In September, I was installed King of Cambridge Chapter of Royal Arch Masons, the Royal Arch equivalent of Senior Warden. A Chapter of Royal Arch Masons is the body of Freemasonry that is the entry-level into the York Rite of Freemasonry's higher degrees. Most York Rite bodies require that their members be Royal Arch Masons in good standing. There are three York Rite Bodies that most Masons know about, and at least twelve invitational bodies listed on the official York Rite website, and most likely there are more that have no web presence.
In Massachusetts, a Royal Arch Mason can petition for the degrees given in a Council of Royal and Select Masters, and when he has taken their degrees, if he is willing to swear an oath to always be willing to lift his sword in defense of the Christian religion, he can petition for the degrees given in a Commandery of Knights Templar.
Royal Arch Masonry, in its current form, coalesced around 1800. Three of the degrees are very old, and one is a more modern innovation. The Mark Master Mason degree might be the oldest degree in Freemasonry, and in Scotland, there are still Mark Master Mason lodges that just confer the Mark Master Mason degree. Also, there are bodies of Freemasonry in the UK and Ireland that require the Mark Master Mason degree for membership. It is sometimes considered to be a continuation of the Fellowcraft degree. I have a lot to say about that, but I'm not sure how to express it without violating the secrets of both degrees, so I'll desist for now.
The Past Master degree was developed in the early 18th century, and was originally the esoteric portion of the installation of the Worshipful Master of a Blue Lodge into his office. In Massachusetts, it is a requirement that a Mason elected Worshipful Master of his lodge has to be qualified in a Lodge of Qualification, within which he receives the Degree of the Chair, which has significant overlap with the Past Master degree in the York Rite. This degree has been included in the Chapter degree system because the following two degrees were originally limited to Masons who were Past or Presiding Masters. When the Royal Arch degree spiked in popularity in the mid 18th century, many lodges were installing half a dozen Worshipful Masters a night, just so they could receive the Royal Arch degree. Grand Lodges tend not to look favorably on such shenanigans, and so the modern Past Master degree in Chapter is sometimes called the Virtual Past Master degree to signify that the recipient is not an actual Past Master after receiving the degree. I don't like that usage, but I understand why it exists.
The Most Excellent Master, the next degree in the sequence, is probably the most recently created degree of the four. It was first performed in the late 18th century. My guess is that it came into existence because the Royal Arch degree jumps ahead a few centuries from the time period of the Mark Master degree (the Past Master degree seems to be ahistorical), and that leaves a gap in the plot which the Most Excellent Master fills very beautifully.
The Royal Arch degree is the ne plus ultra of the Chapter degrees. It was hugely popular in the 18th century, so much so that the Ancient and the Modern Grand Lodges split over what prominence the Royal Arch degree should have in Craft Freemasonry (the Ancients felt it should be a Blue Lodge degree, and the Moderns felt otherwise). It is considered to be the completion of the Master Mason degree, and as a result, in 18th century Masonry, it was sometimes conferred on candidates on the same night as their Master Mason degree, with or without the Degree of the Chair in between.
It is my controversial opinion that the Royal Arch degree is intrinsic to Freemasonry. The Scottish Rite has Royal Arch degree(s): the 13th in the NMJ, and the 13th and 14th in the SJ. In the Swedish Rite of Freemasonry, the Royal Arch degree is conferred in a St. Andreasloger, or Lodge of St. Andrew, in the 6th degree. Indeed, the Royal Arch legend appears in most rites of Freemasonry, just as Chivalric degrees appear later in the sequence in most rites of Freemasonry.
In the 19th century in the USA, the York Rite and the Scottish Rite were rival rites of Freemasonry that had rival blue lodges, as well as higher bodies in Freemasonry. This is still true in other countries. Mexican history is so intertwined with Freemasonry that Yorkinos and Escoceses have formed rival political factions in Mexican politics (notwithstanding the ban upheld in the USA against dragging partisan politics into Freemasonry or vice versa). In the USA, a truce was worked out where Grand Lodges of the US states and territories agreed to only perform the first three degrees in Freemasonry using the York Rite versions of those degrees. There are a few holdouts in Louisiana that were established before this truce that still perform the Scottish Rite versions of the first three degrees, but otherwise in the USA, the York Rite Blue Lodge degrees are the Blue Lodge degrees. So in a sense, most Masons in the USA are already York Rite masons from the moment they enter the preparation room before the Entered Apprentice degree.
