A reprint of an article published in Freemasonry Today
Issue 17, Summer 2001
© Grand Lodge Publications Ltd 1997-2010
Matthew Christmas explains the 18th Degree of the Ancient and Accepted Rite
Of all the many orders and degrees outside the Craft and the Royal Arch, there is no doubt that for many the pinnacle of their Freemasonry is membership of the Ancient and Accepted Rite. The 18º is the one 'beyond' the Craft that they would be most reluctant to lose. It is very rare to hear any member speak lightly about the Rose Croix. They are right to value it so highly.
The degrees beyond the Craft are many and varied. Whilst there are ways of classifying and grouping them together, there are those referred to as Christian Orders, in that they restrict their membership to those avowing the Christian faith. These include the Knights Templar, the Red Cross of Constantine, Knight Templar Priests and the Royal Order of Scotland. Perhaps the most well known is the Ancient and Accepted Rite of 33 Degrees working under the Supreme Council 33º, based at 10 Duke Street St James, London. It is the 18º, 'Knight of the Pelican and Eagle and Sovereign Prince Rose Croix', or simply Rose Croix, which is the most spoken of and while masons outside the Order may know little else of it, they appreciate that it is highly prized.
I must, however, caution masons from rushing into the 18º or claiming to be a Trinitarian Christian if they do not fully understand that doctrine. Being an occasional churchgoer will simply not give that comprehension. The Rose Croix is not a badge to be collected, nor indeed are any such Orders; Rose Croix Chapters choose their candidates with great care. The ceremony demands real thought and Christian understanding before undertaking it; thus for good reason, membership of the A & A Rite should ideally be by invitation. However, rank in the Craft or other degrees should also have no bearing; a mason's self-awareness and Christian faith is not measured by the size or ornamentation of his apron.
History and Origins
The History of the Rose Croix and its antecedents is complex. Any summary such as here will leave out an enormous amount of detail! The Rite was allegedly constituted by Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia in 1762, but there was certainly some form of Rose Croix - encompassing a whole host of prior influences from the Renaissance, Kabbalah, Rosicrucianism, and Enlightenment thought - being conferred in France by the 1760s. Variants of the degree arrived in England in different forms and by the 1770s the Rosae Crucis degree was being conferred in Knight Templar Encampments – now called Preceptories. The superbly named Dr. Crucefix, a mason with a considerable interest in degrees outside the Craft, obtained a patent from America backdated to October 1845 and he, along with other Knights Templar, formed an English Supreme Council. The story from there on is one of this Supreme Council taking control of the Rose Croix and persuading the Knights Templar to give up their Rosae Crucis ceremony along with another form of the degree now called the Knight Kadosh (the current 30º), then often referred to as 'Ne Plus Ultra' ('nothing higher'), while at the same time warranting chapters of its own. My own Chapter – then Metropolitan and now Grand Metropolitan – was formed very shortly after the patent issued to Supreme Council and for some considerable time was used directly by Supreme Council to induct suitable brethren on its behalf with members of Supreme Council actively involved in these ceremonies and in the day-to-day business of the Chapter.
The Supreme Council
England's Supreme Council today has come a long way from that early 'Scottish' or 'Ecossais Masonry' (hence in the USA and elsewhere these degrees are often referred to as the Scottish Rite) in the politically charged Europe of the Eighteenth Century. Of the 33 degrees, only five - 18º, 30º, 31º, 32º and 33º - are conferred in full on candidates with the latter four being reserved for those Princes (the word for 18º masons) who have served the Order with distinction.
The first three degrees of the Rite are considered to be equal to those of Craft masonry and so prior to being 'perfected' in the 18º, the 'Intermediate Degrees' from 4º to 17º are conferred on candidates by name; the same happening with the 19º - 29º before receiving the overtly templar Kadosh 30º. One or two of these degrees are staged annually as demonstrations and very interesting they are.
However, the fact that there are degrees numbered 'above' the 3º of Master Mason should not lead one to see any of them as 'higher' than the Craft. They have little bearing on the 18º itself, except in tracing the candidate's progress from symbolic, Old Testament masonry to that of the New Testament era and the New Covenant which is at the heart of Rose Croix. For such masons, the level of thought has moved on to encompass the life and message of Christ, but one should not think in terms of higher degrees or, worse still, of greater rank or promotion.
Emblems of the Order
Although no fan of regalia myself - so often the jewels, sashes, aprons, and collarettes seem with their emphasis on rank and status to get in the way of what the degree is really about - the rose-pink collar of 18º is not only beautiful, but conveys many of the lessons of the degree. Embroidered with key symbols - the Rose, the Pelican in its Piety, the Crown of Thorns, the Serpent - it serves the 'perfected mason' as a wonderful aid in the teaching of Rose Croix and is used as such in the ritual. Many regret the passing of the beautiful aprons with the tetragrammaton within a blazing triangle and, once again, the pelican's mythical vulning of itself to feed its young with its blood in allusion to the ultimate sacrifice of Christ himself. As to the abolition of the aprons in 1978, some cite their expense, others the inappropriateness of knights of a Christian Order clothed in aprons originating in the Operative past. However, one cannot but envy the Baldwyn Encampment stationed at Bristol who still proudly wear them.
Why Seek Perfection?
The collars and former aprons add to this most visual and Christian of degrees. So why Rose Croix? The Cross needs no explanation, while the Red Rose alludes both to the Precious Blood and to the Rose of Sharon, mystically identified with Christ. There is also a link with Rosicrucian thought, despite some members being keen to downplay it.
In the ceremony the Candidate is taken from room to room figuratively through his spiritual and masonic life from Solomonic Masonry, through despair, to a Rose Croix Chapter and the discovery of the Lost Word. At the start, he is figuratively but a 17º mason, a Knight of the East and West, of symbolic age, coming – as the ritual explains - at a time of dire calamity with but incomplete pre-Christian knowledge. Following perfection, the ensuing "feast of fraternal affection" is a wonderful moment of shared Freemasonry all too often lost in other degrees. That this 18º is special is not in doubt for those on whom it has been conferred. In Bristol, the members of Baldwyn have their own version as the pinnacle of their unique Rite of Seven Degrees.
Rose Croix, like Freemasonry as a whole, is not a religion. It does, however, serve to point the way. It is this which makes Rose Croix masonically so important, encompassing all we seek, while pointing us clearly to the Trinitarian Christian Faith.
© Grand Lodge Publications Ltd 1997-2010