Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Royal Arch and its Place in our Craft

I’m now serving my second term as High Priest of Corinthian Chapter No. 33 R.A.M. Because I've been serving long enough to understand the intricacies of the Capitular system, I feel I can start to make critiques and present potential improvements to the Royal Arch. The American system, and to some extent the Canadian system, follow the so-called Webb order of conferral. (Webb had nothing to do with it but many RAMs describe the capitular system this way.)

Let’s be honest for a moment, the order in which the Capitular degrees are conferred do not relate to each other. In fact, they’re a mismatch of four degrees that have nothing in common. Yes, I know that’s shocking... well, unless of course you’ve seen all four degrees.

In the original formation of the Royal Arch, the degree was closely tied to the Master Mason degree. Currently, in the United States and many other Chapters in the world, the Royal Arch is conferred as the last of seven degrees, three related (the first three Craft degrees) and three unrelated degrees (the Mark Master, Past Master, and Most Excellent Master) making for a very strange story told to the candidate.

I propose something that should be done in the interest of saving the Royal Arch from the slow death that it’s crawling towards; I propose that we have Royal Arch Chapters confer only one degree, the degree for which Chapters were initially created. Dropping the so-called preparatory degrees of the Chapter, which are, in actuality, not preparatory in anyway to the Royal Arch, will allow Chapters to focus on what's important. 

The Mark Master and Royal Arch degrees are separate and distinct. They should be separate and distinct because of the lessons they teach. The Royal Arch is the completion, the degree that gives us that which was lost. As Master Masons, we strive for that goal. The Mark Master is a side degree, a beautiful and interesting degree, but it remains a side degree. (To all my Scottish readers, I apologize as I realize that the Mark Man and Mark Master degrees are a part of your Fellow Craft degree)

The Royal Arch is a degree built and designed in many different parts. It’s complex. The staging requires many players who guide the candidate into the realm of further light. And, in my life, it holds a very special place in my heart. In my opinion, more education can be taken from the Royal Arch degree than in almost any other degree.

The reason I started thinking about this is that I see Chapter suffering. Chapter is not built in the same way as a Lodge, a Council, a Commandery, or a Valley. Lodge, Council, and Commandery degrees all have a story to tell that flows. Valleys have 29 degrees that can be conferred and can confer many if not all of them because they draw from a large population.

Chapters have some major disadvantages. Chapters meet in lodge buildings. Chapters have smaller populations, like lodges, but with more required degrees. Chapter degrees are a hodge-podge and it’s hard to completely grasp the connection. It needs help to survive.

I have three solutions to this problem (and yes, I believe the Chapter structure is a problem).

1.) Drop the PM degree, transfer the Mark Degrees to a separate organization that remains under the control of the Grand Chapter and make the Most Excellent Degree an optional degree like the Super Excellent.

This is how I would envision this structure: the Chapter would confer one degree, the Royal Arch. The chapter would confer it in grand style because the focus would be on making that one degree great. Anyone who has seen the Royal Arch realizes its importance in the Craft structure. It needs to remain close to the degree it is built to follow, the Master Mason degree. It is an important sequel, like The Godfather: Part II not Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties, and we should deliver it in that way.

Furthermore, the Chapter would be given the option of conferring the Most Excellent should it choose to do so. This change would be similar to how the Super Excellent Master is conferred in a Cryptic Council.  The Most Excellent Master needs at least 20 people to make it an effective degree and by making it an optional degree, the hope would be that it would be conferred in grand style. The Most Excellent Master degree deserves better care and attention than that which most Chapters can properly provide. It's a shame that such a beautiful degree is often conferred without costumes, music, and any sense of reverential awe. It deserves more and the only way to do that is to make it an optional degree.

The Mark Master degree would be assigned to a Grand Lodge of Marks, still under the auspices of the Grand Chapter, but with its own Craft structure. In that way, there would be one Mark Lodge in each of the districts or areas of a Grand Chapter’s jurisdiction. The Grand Lodge of Marks would serve the Chapters in the jurisdiction and would confer the Mark degree at set times each year. What's more, this would give more potential Grand Chapter officers a chance to show how well they can run a Grand Masonic Body. We complain about the lack of interest and the lack of jobs; this would allow us to create more of both. The Mark Master degree is a special degree with a very different history from the Royal Arch degree. We should give this degree its due.

