The Bicentenary of the Supreme Grand Chapter of England was held with verious events througout 2013. This landmark anniversary was marked by a national fund-raising appeal in support of the Royal College of Surgeons. The appeal was launched in 2011 with all members of the Royal Arch in England being asked to make a modest contribution. By October 2013 upward of two million pounds has been raised. Buckinghamshire Royal Arch Masons played their part, with many responding to Dr. Richard Neale’s request that “Each member gives serious consideration to donating £15 to this most worthwhile cause”, raising £50,000.
However, some Royal Arch Masons admit to being somewhat confused by an apparent conundrum. The first Grand Chapter in the world, the Excellent Grand and Royal Chapter of the so-called Moderns, was constituted in 1767. Years later, following the Union of the Moderns and Antients Grand Lodges in 1813 to form the United Grand Lodge of England, the two strands of English Royal Arch Masonry in 1817 formed the United Grand Chapter. This was the forerunner of our Supreme Grand Chapter, which was so called in 1821. Why then are we celebrating the Bicentenary in 2013 and not 2017or 2021 as might be expected at first sight?
The answer is really quite straightforward, for it was the Act of Union in 1813 that marked for the first time in England, the noteworthy occasion when all parties formally agreed that the Royal Arch was an important and necessary part of Pure Antient Freemasonry. With this agreement in place, the Royal Arch was finally on track to develop into the position it now occupies; the completion of a Craft Mason’s journey of self-discovery. A journey that commences with a Brother’s Initiation and in due course, is completed with the ‘finishing touch’ of his Exaltation into a Royal Arch Chapter.
The story of how 19th century Freemasonry arrived at this conclusion is fascinating and, for those interested in our Masonic heritage, is well worth the read. An account of this story follows.
THE FASCINATING STORY OF THE CREATION OF THE SUPREME GRAND CHAPTER OF ENGLAND
To fully comprehend the events happening in England around the early part of the nineteenth century it is useful to examine the development of Royal Arch Masonry from its beginnings, sometime in the early eighteenth century. Following the erection of the first Grand Lodge in London in 1717, Freemasonry flourished for a while. By 1730 the early enthusiasm had started to subside. Grand Lodges in Ireland (1725) and Scotland (1736) had followed the lead of London, and by 1740 there were many Irish and Scottish Masons in London seeking the opportunity to practice their Freemasonry. To their disappointment, they were not always welcomed enthusiastically into Lodges under the Grand Lodge of England and on many occasions were discouraged from entering. This led in 1751 to the establishment of the rival Grand Lodge of the ‘Most Ancient and Honourable Society of Free and accepted Masons according to the Old Constitutions’. This lengthy title was soon shortened to ‘The Antients’, and the first Grand Lodge also became known as ‘The Moderns’. The great rivalry between the two Grand Lodges had commenced and central to the differences that separated them was the Holy Royal Arch of Jerusalem. This ‘degree’, as it was then, was practised widely in the Antients’ Lodges, but not in those of the Moderns. In fact the Royal Arch was dismissed completely by the Moderns, until it became clear that there was a certain compelling attraction to the ritual o0f the Royal Arch. An attraction that was leading to many Moderns Freemasons finding their way into Antients Lodges to practice this ‘fourth degree’ as it was then regarded. To them is seemed a logical consequence that, ‘if secrets were lost, one might as well set out about finding them.’ To the Antients the Royal Arch was the criterion of Pure Antient Masonry and the epitome of their ambitions.
In order to counter the growth of the Royal Arch within those lodges owing an allegiance to the Antients’ Grand Lodge, the Moderns capitulated and in 1767 formed the world’s first sovereign Grand Chapter, the ‘Grand and Royal Chapter of the Royal Arch of Jerusalem’. For the Moderns the Royal Arch was to be erected under the Charter of Compact. Be kept separate and distinct from Craft Lodges and was to be practices in Chapters as an ‘Order’ and not as a Fourth Degree. Meanwhile, the Antients continued to hold meetings, which included the Royal Arch Chapter degree.
Four years later the Antients formed a governing body to oversee the practice of the Royal Arch in their Lodges. But this was never entrusted as a separate and sovereign body, which led to some confusion at the time of the union of the two Grand Lodges in 1813. With that union the United Grand Lodge of England came into being and with it came the final acknowledgement of the part to be taken by the Royal Arch in the Preliminary Declaration. By the solemn Act of Union between the two Grand Lodges of Free-Masons of England in 1813, it was ‘declared and pronounced 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.’
Clearly, the Royal Arch was to henceforth to be regarded as an ‘Order’ and not a ‘Fourth Degree’. Furthermore, those previously Antients Lodges were obliged to consecrate separate Chapters in which to practice their Royal Arch ritual. These new Chapters were to be attached to the Lodges from which they originated and to bear the corresponding number. However, before the Union could be completed with regard to the Royal Arch it was necessary to form a sovereign body under which all Chapters in England would be ranged. This sounds straightforward but, as at the time there was only one Sovereign Grand Chapter, that of the Moderns, and no equivalent for the Antients, there was the question who could and would negotiate? This question was not successfully resolved until 1817 with the erection of the Supreme Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons of England, which for the first three years of its existence was called the United Grand Chapter. At last, the long-awaited union was complete in every respect and the Craft and the Royal Arch would progress hand-in-hand and evolve together, indissoluble as ‘Pure Antient Masonry’. Thus it can be appreciated why, for a Craft Mason, progression to the Royal Arch is seen as so important, as it completes the journey in Pure Antient Masonry and resolves the questions left in the mind at the completion of the three Craft degree ceremonies. The finishing touch to becoming a ‘complete’ speculative Mason is delivered within a Royal Arch Chapter in the form of a candidate’s Exaltation, which, in due time leads to the knowledge to be obtained in each of the three Principal’s chairs.
Now it can be fully understood why the Bicentenary of Supreme Grand Chapter was celebrated in 2013. It represents two hundred years of the formal acknowledgement of the Royal Arch as an integral and necessary part of Pure Antient Masonry.