College is a registered charity, receives no direct funding from the NHS, and relies heavily on voluntary contributions; it is fair to say that this is how they prefer to operate.
We have opened a Relief Chest with the Grand Charity into which all donations will go. The aim over the next three years or so, is to raise a minimum of £10, plus Gift Aid, from every Companion; that is a little over £3 a year, but this would raise more than one million pounds. You will appreciate that Gift Aid is worth nearly 30% added value to your individual donation, so we hope that Chapter donations will incorporate this additional amount. The leaflets will be distributed through Freemasonry Today, and to every Companion by London, the Province or District.
As I have already mentioned, the final Fund will be overseen by us, through Trustees appointed by the Royal Arch, and used to provide specific Research Fellowships in the same tried and tested way as the 250th Fund and at no extra cost.
This cannot in my view fail, in due course, to benefit all Royal Arch Masons, or those near and dear to them.
Finally, Companions, I would like to take this opportunity to thank every one of you for your attendance today, and for all you do for your Chapters and Provinces, to keep the Royal Arch flourishing and in great heart.
Companions, as time is marching on, I will move on to the announcement of appointments made by the ME The First Grand Principal before we close, and then hear from the Research Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons. Thank you Companions.
Fresh Look at Status of the Royal Arch to Encourage Recruitment and Retention
A fresh definition of the status of the Royal Arch is to be considered by Grand Lodge following the publication of the report of the working group set up last year under the chairmanship of the Second Grand Principal, George Francis.
The announcement was made by Lord Northampton, Pro First Grand Principal, to the November meeting of Supreme Grand Chapter following publication of the report into the recruitment and retention of Royal Arch Masons. The report was going to Grand Superintendents, who would make it more widely available in Provinces.
The report covers neither the Metropolitan Grand Chapter, as they are to bring out their own report, nor Districts overseas.
Lord Northampton said that overall numbers had been dropping steadily, broadly in line with the falls in membership in the Craft generally, but as a proportion of the total membership of the Craft, they have been rising very slightly over the past ten years. However, there was much to do.
The first conclusion of the report related to the additional paragraph to the 1813 Declaration in the preamble to the Book of Constitutions, relating to the status of the Royal Arch.
This was added to by Grand Lodge in December 2003, and described the Royal Arch as ‘an extension to, but neither a superior nor a subordinate part of the Degrees which precede it’.
Lord Northampton commented: “There is no doubt that the Royal Arch is not the completion of just the third degree, but the 2003 declaration has not been entirely satisfactory.”
Neither did it help to describe the relationship of the Royal Arch to the three degrees, so had not been helpful to those joining or those seeking to recruit new members.
Lord Northampton added: “I am minded to request Grand Lodge to give careful consideration to replacing the 2003 paragraph with a fresh definition. A number of companions will be assisting me in trying to find a more suitable form of words for consideration.
“We should all seek to describe the Royal Arch as the next step in Freemasonry after the Craft degrees and the final step in pure ancient masonry. It is, of course, both an integral part of Craft masonry as well as being its completion.”
The other important conclusion of the report was a recommendation to that a Royal Arch representative should be appointed in each Craft lodge. Lord Northampton said that this representative, at least until further research and consideration, would not be a lodge officer, but would have the responsibility of promoting the Royal Arch within the lodge.
He added: “Where this role has already been implemented in some lodges, it has had a dramatic effect on the levels of recruitment and retention. Representatives need to be carefully chosen and the report gives advice and guidance on this matter.”
Lord Northampton said the report made a number of recommendations, and pointed to the dangers of allowing Chapters to become smaller and smaller to the point where they will no longer become viable.
There was a recommendation to look for ways of holding joint meetings with other chapters from time to time – with a possible view to encouraging amalgamation rather than inevitable closure.
He added: “The sharing of work is made much easier by the new ritual, but greater efforts are needed to include as many Companions as possible in ceremonies. This is to prevent boredom on the part of experienced companions, and fear and trepidation among newer Companions.”
Royal Arch to Adopt Hybrid System of Appointments and Promotions
The Royal Arch is to follow the Craft and revert to the principle of first appointments to Provincial and District Grand Ranks being based on the number of Chapters in a Province or District, and not as currently, on the number of Royal Arch Masons in such areas. The existing scales of acting ranks, based on the number of Royal Arch Masons, will, however, be retained.
The change was announced at the meeting of Supreme Grand Chapter in November. In addition, the working party headed by Past Second Grand Principal Peter Lowndes – who is also Deputy Grand Master in the Craft – has recommended that there be no formal restriction on the number of promotions that may be made. The changes will also apply to Metropolitan and Overseas Grand Chapter Ranks.
A notice of motion to amend the Royal Arch Regulations was given at the November Convocation of Grand Chapter, but as the retention of the existing scale of acting ranks was only decided on after the paper of business had gone to press, the formal motion will be subject to amendment when it comes before Grand Chapter on 1 May.
Supreme Grand Chapter of Estonia is Set Up
A Supreme Grand Chapter of Estonia is expected to be formed in early April 2008 with Hackney Brook Dependable Chapter No. 7397 of London planned to appear, without number, at the head of the register.
The London Chapter is currently meeting by dispensation in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, and is to retain its original charter, after cancellation, as an integral part of its history and that of the new Grand Chapter.
Subject to the Estonian Grand Chapter being constituted on or after 1 April, Hackney Brook Dependable Chapter will be erased from the register of the English Supreme Grand Chapter.
Two Chapters under the Grand Chapter of Finland have been exalting brethren from lodges under the Grand Lodge of Estonia with a similar view. All three Chapters will form the new Supreme Grand Chapter of Estonia.