As the Royal Arch marks two hundred years of recognition, 2nd Grand Principal George Francis explains its evolution and sometimes complex relationship with the Craft
It's a difficult concept to explain, even to a mason. Part of the problem is that the Royal Arch developed in a way that has been forgotten. The main idea goes back to the sixteenth century, if not before. Around the Tudor period there was Freemasonry which had come from the stonemasons, and the Royal Arch was the first attempt to branch off and do something extra. We have to be careful not to call the Royal Arch the 'Fourth Degree; that's just one way to explain it to an outsider, but it is a completion of the Three Degrees. It gives you new insights and is the culmination of the first lessons and meanings - it completes the journey.
The people who started Grand Lodge in 1717 decided they were not going to include the Royal Arch and were going to stick to the main idea, or trunk. That's really the start of the story, before then it's all speculative. By 1750, another group who were also part of the main trunk said this isn't quite how Freemasonry ought to be, that the Royal Arch was absolutely essential, so they were going to split off and do things differently. Suddenly two Grand Lodges were operating side by side and they gave one another inappropriate nicknames. The newer Grand Lodge members called themselves 'the Antients' (as they felt they were the real keepers of the flame) and called the other Grand Lodge 'the Moderns' - even though the Moderns had actually been established earlier. So you had this slight friction between them and they trundled along rather uneasily side by side.
Eventually both lodges decided the situation was counter-productive and that they should join up. The Duke of Sussex was the main mover in this, heading up the Moderns, and the leader of the Antients was his brother, the Duke of Kent, who insisted that the combined organisation must have the Royal Arch as part of the journey. It wasn't until 1813 that the Royal Arch became a formal part of the structure.
One point the Duke of Sussex stipulated at the union was that we should all wear the same regalia, and also that we were to use the same rituals and words. The second part never quite happened, so there are still differences in the rituals and wording used by different lodges. However, we're greatly indebted to the Duke of Sussex; he was an interesting person and very left wing for a royal prince - he was anti-slavery, pro-Catholic (although not one himself) and pro-Jewish. These things were rather unfashionable at the time. He was very much a figurehead for the Whigs and people who wanted change. The Duke of Sussex was the one who said we are not going to be just Christian in the Freemasons, we'll allow everybody in as long as they believe in God.
We call the three main degrees, which have adopted the colour blue, the 'Craft' and we call members 'brothers' and 'brethren. Even the female masons call one another brother. In the Royal Arch, you become 'companions. You've made that additional step, you're taking it a bit more seriously, so there's a different atmosphere — it's more intimate, you're more closely linked. We meet up in chapters and have adopted the colour red as well as blue. It's very much an eighteenth-century idea of a harmonious society.
I try to get people to realise that you don't have to understand everything that's going on, you just have to enjoy it. There are interesting ideas and stories — some of it's quite deep — but you don't have to comprehend every single part. It's quite fun exploring and finding out these things slowly. You've got to enjoy time with people, enjoy doing a bit of acting, listening to stories and maybe understanding something you didn't understand before. That's what it's about really, doing things together.
Around forty per cent of Craft masons are in the Royal Arch and it's a shame that it isn't more. Clearly there are some who really don't want to go into the deeper meanings, which is fine because Freemasonry should appeal on different levels. But what I'm trying to express to the Craft is that you should really complete the journey, it's not that much more time or expense and you'll really enjoy it. It completes the circle of understanding and the basic journey. This way of thinking is having some effect and our proportion of Craft masons is gradually rising.
The problem is that when you come to Freemasonry, the Royal Arch is not explained because it's difficult to describe. It sometimes doesn't get mentioned until quite late on — someone might have been in masonry a couple of years before they come across it. We're trying to change the perception that it's just an optional extra and make sure that it's explained at the outset. We thought at one stage we might go back to a Fourth Degree idea so everyone would be involved. It would be free of charge and there wouldn't be any reason for not doing it. But the Royal Arch is slightly different so it shouldn't really be an automatic stage; people ought to think about it, and we're hoping the bicentenary will help to explain that.
The Bicentenary Appeal is about three things: formal recognition, an appeal and an excuse for a party. We added the appeal idea so we would have a legacy of our celebration, one that adds to the Fund we created in 1967 for the benefit of the Royal College of Surgeons. We've ninety thousand members in England and Wales and ten thousand abroad, and it is important when you've got such a big organisation to continue to show members what can be done, to not just sit back and do more of the same.
My role was traditionally carried out by the Deputy Grand Master but for various reasons the roles got split a number of years ago. It means that I can concentrate on the Royal Arch. I try to visit all forty-six Provinces as well as the Metropolitan Area of London and explain what's happening at the centre, what the challenges are for the future and encourage our members generally. It's an opportunity to speak to the Provinces on a different level and not just go through the motions.
We try to alter the ritual as little as possible because it's something that people have to learn by heart —you can't keep changing it all the time. But part of my job is to find the things that we can improve to make it more enjoyable and exciting. My job is to also get the message out there that this is for younger chaps, too, and that we can add a bit more colour and a little less formality.
The above interview was first published in Freemasonry Today No. 22 Summer 2013