Royal Arch masonry, and the Knights Templar, grew in popularity through the 19th century. For reasons that will be clear to a Royal Arch mason, Union soldiers in the Battle of the Wilderness, even those who weren't Masons, took to wearing Royal Arch pins on their uniforms because it was thought to deflect Confederate snipers. By the end of the 19th century, Knight Templar triennials would swamp major cities with uniformed Sir Knights, with numbers rivaling fairs and expositions, and every one of those Sir Knights was also a Royal Arch Mason.
In the 20th century, corresponding with the spikes in Masonic membership after both world wars, every body of Freemasonry benefited, and the York Rite was very much shaped by this influx of new Masons. As Blue Lodges grew, some had memberships exceeding 1500 or even 2000, and this put considerable strain on the lodges, and concordant and appendant bodies were happy to take up the excess. Despairing of ever entering the officers' line in their mother lodges, masons became Royal Arch Masons (or Captular Masons) and Royal and Select Masters (or Cryptic Masons) and Knights Templar in order to gain a shot at leadership. The Shriners exploded in popularity, and required that their applicants be either a 32° Mason in the Scottish Rite, or a Knight Templar in the York Rite. This eventually led to one-day classes where a new Master Mason could gain the requirement for Shrine membership in a weekend. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was not at all unusual for a York Rite Mason to have a wallet full of dues cards from bodies he never attended, just so that he could continue to attend those bodies he wanted to attend.
From 1960 to the present, mainstream Masonic membership in the USA plummeted from over four million to roughly 1.25 million members. 21st century Freemasonry already looks very different from 20th century Freemasonry, and the divergence will only grow over time. Consider that the population of the USA was 179 million in 1960, and is almost 317 million today. That means that in 1960, 4.7% of men in the USA were Masons, whereas today, 0.8% of men in the USA are Masons.
The structure of the York Rite in the USA is such that this demographic slide hurts it very badly. While there is a General Grand Chapter, a General Grand Council of Cryptic Masons, and a General Encampment of Knights Templar, not every state body belongs to these general groups, and within each state, Chapters, Councils and Commanderies operate much like Blue Lodges do, only with a much smaller pool of potential members. Contrast this with the Scottish Rite, where two highly competent Sovereign Grand Commanders have complete authority over a top-down structure of bodies that organize at the state level, but reside at a municipality level large enough to cast an umbrella over the regions in which they operate. York Rite bodies "stick apart", and are far less equipped to mount a joint strategy to refactor their mission in the face of demographic inevitabilities, for better and for worse.
To top it off, the Christian-specific nature of Knights Templar has a polarizing effect on Freemasonry as a whole, and the York Rite in particular. Whereas Scottish Rite and Blue Lodge Masonry, and the Shrine are universalist in outlook, asking only that their members believe in a Supreme Being, and the continuation of the soul in some capacity after corporeal death, the Knights Templar (and by association, the York Rite in general) has a Christian component that deviates from the universality of Freemasonry in general. No other faith tradition has Masonic bodies dedicated to their faith. Albert Pike was very opposed to this partiality towards one faith in Freemasonry, and created the Knight Kadosh (30° in the Southern Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite) degree as a critique of Templarism in Freemasonry.
When I was first made a Mason, the erroneous explanation was given to me that, as a Jew, I could not become a York Rite Mason because I could never be a Knight Templar. Later, that was qualified (still erroneously) to say that I could become a Capitular Mason and a Cryptic Mason, but that I could never take the "higher degrees" in the York Rite. Still later, I was told that I could become a Knight Templar if I were willing to swear a Christian oath. Considering that my people were exposed to violence in my family's history for not being willing to swear Christian oaths, that was hardly attractive to me. Finally, I was told the truth, that I had to swear an oath to be willing to lift a sword in defense of the Christian religion in order to be a Knight Templar, and that many Jewish Masons whom I knew were willing, within their consciences, to swear such an oath. I know now that someone who has only done the Royal Arch degrees is every bit the York Rite Mason that someone who belongs to many York Rite bodies is.
Please understand me that I do not condemn nor judge any Jewish Mason who genuinely searches his faith and conscience and concludes that such an oath does not interfere with his duty to God as he understands it. I myself might someday be persuaded to do the same, but for now, I'm not comfortable within my conscience swearing such an oath.
The polarization that Christian-only Freemasonry causes is two-fold. First, it excludes non-Christians, and second, it attracts that subset of Christian Masons who are ambivalent about the universality of Freemasonry. While this is untrue of the majority of Templars I have met, there is a small group within Templarism that tries to reconcile the universality of Freemasonry with Christian Fundamentalism, with the danger of choosing the particulars of their fundamentalism over core Masonic values. A Mason who thinks that they can only find true brotherhood within Christian-specific bodies of Freemasonry (and I've heard that sentiment expressed, albeit rarely) is not practicing Freemasonry when he harbors such a sentiment. All Masons are all brothers in the Craft.