This is my preferred structure.

(Side note: I've been accused of hating on the PM degree. I accept that accusation as true. It is an unnecessary degree. It serves as the appendix of old, non-existent requirements for attaining the Royal Arch and has already been dropped by many Grand Chapters throughout the world. What once was necessary is not now necessary. Let’s just move on and focus on that which is important.)

2.) Reverse the order of the degrees and drop the PM degree.

By reversing the order, the Royal Arch degree is placed precisely where it belongs in the story, right next the Master Mason degree. The Most Excellent degree be conferred next and the Mark would be placed last. The importance of the Royal Arch degree would be given proper credence would truly serve as a transition from the Blue Lodge to the Red Chapter. 

If you know anything about the Veils, you will see the importance in placing the Royal Arch next to the Master Mason degree. This method, while not ideal, does serve to give the Royal Arch Mason all the degrees he would need to travel to other Chapters in the country and maintain the close relationship between the Master Mason and the Royal Arch. Again, this is not an ideal solution but could be the easiest to implement.

3.) Transfer the power to confer the Royal Arch and Mark degrees to the Craft lodges.

This has only been done on a local basis and only in one state, Lodge Copernicus in the state of South Australia. This would require a lot of coordination and a lot of Masons having to give up power. I don’t see it happening but I do think that this method would not just encourage but guarantee that all Masons would become Royal Arch Masons. Of course, instead of transferring, one other related approach, which is what Lodge Copernicus has in actuality done, is to receive a charter from the three degree-controlling bodies to establish a lodge that confers all the degrees of Ancient Craft Masonry. This is a doable approach only if a Grand Lodge and Grand Chapter agreed and if the rules of each allowed something like this.

This change could be made more difficult by the existence of the General Grand Chapter but I think they are necessary changes. My intention is to not make the work of the Chapter easy but make it right to encourage the Master Mason to continue his journey. Instead of festivals and high turnover, we need to make the Chapter an important step in a Mason’s life. The Royal Arch degree is just too damn important to let it slip through our fingers.

What do you think? Does Royal Arch Masonry need a change? Leave a comment.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Scottish Rite Craft Degrees Exemplified in Lake Worth

I came across a very underreported story coming out of the Valley of Lake Worth in the Orient of Florida, AASR (SJ). The city of Lake Worth is near Palm Beach. It's not a big town, its population hovering around 37,000 souls. From my experience though, small places can bring big changes, and boy did they ever.

I decided, after reading about the exemplification of the so-called "Red Degrees" in Lake Worth, that I needed to learn more. I contacted the brother who got the ball rolling. His name is Scott Schwartzberg. He's the Junior Deacon of Boynton Lodge No. 236, Boynton Beach, Florida. He's a great guy and I've really enjoyed talking with him.

For the uninformed reader, the degrees conferred by most states and some provinces of Canada originate from the Preston-Webb, while most lodges in the world use some variation of the Emulation Rite. The Scottish Rite Craft degrees are not conferred as actual degrees except in a few places in the United States, most well known being those lodges in the 16th District of the Grand Lodge of Louisiana, F.&A.M. The only way for brothers to have seen these SR Craft degrees was to monitor the calendars of the handful of lodges that perform them in New Orleans and plan a trip there during those times.

Scott explained to me his reason for wanting to exemplify the "Red Degrees" in his Valley:
I had recently joined the Scottish Rite, despite having read much about Masonry and the Scottish Rite in particular since I first read Morals and Dogma over 25 years ago, and to learn more about the organization, I signed up for the Master Craftsman series of quizzes and essays. While reading about the 9th and 10th degrees, there was a brief mention of how the degrees continue the story of the 3rd, or Master Mason degree, which differs significantly from that which is in the Symbolic Lodge, both here in Florida, and in New Jersey, where I was raised. This piqued my interest, and I was discussing it with a Brother in my Lodge, who had recently returned from a visit to the Dominican Republic, where he had visited a Lodge and witnessed a Scottish Rite Entered Apprentice degree. We decided to see if we could get this ritual, and somehow exemplify it. I talked with Brothers from other Lodges in the District, and they wanted to participate as well.
The ritual that Lake Worth used for the exemplification was the "Ritual of the Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason Degree for Exclusive Use of the Scottish Rite Blue Lodges F.&A.M., working under the MWGL of the State of Louisiana, revised 1963. And for those parts not in the ritual, he incorporated some parts of Albert Pike's versions of the Degrees, found in "The Porch and the Middle Chamber".

