It is repeatedly and truthfully stated that Freemasonry is not a religion or a substitute for one.
It does not have a theology and does not require a Mason to have any particular beliefs about the Supreme Being in which he believes.
However, questions may arise among Masons and non-Masons alike when they come across the title “Excellent High Priest” being used in Royal Arch Masonry.
Does this have to do with a literal or theological priesthood? No, it does not.
Why, then, does Royal Arch Masonry have the title Excellent High Priest for one of its ranks/offices?
In other Grand Chapter jurisdictions, different titles are used.
For example, the Supreme Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons of England uses the title First Principal for this office; the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons of British Columbia and Yukon uses the title Grand Joshua.
For the purposes of this article, we will focus on customs as used in the American bodies of the Royal Arch.
Royal Arch Mason Degree
The Royal Arch Mason degree uses the accounts of the building of the Second Temple—from the Old Testament, from Esdras, from Josephus, etc.—as the basis for the narrative of its theatrical, moral allegory.
Principal figures of those accounts include Jeshua, the High Priest; Zerubbabel, the Governor of the Jews at Jerusalem; and Haggai the Prophet.
In this degree ceremony, candidates represent characters who volunteer to assist with the building of the Temple, which is overseen by Jeshua, Zerubbabel, and Haggai.
Whenever a Royal Arch Chapter is opened, the three presiding officers who oversee the meeting are therefore always referred to as the Excellent High Priest, the King, and the Scribe.
The emblem of the office of High Priest typically uses a design based on the breastplate that the High Priests of the Old Testament wore, which held stones representing the Twelve Tribes of Israel; this design is typically situated over a Triple Tau, an emblem used for Royal Arch Masonry in general.
This combined emblem is the typical template for High Priest and Past High Priest in Royal Arch Masonry.
Order of High Priesthood
The Order of High Priesthood is one of the York Rite chair degrees—like the Order of the Silver Trowel for Illustrious Masters in Cryptic Masonry and the Knight Crusader of the Cross or the Sovereign Order of Knights Preceptor for Eminent Commanders in the Knights Templar.
This Order is conferred upon sitting/installed High Priests and upon Past High Priests.
The degree ceremony is a portrayal of Abraham’s return from the War of Nine Kings and of his meeting with Melchizedek, the High Priest of Salem.
The association in charge of this chair degree—also called the Order of High Priesthood—is an is composed solely of sitting and past High Priests of local Royal Arch Chapters.
This is sometimes also referred to as the Anointed Order of High Priesthood—in times past, this Order was known as the Order of Melchizedek.
Grand and General Grand Officers
In a Grand Chapter, the presiding officer is known as the Most Excellent Grand High Priest.
In the General Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons International, the presiding officer is the General Grand High Priest.
The “High Priest” parts of their respective titles come from the same source as that of a local Royal Arch Chapter.
The emblem used by these offices are the same as that used for High Priests, with the addition of a wreath surrounding the design.
The title High Priest is not indicative of any literal or theological priesthood used or claimed by Freemasonry in general or by Royal Arch Masonry in particular.
Royal Arch Masonry does use this title for the highest of its local, grand, and general grand offices.
However, this is done solely in commemoration of Jeshua as a High Priest of Hebrew antiquity.
Just as the role of a knight onstage in a theatrical performance does not make the actor a literal knight himself, neither does a Royal Arch Mason’s portrayal or commemoration of a high priest, a king, or a scribe/prophet of antiquity make him a literal high priest, king, or scribe.
The same concept holds for any other body appendant/concordant to Freemasonry that uses such titles as “priest,” “prophet,” etc. for its ranks and degree ceremonies.
However, to be an Excellent High Priest in the Royal Arch is more than merely to take on a theatrical role;
It is to lead one’s Chapter in serving the community and to be an example of leadership for his Companions, just the same as a Worshipful Master of a Lodge does for the community and for his Brethren.