Statement by the United Protestant Council on the application by the Royal Black Institution for membership
This is a statement made by the United Protestant Council in response to an application for membership made by the Royal Black Institution. In order to clarify the following statement, it is necessary to say something about the two parties concerned in this matter.
The United Protestant Council
The UPC is an interdenominational Protestant body that has representatives from a number of Protestant evangelical organizations. The members of the Council include Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Anglicans. The members are there in a representative capacity, and they cast votes on behalf of the organizations that they represent. They share a common concern to defend and promote the doctrines of the Reformation in the United Kingdom and alert people to the error of the Roman Catholic Church. They seek to defend the Protestant Constitution that resulted from the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and to alert Christians to the importance of maintaining the constitution. The UPC has two annual meetings in London, where speakers are invited to address a topic of Protestant interest. It also organizes preaching and evangelism in Trafalgar Square.
The Royal Black Institution
The Royal Black Institution is one of the three Loyal Orders committed to maintaining the Protestant Constitution, and preserving the union between Northern Ireland on the United Kingdom. The other two are the Orange Order on the Royal Arch Purple. The Apprentice Boys of Derry are a Protestant fraternity with many informal links to the other three. All members of the Royal Black must have proceeded through the two degrees of the Orange Order and also the one degree of the Royal Arch Purple Order. The Orange Order meets in lodges, the Royal Arch Purple in chapters, and the Royal Black in preceptories. All members of the Royal Black are thus Orangemen, although not all Orangemen are members of the Royal Black. The Institution is explicitly Protestant and Christian, and among its stated aims is to give its members the opportunity to ‘study Holy Scripture, increase knowledge of the Reformed Faith, engage in Christian and charitable outreach and continue and develop social and responsible citizenship’. The order organizes a re-enactment of the battle of the Boyne in Scarva, County Down, as well as marching on the 12th August every year to commemorate the battle of Newtownbutler.
The degree system
The Royal Black Institution has a system whereby members of the order progress through 11 degrees and then conclude with a final or retrospective degree. The degrees are catechetical ceremonies where the candidate is addressed, gives responses (or has them given up on his behalf) to set questions and performs certain ritual actions. The degrees are 1) the Royal Black degree; 2) the Royal Scarlet degree; 3) the Royal Mark degree; 4) the Apron and Royal Blue degree; 6) the Royal White degree; 6) the Royal Green degree; 7) the Gold degree; 8) the Star and Garter degree; 9) the Crimson Arrow degree; 10) the Link and Chain degree; 11) the Red Cross degree. The Red Charge is a retrospective degree. A Red Cross Blackman has been through all the degrees. The degrees are described as being illustrative of scriptural truths, and include many references to Scripture. The degree system is at the heart of the controversy about the membership application of the Royal Black Institution.
The Application for Membership
In 1999 the Royal Black Institution made an application for membership of the United Protestant Council. This application was the subject of much debate within the Council because a number of evangelicals had left the Institution on grounds of conscience, alleging that the rituals involved in the degree system of the Royal Black were inconsistent with Scripture. The debate was further complicated by the fact that members of the Royal Black were bound by an oath not to disclose what went on in their secret ceremonies. In many respects, they were therefore not able to comment on the specific details of their practices, but confined themselves to general arguments in order to support their membership application. These arguments will be scrutinized more closely in due course.
Because no progress was being made in the United Protestant Council’s deliberations on the application, it was felt by the Council that it would be best if three members of the Council went to Belfast to interview former members of the Royal Black about the degree system on whether the reservations expressed in relation to it had any weight. The three members were Rev John Shearer, Michael de Semlyen and Duncan Boyd. In November 2003 the group flew over to Belfast to interview twelve former Blackmen who had left the institution on the grounds of conscience. One purpose was to find out what went on in the degree system of the Institution and evaluate it in the light of Scripture. Another was to the evaluate the credibility of the testimony of the men who had left the Royal Black.
All the men were interviewed and asked to describe their experience on joining the Institution and to give an account of why they left. The interviews were recorded on video.
The Evidence from Belfast
In Belfast, twelve ex-members of the Royal Black were interviewed. They were asked to give an account of the rituals of the Institution and to say why they felt that they should leave it. The men came from a variety of denominational backgrounds. There were three Pentecostals, three Free Presbyterians, one missionary, one member of the Church of the Nazarene, one Baptist, two members of the Church of Ireland, one of whom was a minister, and one Independent Methodist minister. It is interesting to note that one of the men who testified had been a Lecturer in the Royal Black Institution. Because the rituals of the Royal Black are secret, the content of the ceremonies is committed to lecturers who memorize the responses. This witness was able to give a detailed account of the rituals of the Royal Black, which were confirmed by the other witnesses. Two of the witnesses, Ray Pulman and Duane Russell submitted written papers explaining their reasons for leaving, which are freely available.