The 20th century model of the York Rite can be expressed as follows: the York Rite consists of three bodies of Freemasonry: the Chapter of Royal Arch Masons, the Council of Royal and Select Masters, and the Commandery of Knights Templar. One sees lots of convenient diagrams where the York Rite is modeled like the Scottish Rite, where instead of a sequence of degrees from the 4° through the 32° across four bodies, there are eleven degrees and orders across three bodies. The sequence of York Rite degrees is usually presented as implicitly hierarchical: a Cryptic Mason is implied to be more advanced than a Capitular Masonry, and a Knight Templar is more advanced than either.
I think this model does a profound disservice to the York Rite, and is dangerously obsolete considering the modern demographic trends, both in population and in religious affiliation. In 1960, 93% of men in the USA were Christian, as opposed to 78.5% today. In 1960, 5% of men in the USA held a faith other than Christianity, as opposed to 10% today. And young men skew these demographic shifts more than older men do.
I think a better model, for the 21st century, for the York Rite can be expressed as follows: the York Rite is a group of Masonic bodies that teach vital lessons in Freemasonry in uniquely beautiful and profound ways. You become a York Rite Mason by soliciting your local Royal Arch Chapter for the degrees. After a ballot, you will receive four degrees (and they should be explained in detail for both historical and esoteric significance, as well as where they fit in the Masonic superstructure). A Chapter of Royal Arch Masons is a place where you can connect with the brothers of the other lodges in your area, and share some profound and beautiful ritual with them. In the Chapter, you will receive further light in Freemasonry, and you will be welcome to tackle Masonic symbolism on a deeper and more philosophical level than you have done previously. Chapter is a think tank and leadership conference for the Masons who meet in your Masonic building (if there are a number of lodges and a Chapter in your building) or town or neighboring group of towns.
Once you have had a chance to appreciate what Capitular Masonry has to offer, the rest of the York Rite opens up to you. York Rite Freemasonry consists of a myriad of different bodies that meet for different purposes. You can learn even more from the Council of Royal and Select Masters, or you may be invited to join a Council of Allied Masonic Degrees, or if Christian-specific Freemasonry is important to you, join a Commandery of Knights Templar, or get invited to join the SRICF, or the Royal Order of Scotland.
I think that making Capitular Masonry mirror Blue Lodge Masonry too closely dulls its allure. Capitular Masonry has lessons for a Mason that he can only learn in Chapter. The Mark Master degree and the Royal Arch degree are two degrees without which it is much more difficult to fully grasp what Freemasonry is all about. That is why the Royal Ark Mariner degree historically had the Mark Master Mason degree as a prerequisite, and why so many York Rite bodies require that the applicant or invitee received the Royal Arch degree. Because the knowledge conferred with those degrees is knowledge that helps Masons understand the whole picture of the Masonic system.
York Rite Masonry holds many of the most important truths in Freemasonry, and some of the most precious of these are in Capitular Freemasonry. And yet, a Mason can be a Royal Arch Mason for decades without any of this light falling upon him. That's tragic, and immediately attributable to the dearth of education and lack of contemplation with which these degrees are so often bestowed and received. In the Mark Master Mason degree, we are taught to receive our wages, and then, we are given Jesus' Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. Those who have wrought but one hour are made equal to those who have borne the burden and the heat of the day. The Chapter Penny is waiting for each of us to receive it whenever we learn how to receive our wages, regardless of how long that takes. We just need to be willing to learn how to receive them.
There's a very real chance that the York Rite may fall into disuse and close up shop in the next thirty years. Many Chapters today have meetings where they fail to have a quorum sufficient to open the Chapter legally, and many Councils and Commanderies are closing because they don't have enough members to keep going. This is heartbreaking. As the Light goes out, Masonry as a whole darkens. If we let the Chapter, or more broadly, the York Rite as a whole, fall into decrepitude and die, we will rob future generations of this precious Masonic light. This should be acutely in the minds of every York Rite Mason. Some measure of genius will be required to turn the tide, but turn the tide we must, if we want men five generations hence to receive this light. It may very well be that many individual bodies now open will close, but if the ones that stay open bestow pure, clear Masonic light upon their members, that light will flourish. York Rite bodies are loosely connected to each other. We can use that as a strength, to present the underlying structure of the York Rite as it currently exists in a 21st century way that emphasizes the synergy between the bodies in the York Rite. Perhaps we can celebrate the York Rite as a flexible network of paths between the York Rite bodies rather than a single path with a single endpoint.