What is York Rite Masonry?

By REPGC Charles “Chic” Cicero

Many believe that the Sublime Degree of Master Mason is the ultimate degree of Freemasonry — and that all others are simply added on. However, most students of Freemasonry agree that the story of the Craft, as presented in the three degrees, is incomplete, and that the degrees offered in York Rite Masonry complete the story and answer many of the questions in the mind of the newly-made Master Mason. The York Rite is one of the appendant bodies of Freemasonry. A Master Mason may proceed to supplement and magnify the Blue Lodge degrees by joining the York Rite — which provides additional historical background on the work and meaning of Freemasonry. The York Rite takes its name from the city of York in the north of England. York is one of England’s oldest cities, and the site of Masonic legends which date back to the 10th century. According to Masonic legend, Prince Edwin held a great assembly of masons at York in the year 926. It has been suggested that this Grand Assembly had continued from that time down to the year 1717. In reality, Masonry cannot be traced back any earlier than the year 1717. The York Rite, like Freemasonry, is not a religion. However, it does, develop themes based on the Medieval Crusades. In the York Rite, a Master Mason may become a member of three bodies — A Chapter of Royal Arch Masons, a Council of Royal and Select Masters, and a Commandery of Knights Templar. These three bodies are often referred to as The Chapter, The Council, and the Commandery. York Rite Masonry has been described as the oldest and purest of the Rites. In England the Royal Arch dates back to at least 1744, and , and in America to 1753.

The Importance of the Royal Arch In the ceremony of the Royal Arch Degree, the candidate is informed that he “must not regard himself as having taken a fourth degree, the Royal Arch being described as the Master Mason’s degree completed. This is because in the early days of Masonry, from 1717 to around 1767, the Master Mason Degree contained the secrets of the Royal Arch. Since that time, these secrets have been transferred to the Royal Arch. The Royal Arch Degree was considered very important in the early years of Freemasonry. The Mother Grand Lodge—from which all Speculative Masonry derives—was so dogmatic about the importance of this degree, that in 1813, when the two grand lodges in England united, a firm and solemn landmark was adopted and placed in the Articles of Union to guide Masons throughout the world forever on this matter. It read: “Ancient Craft Masonry consists of three degrees and no more, namely, those of the Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason including the Holy Royal Arch.” This landmark has never been changed and to this day no other degree has been officially recognized by the Mother Grand Lodge and every rite, system or additional degree in Freemasonry cannot confer its degree on a Master Mason until he has received the Royal Arch Degree. Naturally, this is as it should be, because a man is not a Master Mason until he receives the Master’s Word and he can only receive it in the Royal Arch. This is important, so, I’m going to repeat it: In the earliest years of Masonry, the Master Mason Degree used to contain the Secrets of the Royal Arch. Now, these secrets are only found in the Royal Arch Degree of York Rite Masonry. Therefore, the Royal Arch can be considered a completion of the Master Mason Degree. In Royal Arch Masonry, one finds the essentials of symbolism and philosophy that a Master Mason needs in order to understand those teachings he has been only been given a part of. The symbolism of the Royal Arch picks up where the Blue Lodge leaves off. In Blue Lodge Masonry, the symbolism of the degrees revolves around the building of King Solomon’s Temple. Royal Arch Masonry continues this theme with symbols and allegories of the SecondTemple, the Ark of the Covenant, further symbolism of Solomon’s temple, and the Lost Word. Although it is not a part of the original three degrees of Freemasonry, the allegorical subject of Royal Arch Masonry indicates what is thought by many to be a natural progression of the Craft’s primary theme. Royal Arch Masonry is sometimes referred to as the “Chapter.” It is also known as the Capitular Rite. This is because it is considered the capstone of the Craft. In architectural symbolism, the keystone, or the central wedge-shaped stone, is the primary locking stone of an arch. However, the capstone is the crowing stone of an entire structure or wall. Thus, Royal Arch Masonry, which some have called “the Capstone of Ancient Craft Masonry” is known as the Capitular Rite.

The Chapter Degrees

 Royal Arch Masons confer four degrees or steps of advancement consisting of dramas that illustrate the great moral teachings of Masonry. Masonic legends about the building of King Solomon’s Temple are the basis for portraying the high standards of moral thought and conduct promulgated by Freemasonry. Royal Arch Masonry confers the four degrees of Mark Master, Past Master, Most Excellent Master, and the Most Sublime Degree of the Holy Royal Arch. The Degree of Mark Master teaches us to discharge our many duties promptly and accurately. The duty of assisting a distressed brother is strongly illustrated. Historically, this degree illustrates how the work undertaken on King Solomon’s Temple by each individual craftsman was identified. According to Masonic legend, the Mark Master Degree originated as a ceremony of registering a craftsman’s mark in those years when operative craft masons and built temples and cathedrals. The Past Master Degree was created because, originally, the degree of Royal Arch was conferred by the Blue Lodge only on actual Past Masters. This restriction prevented many worthy brethren from receiving the full information of the degrees of Freemasonry. The degree of Past Master was created in order to conform to tradition, and to make it possible for worthy brethren to receive the Royal Arch degree. The conferring of this degree by a Chapter gives a brother no rights as a Past Master in a Blue Lodge—unless he has actually served as Master of his Lodge. The first record of the conferral of this degree is found in 1768, in England. The Most Excellent Master Degree is a product of American innovation. It was conferred in a Royal Arch Chapter as early as 1783 in Connecticut. The Most Excellent Master Degree illustrates the historical completion and dedication of King Solomon’s Temple—the very idea upon which all Masonic symbolism has been based. This degree emphasizes the opportunity and obligation of Companions to spread light and knowledge to less informed brethren. The Royal Arch Degree is the climax of Ancient Craft Masonry and Masonic Symbolism. It is described as “the root and marrow of Freemasonry.” This degree portrays the complete story of Jewish History during some of its darkest hours. Jerusalem and the Holy temple are destroyed, the people are held captive as slaves in Babylon. In this degree the candidate will join with some slaves as they are set free to return home and engage in the noble and glorious work of rebuilding the city and the Temple of God. It is during this rebuilding that they make a discovery that brings to light the greatest treasure of a Mason — the long lost Master’s Word. This degree is the completion of Ancient Craft Masonry—for here we find that which was lost—the word for which Master Masons are given a substitute word in the third degree Blue Lodge. The Lost Word — the Master’s Word — is imparted to the candidate in the solemn and impressive ceremony of the Royal Arch Degree.