The witnesses referred to specific elements of the rituals that trouble their conscience as Christians. In particular, the opening degree raised significant questions. All those interviewed asserted that it involved a ritual where a human skull or an object symbolizing a human skull was used as a ‘mystic cup’ from which a toast was drunk ‘to the memory of brother Joseph’. All the interviewees felt that this ritual was unchristian and regretted having participated in it. One man even broke down in tears at the memory. The interviewees raised questions with respect to different elements of the degree system, which will be dealt with in sequence.
Overall, the testimony of the interviewees was remarkably coherent and powerful. The three UPC Council members were convinced that they were truthful witnesses and that they were not lying or fabricating evidence. All the witnesses were interviewed individually, while the other interviewees waited outside, so that there was no realistic possibility of conspiracy. All the evidence was necessarily oral, since it involved the recollection of what was said at secret meetings. Nonetheless, the Council members were convinced at the end of the hearings that they had a full and accurate account of what was said and done in the degrees of the Royal Black Institution.
Theological Appraisal of the Degree System
It has already been observed, that the stated aims of the Royal Black Institution are laudable. However, the rituals that form part of the initiation into the Institution are the point at issue. Blackmen who defended the application asserted that such rituals were either harmless or positively useful, in that they used colourful ritual and ceremony to illustrate Scripture. It was further suggested that these rituals were of great use to illiterate people, of whom there were many at the time when the Institution started. A close analysis of the degrees will help to establish whether such defences are reasonable.
The First Degree
The First or Royal Black Degree is the introductory degree. The candidate is blindfolded in the anteroom to the Preceptory and is led into the room by two Blackmen. When he is in the room, his blindfold is removed and he is asked to drink a toast to the memory of brother Joseph from the top of a human skull or, if he wants, from a suitable replacement, such as a coconut or shell. The drinking vessel is referred to as the ‘mystic cup’. At the conclusion of the ceremony the candidate is shown a triangle containing twelve lights, said to represent the twelve sons of Jacob. One is extinguished. This is said both to correspond to the sale of Joseph into Egypt as well as to the fall of Judas from the twelve apostles. The candidate is then told ‘the ancient custom of our order teaches that he who would betray his trust deserves no better fate than that which befell Judas Iscariot.
This degree raises a number of questions but undoubtedly the most important of these is the use of a human skull.
The use of a human skull
It is certainly true that medieval Catholicism made much of the human skull as an emblem and reminder of death. However, the usage of the human skull as a momento mori within Christian tradition does not justify its use by an evangelical Protestant society. It is certainly true that there is no explicit Scripture verse that says that a human skull cannot be used to drink from in a Christian rite, but there are good scriptural grounds for repudiating such a practice.
Sufficiency of Scripture
Scripture itself is sufficient to teach us the truths that it wishes to convey. The words of Scripture itself telling me that I will die (unless our Lord returns first) are enough. One is implicitly denying the power of the words of Scripture if he believes that it is necessary or indeed helpful to have a physical symbol in addition. It would be quite enough to read people a relevant Scripture passage – Hebrews 92:7, for example.
Respect for the bones of the dead
Human remains should be respected. They are the remains of individuals whose bodies will be resurrected by God on the last day. It may be that medical schools can legitimately use such remains in the interest of others. It is not acceptable for theaters to do you same. Evangelical Protestants have no business using them, even if they do not know to whom they belong. They should be interred – the Lord knows whose bones they are! They are not ours to use as we please.
Apron and Royal Blue Degree (4th Degree)
In this, the 4th degree of the Royal Black, reference is made to the murders of Hiram. Hiram is mentioned in Scripture as a worker in brass whom Solomon brought from Tyre to assist in the building of the temple (1 Kings 7:13, 2 Chronicles 2:13–14). However, Scripture makes no mention of Hiram being murdered.
The Loss Word
This degree makes reference to the Word that was lost and found. It is certainly true that in 2 Kings 22:8 the high priest Hilkiah found ‘the book of the law’. However, the words of the degree describe God the Word as being buried in Solomon’s household and found ‘by a mystery’. Jesus is God the Word. He was never buried in Solomon’s household and was not found there! This degree appears to confuse the Word of God in the sense of Scripture or a specific book of Scripture and the second person of the Trinity Himself. This obscures Scripture rather than clarifying it. The notion of masons discovering the lost Word of God can be found in Freemasonry, but not in the Bible.
