Rituals of the York Rite
By Companion Scott A. Schwartzberg, Guest Author
Submission to the General Grand Council Education Committee
Companion Scott A. Schwartzberg
In the United States, the York Rite is one of the Appendant Bodies that a Freemason may join to further his knowledge. In other parts of the world, this Rite is also known as the American Rite. Most of this discussion will entail the York Rite as practiced in this country.
The York Rite is made up of a group of bodies working together to confer additional Degrees beyond that of Master Mason. The bodies making up the York Rite in a particular area are the Chapter of Royal Arch Masons, the Council of Royal and Select Masters (or Council of Cryptic Masons), and the Commandery of Knights Templar. Each of these bodies offers additional Degrees and Masonic knowledge. It is possible for a man to be a member of only the Chapter, the Chapter and Council, or the Chapter and Commandery, or he can join all three bodies. The Lodge of Master Masons deals with the Loss of the Master’s Word; the Chapter with its Recovery; the Council with its Preservation.
There are additional organizations associated with the York Rite, some open and some invitational, which can be joined as well.
In the majority of Craft Lodges in the United States, those that work the first three Degrees of Freemasonry, a variant of the same ritual is used. This is often called the “Preston-Webb” ritual. Between 1772 and 1774, William Preston revised existing Masonic Ritual, and is said to have done a beautiful job… but the result was a ritual that was too long – a half-day to recite the Lecture of the Master Mason Degree, for instance. Thomas Smith Webb, a colonial Mason, loved the ritual, but was also aware of this flaw, and in 1797, he published his Freemason’s Monitor, or Illustrations of Freemasonry, in which he gave credit to Preston while shortening and rearranging the work. The Ritual of nearly all regular Grand Lodges in the United States is descended from this work. The exceptions are found in Pennsylvania, and in parts of Louisiana and Kentucky.
The York Rite takes its name from the city of York, England, where Masonic Legend tells us that Freemasonry was brought by Æthelstan the Glorious, in 926 A.D., first King of all England. This is told in the Regius Poem, or Halliwell Manuscript, which talks of geometry spreading from Euclid and ancient Egypt through the world, and contains instructions for Masters and Craftsmen, both moral and for the operation of building sites.
According to Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas in The Hiram Key, there are records of the “Grand Lodge of All England” meeting in York since some time before 1705, and this Grand Lodge was supported by members of the Nobility.
According to Lomas in Turning the Templar Key, the York Rite takes a Craft Mason and teaches him that there is a great spiritual secret hidden in a secret vault at the center of his personal consciousness. This vault, which is a symbol of the mystery of self-awareness, is described in the ritual as a chamber that had been built beneath the First Temple by King Solomon to hide certain Masonic secrets. It was discovered when a group of Knight-Masons, working for King Zerubbabel, were clearing away the rubble while getting ready to start the construction of the Second Temple. To become a Companion of the Holy Royal Arch, a Master Mason must face the dark terror of entering this hidden vault and learn to subdue his fears.
The first body a Mason joins in the York Rite is the Chapter of Royal Arch Masons. Every U.S. state has a Grand Chapter, which functions similarly to the way Grand Lodge oversees the Craft Lodge. A Chapter confers four degrees, known as Capitular Degrees because they are the capstone of Craft Masonry.
The first of these, Mark Master, is considered to be an extension of the Fellow Craft Degree. The Mark Master candidate works in the quarries as a Fellow Craft. The ritual explains how operative Masons left their personal Mark on each stone worked, created with a mallet and chisel. During this Degree, the Mark Master will create his own Mark, which is recorded by the Chapter in the Book of Marks.
The next Degree worked is the Past Master (Virtual) Degree. This was a Degree that was created due to a requirement that only Past Masters be admitted to the Royal Arch. This Degree contains much of the material that is used when installing a Master in a Craft Lodge. According to W∴B∴ Neville Cryer, some of the original secrets of this Degree were essential to the working of a Master Stonemason. These secrets could only be communicated to those who had sat in the Master’s chair.
The third Degree in a Chapter is the Most Excellent Master Degree, in which the building of King Solomon’s Temple is completed. This ritual was written by Thomas Smith Webb, but is based on a ritual previously worked in Scotland. In England, this Degree is a part of the Cryptic Degrees, worked in the Council.
The fourth and final degree of Royal Arch Mason or Holy Royal Arch is concerned with the recovery and identification of "that which was lost" and for which the Master Mason degree provided only a substitute. In this Degree, the attention is directed to the symbolism of the spiritual life, the erection of a spiritual Temple which shall outlast the earthly one, and in which each laborer’s life is one of those essential stones necessary to complete the structure. According to Denslow, this was a part of the Master Mason Degree prior to the formation of the United Grand Lodge of England, conferred by the ‘Antients’. According to Cryer, based on researching early manuscripts, the Master Mason Degree is incomplete, with substitute secrets, the true secrets reserved until after a Master had “passed the Chair.”
At the formation of the United Grand Lodge of England in 1813, there was a statement inserted into the Act of Union, saying:
It is declared and announced that pure Ancient Masonry consists of three degrees, and no more; viz: (namely) Those of the Entered Apprentice, the Fellow Craft and the Master Mason, including the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch.
