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From the Archives: A Fast from Missals? (1957)

Edited and introduced by Richard Mammana

This long editorial about missals comes from the desk of Peter Morton Day (1914-1984), TLC’s editor between 1952 and 1964. Day, a layman, was appointed the first national ecumenical officer of the then-Protestant Episcopal Church in 1967. TLC had long been associated with conversations and controversy around the use of liturgical material not contained in the Book of Common Prayer, notably the 1930-1931 American Missal, known pejoratively as the “Morehouse Missal,” as Morehouse published both the Missal and the weekly magazine.

Other examinations of the history of missals in Anglican life include Canon Charles Winfred Douglas’s Missals in the Protestant Episcopal Church (1931), Mark Dalby’s Anglican Missals and Their Canons (1998, 2010), and The English Missal: Its Origins and Development, by Ian Gomersall (2022). Carl E. Grammer’s undated An Examination of the So-Called American Missal gives an idea of the depths of concern focused on missals in American church life.

Editorial: A Fast from Missals?

The Living Church, April 7, 1957, pp. 8-9, 23.

Why are there “missals” in the Episcopal Church? Why do some priests use them, and why do some bishops forbid them? A missal is a book containing the Communion service and related matter, such as the collects, epistles, and gospels for the day. In the Episcopal Church, the word has come to mean a book containing such matter but going beyond the forms officially authorized by General Convention in the Book of Common Prayer.

About 90% of the additional material in missals currently being used is taken from the Bible, and most of the rest is taken from the Christian devotion of many centuries. The additions include collects, epistles, and gospels for special days; introits, graduals, sequences, and other snatches of psalmody and hymnody; additional short prayers said by the celebrant at Communion-time and after Communion. All the added material is in favor of God the Father, Jesus Christ His Son, and the Holy Spirit; it offers Him praise, gives Him thanks, and beseeches His blessings on mankind. Yet tempers can be lost and debates can grow furious when the question of missals comes up in a clerical gathering. And laymen can get just as excited about the subject when it is brought up in terms of the customs of their own parish.

What is good about missals? There are three things that lead to their use: (1) They meet a genuine current need; (2) they help the Church to progress in its forms of worship; (3) they contribute to the ecumenical movement. We shall discuss these points one by one.

Missals meet a current need. Anybody who has progressed far enough in his religious life to go to Holy Communion more than one or two times a week — perhaps as a special Lenten observance — quickly finds that, while the Book of Common Prayer is rich in material for Sunday Communion services, it is skimpy in material for weekdays. Special materials for every day in Lent, for saints’ days, for “votive” celebrations in connection with some spiritual need, are virtually a “must.” There are ingenious ways of juggling with the Prayer Book to meet some of these needs (e.g., to use one of the Whitsun services for a service praying God’s blessing upon a diocesan meeting), but this is just a matter of stretching the rules to cover one of many bare spots in our liturgical attire.

The Prayer Book provides one collect, epistle, and gospel for “a saint’s day,” but the Church calendar itself pays attention only to a small group of New Testament worthies. It is all very well to have Prayer Book days honoring people about whom we know practically nothing except their names — St. Matthias, St. Bartholomew, SS. Simon and Jude; but it seems rather odd to forget about St. Ambrose and St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Polycarp and St. Martin of Tours and St. Thomas Becket and other inspiring leaders whose acts are known to us.

Such needs could hardly be met adequately in a Prayer Book designed for the use of those who go to church on Sundays only. The Book would be too big and too hard to find one’s way around in. So why not have a supplemental book for weekday use?

Missals help the Church to progress in its forms of worship. There are two ways of engaging in liturgical experimentation. One way is to do it officially, authorizing trial forms of worship. The other way is to do it unofficially, by initiative of the local priest or authorization of the diocesan bishop. There is some. thing to be said for each method, but the unofficial, extra-legal method has the advantage of not putting the official weight of the Church behind something which may be found quite improper or inadequate. Much of the liturgical progress of the past has been the result of judicious law-breaking. Missals can serve the purpose of providing a bridge from the past to the future by codifying what a substantial unofficial group regards as a helpful departure from the present way of doing things.

(It is of interest that the current automobile safety movement is paying attention to the usual speed of automobiles on a given street as a way of setting the speed limit. What people actually do is always a useful factor to consider in making rules about what they must do.)

Missals contribute to the ecumenical movement. This is, oddly enough, one of the main grounds of attack against missals, usually expressed in such unflattering terms as “aping Rome.” No matter what other principle might be used in developing a missal. the usual missal used in the Episcopal Church today is based in part on a conscious effort to find a meeting ground between Anglican and Roman Catholic ways of praying and worshipping.

There is no widespread feeling among Episcopalians who use missals that the Prayer Book ought to be replaced by the Missale Romanum, nor is it felt that the main parts of the Roman service are better or sounder than the Anglican. On the contrary, the borrowing from Rome (which in many cases is no more than a recovery of Anglicanism’s own past) is concerned chiefly with non-essential and variable parts of the service, and is very greatly modified by liturgical study which has shown both Anglican and Roman usages to be in need of improvement.