Council Icon

The second set of rites in the York Rite Bodies is the Council of Royal and Select Master—often called simply “the Council.” The Council of Royal and Select Masters fills what would otherwise be a large vaccuum within the York Rite. The Cryptic Rite originated in America. However, the degrees of Royal and Selct Master came into the Unitied States, from France, by way of the West Indies, as side degrees of the Rite of Perfection in the 18th century. (The Rite of Perfection was also called the Rite of Heredom, which held that every Mason was also a Knight Templar.) Councils were a relatively late addition to the York Rite, dating to the early 1800’s. In the U.S., the Council confers three degrees of Royal Master, Select Master, and Super Excellent Master. These are known as the Cryptic degrees because their symbolic foundation is the subterranean Vault constructed by King Solomon as a stockpile for certain secret knowledge and guarded by a select priesthood. Many brothers consider the degrees of the Cryptic Rite to be a ongoing link between the Blue Lodge and Royal Arch rites.

 The degrees of the Council of Royal and Select Masters – often called simply “the Council.”

The degrees of the Council of Royal and Select Masters are necessary to fully complete your education in Ancient Craft Masonry. Many believe that the degrees of the Council contain the most beautiful and impressive ceremonies of all. In these degrees the candidate learns of additional events in the building of the first temple. During these degrees, the candidate represents the Master Builder, Hiram Abiff. He learns why the word was lost, and the secret of its preservation and recovery. The Super Excellent Master degree, has no connection with Ancient Craft Masonry—but it is a vivid dramatization of truth and fidelity which never fails to impress those who witness it. The three degrees of the Council enables Masons to more fully understand the third degree of Blue Lodge Masonry, and the degree of the Royal Arch. Cryptic Masonry instructs the candidate in the teachings necessary for a useful and rewarding life, with the charge, “Let uprightness and integrity attend your steps; let justice and mercy mark their conduct, let fervency and zeal stimulate you in the discharge of the various duties incumbent on you.”

The Commandery Icon

 The third and final set of rites in the York Rite Bodies is the Commandery of Knights Templar—often called simply “the Commandery.” The Commandery degrees are also known as Chivalric Masonry. This is because they are based in spirit upon the traditions of the Chivalric Orders of knighthood that fought for Christian control of the Holy Land during the Middle Ages. However, the modern-day Masonic Knights Templar has no historical links to its medieval namesake. Knights Templar are Freemasons who practice a belief in Christianity. In the 18th century when Masonry opened its ranks to members of all religions, commanderies of Knights Templar were formed specifically for Christian Masons. All Knights Templar must be long to the Christian faith, since the Commandery of Knights Templar is founded upon the legendary role of the Medieval Knights Templar to protect Christian pilgrims along the roads of Palestine. It is also based upon the practice of the Christian virtues as well as moral and spiritual lessons urging its members to live their lives as Christian Knights. Naturally, the Christian Cross, in many forms, is one of the most prominent emblems used to instruct “Sir Knights” in various lessons.

The Commandery Degrees

The degrees of the Commandery are called “Orders.” There are three orders: the Order of the Red Cross, the Order of the Knights of Malta, and the Order of the Temple. Each of these orders describe beautiful and impressive lessons and explain the Christian interpretation of Freemasonry. The Illustrious Order of the Red Cross teaches the importance of Truth and Justice. It forms an important link between the teachings of the Old Testament with that of the New Testament. The ritual of the Order of the Knights of Malta is entirely Christian. When conferred in its full form, it is one of the most striking and impressive of the degrees in the York Rite system. The Order of the Temple is considered the single most impressive of all Masonic degrees in any system of Masonic teaching. In it, the teachings of Christ presented in the most solemn and extraordinary manner. The Moral and spiritual lessons of Christianity that are communicated in the work leave a lasting impression on the candidate. Knights Templar are admonished to imitate Christ in their daily lives. In Closing In closing, I would like to say that it is very important for every Master Mason to become a York Rite Mason. The York Rite is historically the oldest and purest of the appendant Rites. It is important to experience the Royal Arch degrees and complete the teachings that are mentioned as landmarks of the Master Mason. And every Christian Mason should become a Knights Templar and celebrate our Christian heritage. I hope that every Master Mason is intrigued by the lessons and mysteries of Freemasonry that the Blue Lodge has provided. And I hope that, in due time, all Master Masons will investigate those lessons and mysteries available in the York Rite of Freemasonry— in order to complete their Masonic knowledge. Thank you.


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