The Thirteenth Degree in the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite is known as the Royal Arch of Solomon and has similarities to this Degree of the York Rite, both probably coming from the same legends, along with the Grand Royal Arch Degree of the Rite of Misraïm. The Lost Word is found, however, its significance is not realized at this time.
A Council of Royal and Select Masters confers the Cryptic Degrees of Masonry, so-called because they are chiefly concerned with a crypt, an important subterranean vault known only to a select few of the Craft. In five states (and the province of Ontario), it is not required to be a member of the Council in order to progress to the Knights Templar.
The first Degree worked in the Council is that of Royal Master. This Degree focuses on the Fellow Crafts who were instrumental in building the Temple. The first part of the Degree takes place prior to the death of G∴M∴H∴A∴, while the second part depicts the events that follow.
The second Degree in this body, Select Master, centers on the construction and furnishing of a Secret Vault beneath the Sanctum Sanctorum of the Temple, and the deposition of secrets pertaining to the Craft by our three ancient Grand Masters. This Degree bridges the events surrounding the concealment and loss of the Ineffable Word and the events leading to the recovery of the Word in the Royal Arch Degree. The recovery of the meaning of the Word in the Select Master Degree is analogous to the Fourteenth Degree of the Scottish Rite, Perfect Elu.
A third Degree is conferred in some jurisdictions, while in others it is only an honorary Degree – Super Excellent Master, and it is not allied to the other two degrees of the Cryptic Rite, as far as its teachings and traditions are concerned. This Degree features Biblical prophecy highlighting the destruction of the First Temple and the construction of the second Temple. In the Super Excellent Master Degree, it is found that catastrophe overtakes the unfaithful, whether he be a prince or pauper, and that without fidelity, success is impossible.
The last group making up the York Rite is the Chivalric Orders. These are not Degrees as in other bodies, but are named after Orders of Knighthood. There are three Orders as well as one passing Order.
The Illustrious Order of the Red Cross places an emphasis on Truth. To progress further than this in the Chivalric Orders, it may be necessary to profess and practice the Christian faith. This Order shares many similarities with the 15th and 16th Degrees of the Scottish Rite, Knight of the East, of the Sword or of the Eagle and Prince of Jerusalem.
The Passing Order of St. Paul (or the Mediterranean Pass) prepares a candidate for the Order by introducing the lesson and example of the unfearing and faithful martyr of Christianity.
The Order of the Knights of Malta (or simply Order of Malta) emphasizes the lesson of Faith and is centered on allegorical elements of the Knights of Malta, inheritors of the medieval Knights Hospitaller.
The Order of the Temple emphasizes the lessons of self-sacrifice and reverence. It is meant to rekindle the spirit of the medieval Knights Templar devotion and self-sacrifice. The 30° of the Scottish Rite, Knight Kadosh, derives from the same source as this Order.
There are other, additional bodies associated with the York Rite, some of which are by invitation only.
The Order of Judas Maccabeus was established to be an additional York Rite body to fill a need and to teach important lessons. The first two bodies of the York Rite, the Chapter of Royal Arch Masons and the Council of Royal and Select Masters, are, like the Blue Lodge, non-sectarian, requiring only a belief in a Supreme Being. The Commandery of Knights Templar, however, is both distinctly Christian, and militaristic, with uniforms, drill teams, and inspections. As a result, many Companions of the Royal Arch do not progress past the Chapter or Chapter and Council. The Order of Judas Maccabeus was established as a parallel body to the Commandery, being non-sectarian and non-militaristic. It confers two Degrees, the Order of David and the Order of Judas Maccabeus. A third Degree, the Order of the Temple was proposed, but was never published. This body opened two Assemblages in New York, as well as at least one in Connecticut and New Jersey, with interest expressed from York Rite Masons in several other states as well. As of 1991, no Grand Lodge had extended recognition to this Order.
A Knight of the York Cross of Honor (KYCH) is a member of an invitational body consisting entirely of York Rite leaders. Members must be a Past Master of a Symbolic Lodge, a Past High Priest of a Royal Arch Chapter, a Past Master of a Royal and Select Masters Council, and a Past Commander of a Knight Templar Commandery; and nominated by a KYCH.
The Masonic Rosicrucian Society (SRICF) is an invitational body that requires Masonic affiliation and a belief in the Christian faith. The Masonic qualification assures the membership that the neophyte has given proof of that fidelity and privacy which characterizes a member of that Fraternity. The Christian qualification is required because the character of the Grade rituals is completely Christian, and would not be understood or appreciated by those of other faiths. This character is emphasized in the Ceremony of Admission and it will be noted that a certain community outlook and understanding among the members (called Fraters) is necessary.
Other bodies include the York Rite Sovereign College, the Council of Allied Masonic Degrees, the Royal Order of the Red Branch of Eri, the Council of Knight Masons, the Grand Lodge of the Royal Order of Scotland, the Holy Royal Arch Knight Templar Priests, the Masonic and Military Order of the Red Cross of Constantine, and the Chapter of Sovereign Order of Knights Preceptor.
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