I've been thinking a lot about the Past Master’s Degree. Why? Well, as a Past Master, I have taken part in both a virtual (capitular) and an actual (blue lodge) Past Master’s degree. I've been wondering for a while now if the Royal Arch Chapter should confer the degree and whether the degree is still necessary to any Masonic body, whether it be the lodge or the chapter.
I should explain what a Past Master’s degree is for anyone who may not know what it is. The Past Master's degree was originally intended to impart the secrets of the Oriental Chair on a newly elected or installed Master. It was the handing over of the keys from the old guy to the new guy. In fact, many Grand Lodges still have a chair degree for the new Master. Chair degrees exist in many Masonic bodies, most especially within the York Rite.
The bizarre case of the Past Master (virtual) degree in the Chapter is really representative of the fluid nature of Masonry, particularly during its nascent period. The Royal Arch, as well as the Master Mason degree, was most likely chair degree. There was an old requirement that a candidate for the Royal Arch to be a Past Master. This created a problem. Lodges, and the chapters that ultimately took on the Royal Arch, wanted to make the degree available to all Master Masons. The easy fix would have been to actually read the by-laws of that era, an example of which Jerusalem Chapter in Philadelphia states, “[n]o brother can be exalted until he has been at least three years a Master Mason and has presided six months as Master of some regular warranted lodge or has passed the Chair by Dispensation.” (I believe that it’s still the practice of the Grand Chapter of Pennsylvania to allow Master Masons to be passed by dispensation of the Grand High Priest.)
Sadly, our ancient brethren believed that to allow all Masons, not just Past Masters, to take the degree would be an innovation and thus illegal. So what did our ancient brethren do? They created an innovation by allowing a Master Mason to sit in the chair for a brief moment and be called a Past Master (virtual).
In our more modern times, our English and Canadian brethren removed this requirement from the Royal Arch. I think we should do the same. The Royal Arch is not under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge, at least in the United States and Canada, so there is no need to follow any old regulation.
I think the one advantage for removing it from the Chapter work and conferring it only in lodge is to really get that brother, who has been elected to serve a term in the East, ready for his installation. Being Master of the Lodge is not easy. When I was Master, I felt incredibly overwhelmed as I’m sure that all future Masters also feel. There's a lot of planning that goes into a lodge.
Lodges are, for all intents and purposes, a small business. Many lodges own property, collect revenue, and have costs that have to be considered. The lodge has a duty to its members and to the public at large. Sadly, most Masters are ill-equipped to take on a lodge and its various business needs.
I think, by conferring a Past Master’s degree on a new Master, he can become ready. He becomes ready not because he must stand alone but because he learns to stand united with the other Past Masters that sat in the Oriental Chair before him. That’s its purpose.
Conferring the degree so as to teach a lesson is laudable but I really think that the original purpose as a Chapter degree remains, to allow Master Masons to be exalted. We can dress it up in all kinds of different costumes, add beautifully written lectures and the like but it remains unnecessary like an appendix or tonsils. It’s time to have our Chapters focus on capitular work and our lodges to celebrate the work and sacrifice of its officers.
Chair degrees are both a reward for service and a call to the leader of a Masonic body to be mindful of the work that he will have to perform for the good of the Craft. Being a Master is hard. A lot is sacrificed by the brother who takes that responsibility. Shouldn’t we at least be there, as PMs, to encourage him and give him our support, for the good of the Order?
What’s your opinion? Should the Past Master’s degree remain a necessary degree in the Royal Arch? Should it only be conferred in lodge?