A brief history of the Degree

In 18th century England, the role and purpose of Royal Arch Masonry was the subject of a long debate between the two rival umbrella organisations of Freemasonry.  In 1717, four Craft lodges had formed the original Premier Grand Lodge of England to govern Freemasonry as practiced in England.  From 1751, this claim was contested by another group of Craft lodges which formed the Antient Grand Lodge of England. In the ensuing debate, the newer grand lodge became known for short as the “Antients”, while the older grand lodge was referred to as the “Moderns”.

In 1746, Laurence Dermott, who would later become Grand Secretary of the “Antients”, had been accepted into a Royal Arch Chapter in Dublin, which at that time was open only to those who had previously served as Master of a Craft lodge. He regarded the Royal Arch as the fourth degree of Craft Masonry.  Under his influence, the “Antients” championed the Royal Arch degree in England, while it was met with hostility in the Premier Grand Lodge of England.

In 1764, a lodge of Scottish Masons attached to the “Antients” switched sides and became the Caledonian Lodge attached to the”Moderns”. The next year, they assisted insetting up a Royal Arch Chapter admitting masons from other Craft lodges which were attached to the “Moderns”. In 1766, with the Exaltation of Lord Blayney, the Grand Master of the “Moderns”, this organisation became known as the “Excellent Grand and Royal Arch Chapter”, taking on administrative responsibilities and thus becoming the first Grand Chapter in England. At the same time, James Heseltine, the Grand Secretary of the “Moderns”, stated about Royal Arch Masonry that “It is part of Masonry but has no connection with Grand Lodge” in a letter to a senior German mason. He was also one of the signatories on the charter establishing the first Grand Chapter. The minutes of the first meeting of Grand Chapter show that it met in the Turks Head, in the London district of Soho, the same tavern that had shortly before hosted the birth of the Antient Grand Lodge of England. On this occasion, Thomas Dunckerley was elected to hold the office of Z (head officer of the Chapter) in the absence of the Grand Master and Deputy Grand Master. He was later appointed Grand Superintendent and promoted Royal Arch Masonry in the provincial lodges of the “Moderns” with considerable energy and success.

In 1774, the “Antients” formed their own Royal Arch Grand Chapter upon Laurence Dermott’s instigation. Its members were Grand Lodge officers who happened to hold the Royal Arch degree, its meetings were ordained by Grand Lodge, and its proceedings approved by that same body.

By the end of the 18th century, both Craft grand lodges thus had developed a different organisational approach to the Royal Arch.While the Grand Chapter of the “Moderns” was independent from their Craft Grand Lodge out of necessity, the Grand Chapter of the “Antients” was closely tied to the corresponding Craft Grand Lodge. For the masons organised in the “Antients”, the Royal Arch became recognised as the fourth degree, open to those who had served as a master of a Craft Lodge. For the “Antients”, Grand Chapter was little more than a cipher, registering names and processing admission fees. Effective governance of the Royal Arch degree rested with the Grand Lodge and the individual Craft lodges that also worked this fourth degree.

Uniting the two Grand Lodges

At the beginning of the 19th century, when the “Antients” and the “Moderns” moved from rivalry towards union, the role and purpose of the Royal Arch became a sticking point. The “Antients” viewed the Royal Arch as a fourth degree of Craft Freemasonry and worked it as part of the Craft ceremonies, while the “Moderns” almost totally ignored it. The latter held the opinion that Craft Freemasonry consisted of three degrees only and that the Royal Arch was at the most an extension of the third (Master Mason’s) degree which was to be administered separately. In addition, the “Moderns” embedded certain teachings in their third degree ritual that the “Antients” only revealed to those joining the Royal Arch.

In 1813, the “Antients” and “Moderns” agreed on an Act of Union and formed the United Grand Lodge of England. This was possible only after reaching a compromise on the role and purpose of Royal Arch Masonry. The compromise was that after the union, the Royal Arch degree would be fully recognised by the United Grand Lodge (to placate the “Antients”),but become a separate order (to placate the “Moderns”) while all Craft Lodges would begiven sanction to work the ceremony (top lacate the “Antients”). At the same time, no compromise could be reached on the role and purpose of the Mark degree. It was effectively proscribed from the Union until the 1850s, until it became organised in an independent Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons of England and Wales. In most countries outside England and Wales, however, Mark Masonry became attached to Royal Arch chapters. In its Book of Constitutions, the United Grand Lodge of England therefore declared that “…pure Antient Masonry consists of three degrees and no more, viz. those of the Entered Apprentice, the Fellow Craft, and the Master Mason including the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch.”.

In 1817, four years after the “Antients” and “Moderns” had united their Craft Grand lodges, the new United Grand Lodge oversaw the formation of a “Supreme Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons of England” to govern the Holy Royal Arch in England and Wales.  By that time, the Grand Chapter of the “Antients” had effectively ceased to exist (only a few meetings are recorded for the time after1813), so their remaining members were simply absorbed into what had previously been the Grand Chapter of the “Moderns”.

Another significant constitutional development in English Royal Arch Masonry occurred in 1823, when Master Masons were allowed to join Holy Royal Arch Chapters without having previously passed through the chair of a Craft lodge. In 1835, the ritual was reformed, when part of the ceremony known as “Passing the Veils” was dropped. It was re-adopted by Bristol Chapters at the turn of the 20th century.

Development since the Act of Union

While the Act of Union of 1813 recognised the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch as part of “pure, antient masonry”, the wording in the United Grand Lodge of England’s Book of Constitutions that “…pure Antient Masonry consists of three degrees and no more, viz. those of the Entered Apprentice, the Fellow Craft, and the Master Mason including the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch” was subsequently often interpreted to suggest that the Holy Royal Arch was not an additional degree, but merely the completion of the Master Mason degree. That view was so widely held among Freemasons in England and Wales that in the Royal Arch ritual the newly Exalted candidate was informed that he must not think that he had taken a fourth degree but that he had in fact completed his third. Statements to this effect can on occasion still be found today, e.g. “When a Freemason has attained the rank of a Master Mason he is then entitled (…) and to be Exalted into a Royal Arch Chapter in order to complete fully his Master Mason’s Degree. While expressing a compromise position between the traditional views of the “Antients” and “Moderns”, this interpretation put the Holy Royal Arch in opposition to masonic practice in most countries outside England and Wales. No other masonic constitution ever claimed that the Third Degree and the Royal Arch are two parts of a single whole. The Supreme Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons of England eventually questioned its own reasoning. In December 2003, the United Grand Lodge of England acknowledged and pronounced the status of the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch to be “an extension to, but neither a superior nor a subordinate part of, the degrees which precede it”. On10 November 2004, after deliberations by a special working party, the Supreme Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons of England at its regular meeting in London formally overturned the compromise position of 1813, and declared the Holy Royal Arch to be a separate degree in its own right, albeit the natural progression from the Third Degree, and the completion of “pure Ancient Masonry”, which consists of the three Craft degrees and the Holy Royal Arch. Words in the ritual which propounded the earlier compromise position and led to misinterpretations were removed by mandatory regulation. The official position of the Supreme Grand Chapter today is that the “Royal Arch is the continuation of Craft Freemasonry”; in that sense, ““pure ancient Masonry” can be seen as a journey of self-knowledge and discovery with the Royal Arch completing the practical lessons of the Craft by a contemplation of man’s spiritual nature.”

Upcoming Events

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    December 13 @ 12:00 am
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