Article: Making Your Mark

republished with kind permission from Freemasonry Today

Matthew Christmas Considers the Degree of Mark Master Mason

After the three degrees of Craft Freemasonry, many brethren look to “make a daily advancement in masonic knowledge” as instructed in the Charge after Initiation. The United Grand Lodge actively encourages Master Masons to 'complete the third degree' by seeking exaltation in a Royal Arch Chapter; it makes no suggestion that they should complete that of the Fellow Craft by advancement as a Mark Master Mason. However, one would hope that all Master Masons would want to do so, as it is simply an accident of history that those masons in England and Wales who are exalted in the Royal Arch are not required previously to have taken the Mark Degree.

The establishment of the United Grand Lodge in 1813 involved compromises. Thus it was stated that "pure Antient Masonry consists of three degrees, and no more . . . including the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch". While many lodges and chapters continued, unofficially, to confer the Degree according to pre-union practice. This led for many years to the active discouragement of the Mark Degree and many other orders by a number of Craft Provincial Grand Masters - even after the 1856 formation of the Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons and extending well into the twentieth century. Indeed some of those who dared take the Mark saw their 'masonic careers' cut short due to disapproval of this and other 'additional' degrees. This situation happily changed some time ago and now, with HRH the Duke of Kent, Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England, and his brother, HRH Prince Michael of Kent, Grand Master of the Mark Grand Lodge respectively, Master Masons continue to be free to become Mark Master Masons. However, an unofficial view still pervades among some that one does either Mark, or Royal Arch. Such a pity. As the most popular degree outside the Craft, there are now over 45,000 brethren in over 1,680 Mark lodges in England alone.

Many masons will be unaware that the English position of the Mark Degree as somehow outside the canon of 'pure' Freemasonry is unique to masonry as practised under the UGLE and its districts overseas: it is one enduring result of eighteenth and nineteenth century masonic in-fighting! Elsewhere the position is quite different. Under the Irish Constitution, the Mark Degree is taken in a Royal Arch Chapter, while in Scotland, the Mark can be received in two ways: either within a Royal Arch Chapter, or separately, in a Craft Lodge. No-one under Scottish or Irish jurisdictions can be exalted as a Royal Arch Mason without previously having been advanced as a Mark Master Mason. In the United States, the Mark is conferred in a Royal Arch Chapter within the eleven degree York Rite as the first of three degrees - Mark, (Virtual) Past Master and Most Excellent Master - which lead to the Chapter; once again, the Mark is an essential preliminary to the Royal Arch. This is, logically, how it should be.

Why the Mark?

There are perhaps two reasons why English masons should actively seek the Mark. Firstly, Mark Masonry may well represent a tangible link with our operative predecessors; that of each mason receiving and using a distinctive mark. While the marks of Operative Masons are to be found on stone buildings all over the world dating back thousands of years, we cannot claim with any certainty that the actual Mark ceremonies as practised to-day date earlier than the eighteenth century. Whether or not Speculative Freemasonry came from lodges of working stone masons, there is no doubt that the language and symbolism of the Craft revolves around building in general and the construction of King Solomon's Temple in particular. However, there are comparatively few real references to building, as such, outside the working tools and the tracing boards; the Craft's rituals are concerned with our 'traditional history', signs, tokens and words. The Worshipful Society of Freemasons ('The Operatives'), founded in 1913, seeks to correct this seeming imbalance, but the Mark has been doing so for much longer and does so at the appropriate points if its two composite degrees of Mark Man and Mark Master Mason are viewed in the 'correct' sequence within the degrees of Craft and Royal Arch.

When Thomas Dunckerley conferred the Mark on brethren of the Royal Arch Chapter of Friendship in September of 1769 - this being the earliest detailed documentary reference to the Mark in England and we do not know whence he got the degree - he first acknowledged them Mark Men and then advanced them as Mark Masters. Both degrees are combined in the modern ritual, perhaps not terribly well when one looks closely; originally they followed one upon the other. As a Mark Master, the second degree tracing board and aspects of the third degree traditional history begin to make more sense as the operative context is made clear. The ashlars and the lewis, oft ignored within a Craft Lodge, are explained and, above all, the keystone of what is the Chapter's mystic arch is of central importance.

Secondly, Mark Masons make a particular vow to receive a brother's mark; one of the key messages of the degree is a pledge to support your fellows come what may. These are aspects of the Mark Degree which impress me personally. Taking the role of a workman bringing completed blocks of stone for inspection prior to use in King Solomon's Temple, the candidate may at first appear to have been 'set up' at his approach to the Overseers and to the Wardens. However, he soon appreciates that the message which is taught is both a powerful and a personal one. Unlike many others, this degree combines masonic thought with a lightness of touch and some genuine laughter. However, Mark is not frivolous. Not only has the candidate learned more about the place of masons in the actual and speculative construction of the Temple, but he has come further to appreciate both the joys and sorrows within his own masonic journey, as well as the fallibility of man and the need for utter humility before God in the working out of his plans. The ritual is full of beauty; it is a pity that the two lectures, on both degree and tracing board, are uncommonly given as they are instructive and pleasingly phrased. Indeed, the Tracing Board itself is worthy of some real study; too often we overlook it as just another piece of furniture.

Mark Well

Both as candidate and Master, I remember above all the final Charge calling on Mark Masters to do justice, love mercy, practise charity, maintain harmony, and endeavour to live in brotherly love. The Worshipful Master then powerfully reminds all the brethren that Mark Masters do not forsake each other. My own Mark lodge's history presents a tangible example. Oscar Wilde was initiated in my mother lodge, Apollo University, and was a member of all the orders associated with the university. After his sentencing, they all expelled him, but not the University Lodge of Mark Masters; his name and mark are still in our Register of Marks and have not been struck out. For its time this was a significant decision by his brother Mark Masters and worthy of the degree.

Making their mark

Mark Masons, above all, enjoy their Mark Masonry and are active in putting its principles into practice. In the last eighteen months, over fifty Crusader 900 Ambulances at a total cost of £2 million have been donated by Mark Provinces to the St John Ambulance Brigade. Able to be used as both emergency vehicles and also as transporters of wheelchair-bound patients, their third role is as mobile first aid posts. One is sure to be in action near you. This is an act of charity worthy of a degree that teaches that among Mark Master Masons you will ever find friends.

Matthew Christmas is a Past Master of the University Lodge of Mark Masters, No. 55, in the Mark Province of Oxfordshire.

Reprinted from Freemasonry Today Issue 18, Autumn 2001: © Grand Lodge Publications Ltd 1997-2010