A reprint of an article published in Freemasonry Today
Issue 25, Summer 2003
© Grand Lodge Publications Ltd 1997-2014
The Allied Masonic Degrees
Keith Jackson Reviews the Red Cross of Babylon and the Holy Order of the Grand High Priest
The Grand Council of the Order of Allied Masonic Degrees now controls five degrees which are ‘beyond the Craft’. In Freemasonry Today, Issue No. 21, we looked at three, St Lawrence the Martyr, the Grand Tilers of Solomon and the Knights of Constantinople. There remain two, very important degrees, for us to consider.
The Red Cross of Babylon
This was one of the four initial ceremonies over which the Grand Council assumed immediate control upon its formation in 1879 and is generally accepted to be of such antiquity as having had a positive influence upon the formation of the Holy Royal Arch as practiced in England today. The tragic drama portrayed in the Master Mason’s degree appears to have stimulated most compilers of rites that emerged during the Eighteenth century to devise a chain of allegorical narratives which related to the construction of the second Temple and subsequent events. The Continental ‘Rite of Perfection’, which was erected at the Chapter of Clermont, France, in 1754, incorporated a series of such ceremonies and it is upon these the Red Cross of Babylon is based.
The ceremony is of a most profound and mystical nature consisting of three parts. It commences in a Royal Arch Council in Jerusalem where the Prelate presides over extensive readings from the Book of Ezra and concludes at the Tribunal in Babylon of the Persian King Darius I. These two major scenes are linked by a short but important episode where the candidate is actually required to cross the bridge over a figurative river – either the Jordan or the Euphrates. This imagery of ‘crossing the bridge’ is a traditional feature to be found in all major religions of the world: most faiths embody symbolic references to the crossing of the gulf between life and death – the prospect of rebirth in the ‘promised land’, the link between what man perceives and that which is beyond his perception, the covenant between the Creator and the people as revealed to the Israelites.
There is evidence that several Lodges in the late 1700’s worked a knightly grade of ‘passing the bridge’. This appears to have had a similar content to the degree of ‘Knight of the Eagle’ which was conferred in the Chapter of Clermont, a degree later known as ‘Knight of the Sword’ and then as ‘Knight of the Red Cross of Palestine’. A similar degree is now controlled by the Baldwyn Rite at Bristol under the title ‘Knights of the East, Sword and Eagle’. The Red Cross of Babylon is similar in some respects to the 15th, 16th and 17th degrees of the Ancient & Accepted Rite which also do not include the Holy Royal Arch.
In Scotland while the Supreme Grand Royal Arch Chapter controls the ‘The Babylonish Pass’, subordinate Chapters are empowered to confer The Degrees of Captivity under an additional Charter although the constituent degrees of, ‘Knight of the Sword’, ‘Knight of the East’, and ‘Knight of the East and West’, differ quite considerably from the English version. In Ireland the degree was revived in 1925 by the Dublin based Grand Council of Knight Masons. In the United States of America and Canada most jurisdictions confer an almost identical degree prior to Installation of a Knight Templar, which is known as Companion of the Red Cross, a distinction employed to remedy the incongruity between an Hebraic degree and one of Knighthood.
The legend of the Red Cross of Babylon is framed around the character of Zerubbabel who travels to the Court of Darius seeking the return of the sacred vessels looted from the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BC. His subsequent experience has an allusion to the ‘judgement of the soul’ when his fidelity is put to the test by the King; yet his integrity is verified by his steadfastness and the episode closes with an intricate debate – recorded in the Book of Esdras – which establishes the divine attribute of Truth.
The ceremony culminates with the candidate receiving ‘the Accolade’; he is later invested with a green sash, and then decorated with the jewel of the Order, which comprises a seven pointed gold star, having a green enamelled centre, bearing crossed swords in gold, suspended from a green silk ribbon. The observance of a unique custom also exists within the degree which provides for an optional banquet to be held, replete with formal toasts, prior to the closing of the Council.
That this degree in its various forms has been interpolated into so many rites or series of degrees would indicate that the ritual itself embodies certain invaluable lessons which have consequently merited widespread adoption. It is a ceremony that provides an important extension to that of the Holy Royal Arch as practiced in England but unfortunately is only open to those ‘seekers after knowledge’ who hold the necessary qualifications of Mark and Royal Arch Mason and further, who ultimately gain admission into the Order of the Allied Masonic Degrees.