The degrees were exemplified in three parts: EA on February 23, 2011, FC on March 23, 2011, and the MM on March 27th, 2011. The degrees were open to all Master Masons, and according to Scott, the response was tremendous and the exemplifications were very well-attended. The degree team for each of the degrees was assisted by members of the Grand Lodge of Ha├»ti as there are many lodges that confer the Craft degrees using the Scottish Rite ritual and these brothers had familiarity with the floorwork and ritual. You can find pictures of the degree team on Lantana Lodge No. 372's website here. Scott has written a very nice article going into more detail on the three degree exemplifications; you can read more from his article published in the October 2011 edition of the Working Tools Magazine.

I'll make my disclaimers now. I am not an SR Mason but I'm very antsy to start my journey. The Scottish Rite in Minneapolis and Saint Paul are very special. At any given time during the year, some Scottish Rite degree is being conferred somewhere in the state of Minnesota. The Valley of Minneapolis performs each of the 29 degrees in two long form classes spanning over 12 weeks. The degrees are presented in full theatrical form. Saint Paul Valley confers nearly all of the degrees once per year and the Valleys of Duluth and Rochester confer more than half of the degrees once per year. Minnesota was also very fortunate to have welcomed the brothers of Internet Lodge No. 9659 to exemplify the Emulation Rite third degree for a packed house of Minnesota Masons. (You can read about the trip here and here.)

I have to say, I'm very intrigued by a Valley performing these Craft degrees. I don't know much about the Scottish Rite but from what I understand, the differences between Preston-Webb (of which I include the Royal Arch Degree) and the Scottish Rite can be quite confusing when taking the American Scottish Rite degrees 4°-32°. There is a dissonance between 3° and 4° in the degrees as conferred by SJ Valleys (the NMJ has changed the 29 degrees under their charge many times and have very little in comparison to the SJ degrees.). That's why I've been reading the Porch and the Middle Chamber. I want to feel prepared when taking the degrees.

I've also read somewhere that a Valley in Arizona (I believe the Valley of Phoenix) has conferred all 32 degrees at a regional reunion. My hope is that more Valleys will be performing these in the future. Of course, my guess is that the usual permission must be received but I think that this is a very worthwhile educational opportunity for all Master Masons.

What Lake Worth has done is very important. Masons joining today are focused on light. I found as LEO of my lodge that Masons want a lodge meeting to be dedicated to education. I completely agree and I was very happy to appease the members with papers and opening the floor to other opinions. Allowing the "Red Degrees" to be exemplified will be a boon for Valleys and Grand Lodges. More Masonic opportunities will lead to more Masonry in the state. Furthermore, a Valley exemplifying these degrees will lead to many more candidates. Brothers will bridge the lessons of SR Craft degrees to SR higher degrees and will encourage them to join and, more importantly, participate.

I want to congratulate the brothers of Valley of Lake Worth for taking this first step. This is a gamechanger and you should be proud.

What do you think? Should Valleys be exemplifying the Scottish Rite Craft or "Red" Degrees? Leave a comment.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Business Meetings

This will be a short post because I'm on my phone and the keyboard won't turn to landscape. I've been looking at different models for Masonic lodges lately and there seems to be two related goals, more education, less business. I had to ask myself, while thinking about these two concepts, "is there a brother who wants more business and less education?" I've never met one yet many Masonic meetings devolve into the mediocre minutiae of boring business. Why? Is it how meetings are designed? Is it a rut? I don't know but I'm seeing a turnaround.

Lodges are unshackling themselves from tedious business. Minutes are distributed instead of read, committees are formed, and their actions approved in one fell swoop, and Masters are cutting off debate. These are great advances.

My lodge has the LEO speak before any business is discussed. That way, any of the inside baseball comments about the (insert fundraiser here) will hopefully die as no one wants or remembers to talk about them. Fundraisers are not Masonry, education is.

Business isn't evil but it should be handled well and quickly. Masonic meetings are supposed to be an educational experience. That is the way to save Masonry.