Royal White Degree (5th degree)
In this degree, based on the story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17) the candidate says, or a Lecturer says on his behalf, ‘I am innocent’. In the relevant passage David never makes the claim. Indeed, none of us are innocent, since we are all born guilty in Adam (Romans 5:12-21) and add to that guilt by our own sins. This statement puts put into the mouth of the candidate is, at best, very unhelpful. The Blackmen who have written to the UPC say that the word innocent is used in this context in the sense of naïve or harmless. Yet, further on in the degree the candidate is said to be given a white robe on account of my innocence, richer than the Golden Fleece, more ancient then the Roman Eagle, more honorable than the Star and Garter. This does not square with the suggested interpretation of the word innocent. You do not get a prize for being naïve. If we are to identify with David and his trust in the living God, we must identify with him in his confession of his sinfulness – Psalm 51:3. We are none of us innocent because we have all sinned in Adam and are guilty rebels against a holy God. One of the most important distinguishing features of Reformed theology is the seriousness with which it views the doctrine of original sin. Unlike either Romanism or Arminianism, Reformed Protestantism asserts the total depravity of man after the fall of Adam, so that, only a sovereign work of God’s Holy Spirit can change his wicked heart. No supposedly Reformed body should ask its members to make a statement that is utterly contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture.
Gold Star And Garter (8th degree)
In this degree the candidate says, or has said for him, ‘I am a priest of the order of Melchizedek’. This is blasphemous for any Christian to say. There is only one priest of this order – the Lord Jesus Christ (Psalm 110:4, Hebrews 7:17). The candidate further says that he is of the tribe of Levi. This confuses Scripture, since our Lord was a priest, yet he was of the tribe of Judah. Melchizedek was not descended from Israel and therefore did not belong to any of the tribes. No Christian, least of all a Protestant Christian, should describe himself as a priest in the Old Testament sense.
Red Cross (11th Degree)
In this degree, the candidate is told in his final address that ‘we, manfully bearing our cross over the tempestuous seas of time … may use the key of knowledge to open the gates of that eternal city which standeth foursquare, whose builder and founder is God’. This comes perilously close to teaching that salvation is by special knowledge, whereas the clear teaching of the Bible is that it is by faith in Jesus Christ and His sacrifice on the cross: ‘For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast’ (Ephesians 2:8–9).
The rituals of the Royal Black are a curious mixture of the scriptural and the unscriptural. They bear striking resemblances to elements of Freemasonry, although the precise influence of Freemasonry on the Loyal Orders is uncertain. It may well be no more than the original founders of the Loyal Orders had a knowledge of Masonic ritual and adapted it for their own purposes. Nonetheless, whatever the exact connection, the influence of Freemasonry is evident and unhealthy, despite the Protestant gloss given to the degree ceremonies. We have already seen that some of the degree ceremonies involve responses that are at variance with Scripture. They thus contain false teaching. It is also doubtful whether it is necessary to have the ceremonies in secret. If the ceremonies are no more than vivid illustrations of scriptural truth then there is no need for them to be secret. The holding of the ceremonies in secret suggests that the information contained therein is privileged and special. True Protestantism, however, believes in an open Bible and that the truths of Scripture should be available to all.
The stated aims of Institution are laudable. Like the UPC, they are committed to upholding the truths of Scripture, to denouncing the errors of Rome, and to defending the principles of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. They rightly commemorate the Battle of the Boyne, which was a providential deliverance of both Ireland and Great Britain from the papal antichrist. However, the initiatory ceremonies that they use involve serious violations of important scriptural principles. If we accept that such things are done and said in the degree system of the Royal Black Institution then we can only, out of serious concern for our Christian friends and brother within it, call upon them to jettison everything which is contrary to the Word of God. The errors within the degree system are not trivial; they involve the compromise of vital Christian truths. As things stand, with great regret, the United Protestant Council cannot accept the application of the Royal Black Institution for membership.
”For there is nothing covered, which shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known” (Matthew 10:26).
Member societies of the United Protestant Council supporting this statement:
- Christian Watch
- Church Society
- Protestant Old Paths
- Protestant Reformation Society
- Protestant Truth Society
- Reformation Island
- Spirit ‘88
- Sussex Martyrs Commemoration Council
- Walsingham Witness
Protestant/Evangelical opposition to the Loyal Orders
The Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland report on Loyal Orders
A Theological Report by the Church of Ireland – on the RBI -new!
Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Orange Order
The Covenanter Witness (Reformed Presbyterian)
The Burning Bush – A Publication by Rev Ivan Foster, a Free Presbyterian minister.
Rev. Norman W McAuley (Presbyterian Church in Ireland) -new!
Independent Methodist Pastor Paul Johnston
The English Churchman (Rev Dr Paul Ferguson)
Church of Ireland General Synod Sub Committee
Take Heed Ministries (Cecil Andrew)
British Churchman (Johnny Larner)