The Holy Order of Grand High Priest
This is another of the original four ceremonies that were controlled under the Grand Council of the Allied Masonic Degrees. In terms of ritualistic excellence the Grand High Priest can justly be regarded as the summit of Allied Masonry in England, and has always been designated as an Order rather than a Degree.
The ceremony is undoubtedly very old and is asserted to be an amalgamation of two separate degrees derived from the ‘High Grades’ which were invented on the Continent during the mid-eighteenth century. This particular French version found its way to Ireland where by 1780 it had become widespread. From there, it was carried to Scotland and to certain ‘Antient’ Lodges in the North-West of England where brethren were admitted under the authority of their Craft warrant. In addition, a similar but different version was transmitted to Newcastle around this time and was conferred as a Priesthood of the Holy Royal Arch Knight Templar Priests, a tradition that has been observed without interruption since 1810.
The Grand High Priest also spread rapidly throughout the United States, where the General Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons soon became aware of the popularity of this new ceremony. While it subsequently gave approval to the ritual it did not seek to assume control but permitted each jurisdiction to develop the degree independently, under the title of ‘the Order of Priesthood’. From 1828 many States regarded it as an optional degree which was conferred at a Grand Convention upon those who had presided over a subordinate Royal Arch Chapter. In some, a candidate was ‘anointed’ as High Priest prior to installation into the First Chair; in others, it became an essential qualification for election to that Chair. Originally the Grand Council in England would not permit any brother to be received into the Order unless he was an Installed Principal of a Royal Arch Chapter but in 1934 this restriction was removed.
However, as this degree is not controlled by the Grand Council of Allied Masonic Degrees of USA, a member of the Order in England who is not an Installed Principal will find that he is not qualified to attend a Council of High Priests working in the USA.
The commencement of the ceremony is framed around the person of Melchizedek, a mysterious figure whose ancestry and posterity is unknown, who is described as ‘King of Salem’, and ‘Priest of the Most High God’. Melchizedek appears in person only once in the Old Testament – Genesis 14 – where he meets and blesses Abram following his return from the Battle of the Kings and brings forth bread and wine to celebrate Abram’s victory who, in recognition of Melchizedek’s authority gives him tithes of the booty.
The enactment of this striking drama takes place adjacent to, or within, the tent of the Canaanite Priest-King. However, the logical flow of the narrative is curiously interrupted when the postulant is transported forward in time by some nine hundred years to the final scenario, where he is solemnly consecrated as an High Priest, in a similar manner to that of Aaron – Exodus 29.
Within a regular Convention of this Holy Order, the central figure is that of the President, representing Melchizedek. He is clothed in a white surplice over which is worn the breastplate while he has a plain mitre upon his head. The Breastplate, called in Hebrew the ‘breastplate of Judgement’, was a piece of embroidered cloth of gold, purple, scarlet and fine white twined linen about nine inches square, doubled to form a pouch, which held twelve precious stones. These stones were arranged in four rows of three, and had the names of the twelve tribes of Israel engraved on them to remind the High Priest how dear to his heart should be those tribes. The two other assisting officers, the Vice-President and the Chaplain, wear robes of scarlet and light blue respectively, while the Companions wear a jewel on the left breast, comprising a gold mitre superimposed upon an equilateral triangle of gold, suspended from a red ribbon.
While the Holy Order of Grand High Priest may demonstrate to the academic the suggested fusion of two originally separate degrees, the resultant ceremony is outstanding and exhibits a level of ritualistic achievement that is quite unique. It is a narrative that pre-dates the legend of the Holy Royal Arch as practised in England yet it is of such a solemn and spiritual nature that it has a profound effect upon all who are received into its circle and commands the utmost admiration from devotees of ritual. Admission to the Order of the Allied Masonic Degrees has statutory conditions, that of being a Mark as well as a Royal Arch Mason. For the brother who is in possession of these requirements, his admission to this Holy Order is an experience of such magnitude that it cannot fail to stimulate him to an elevated realm of masonic thought. He will be left in no doubt that he has been called for high duties in life – both as a mason and a man.
Keith Jackson is a member of most of the recognised Orders within Freemasonry, holding high office in many. He has lectured extensively over many years and is author of Beyond the Craft. Whilst he lives in Plymouth, Devon, his masonic commitments demand that he travels throughout the counties of Devon and Cornwall on a regular basis together with periodic visits to London.
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