Still, the sense of fundamental unity with a great. body of fellow Christians which is implied in study and appropriation of some of their ways of worship is an important contribution to the goal of the ecumenical movement — the reunion of all followers of Christ in one communion and fellowship. At present, Roman intransigence prevents or constricts inter-church contacts at official levels. However, just as we see signs of hope in Roman borrowings from Anglican (and Protestant) scholarly studies and hymnology, so there are real signs of hope for the future in a similar appreciation of Roman insights by Anglicans. Our meetings together may be few and formal, but if we can say the same prayers and sing the same hymns, we may hope in the long run to grow together in worship of our one Lord.

These are the three things that make missals valuable aids to the Church’s worship. There is another side to the story, however. The reasons against using missals are so strong that some thoughtful Churchmen of undoubted Catholic convictions wonder whether it would not be better to give up the use of missals—to “fast” from them, as it were—for the sake of the greater good that might be forthcoming.

The first problem is the fact that for Episcopalians the Church’s unity is most clearly symbolized in its unity of worship. If all are called upon to adhere to one standard, those who as a group regularly follow a prescribed set of additions to or deviations from that standard are, to a greater or lesser degree, obscuring the unity of the Episcopal Church itself.

The executive director of the American Church Union recently criticized the “optional” character of the South Indian liturgy. He would be more powerfully supported in such a criticism if some of the members of the organization he serves did not make their own optional deviations from the official liturgy of their Church.

A second problem arises from the difficulty of setting up a sound principle for the compilation of a missal.

If it represents a serious effort to add only those embellishments and observances which are wholly in accord with Anglican thinking and are allowed for by the Prayer Book rubrics (subjected to reasonable stretching), one kind of book will result. For example, using the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel at the end of the service is permissible because the Prayer Book says an anthem may be used at this point.

But such a literalistic missal does not satisfy the opponents of missals, nor does it meet the needs of some of the more adventurous users of missals. So, there is a temptation to go to the other extreme and include in a missal every odd devotion or obscure saint that somebody might want to have included. Feasts of some of the less prepossessing saints and of some of the less credible appearances of our Blessed Lady stand side by side with the most reasonable and respectable of observances, and the result is that the missal is not a guide to a sound liturgical use but a cookbook impartially offering the outlandish with the sane and sensible. Such a principle of selection assists liturgical anarchy and decay just as much as it assists liturgical progress.

A third problem is the fact that those who depart in one direction from the official usages of the Church have deprived themselves of their chief argument against departures in the other direction. To return to the analogy of speed laws, it is good for the law to be reasonable, but it is also good to obey the law.

Within the parish, the priest who wants his laypeople to obey the Church’s doctrines and disciplinary rules is in a much better position to lead them in this obedience if he is a man under discipline himself.

There is also a very down-to-earth, practical argument against the use of missals. A visiting priest who is accustomed to using the Prayer Book (or a different missal) may have quite a bit of trouble finding his way around the unfamiliar book.

The Catholic movement as it developed in the Episcopal Church in this country quickly became what its opponents called the “ritualistic movement.” There is still a tendency, both within and without the movement, for an individual’s Catholicity to be measured by the degree of elaborateness of his “ritualism” and ceremonialism, rather than by his orthodoxy of faith and unswerving adherence to the laws and teachings of the portion of the Holy Catholic Church to which he belongs.

Thus, to raise the question of a “fast” from missals may be misinterpreted, both by those who like missals and by those who don’t, as a question of compromise with Catholic principle. On the contrary, those who raise this question are frequently men of uncompromising Catholicity. The question they raise is whether Catholicity is not compromised more seriously by liturgical individualism that treats service books as cookbooks out of which each celebrant is entitled to develop his own menu.

If this editor had the choice between bringing up his children in a missal-using parish and one which did not use a missal, he would choose the former because Christianity is a lot more fun when it is full of variety, color, and other “extras.” Still, even parishes that do not have missals seem to feel free to throw in such extras as palms on Palm Sunday, choirs in vestments marching in procession, extra prayers and amens from off stage at the end of the service, collections and sermons at Morning Prayer, and a good many other things for which the Prayer Book makes no provision. Apparently it is all right to do these things as long as you do not have a book giving directions for doing them.

It is a big question, and one which should not be dealt with by a snap judgment on one side or the other. We do not think that the objective of the Catholic movement should be a missal on every altar.

But we do think that one of the objectives of the Catholic movement should be a proper collect, epistle, and gospel for every day in Lent, a good calendar of black-letter saints’ days (i.e., saints’ days that would not take precedence over a Sunday of the Church sear), and such revision of the Prayer Book itself as would make best use of the great advances in liturgical understanding that have taken place in recent years.

We think that Catholics should be moving toward the adoption of what might be called a “weekday Prayer Book,” officially adopted by General Convention, as an approved supplement to the Book of Common Prayer. And it seems to as that the missal question itself should be thought of first and foremost in relation to such an objective. If missals are paving the war for a Churchwide daily celebration incorporating the liturgical riches to which Christ’s people are entitled, they are serving a good purpose; if the way to such a Prayer Book is being impeded by missals, they are hindering something much more important than themselves.

The liturgical energy of recent generations was too great and too uncontrollable to be contained in the 1928 Prayer Book, in spite of the many noteworthy advances made by that book. But this is a new generation, and one which likes its energy controlled. To make their maximum impact on this generation, Catholic Churchmen may find it advisable to be men of self-control themselves.

Within the parish, the layman will be making his best contribution to the subject by holding up the hands of his parish priest. If the priest believes he can serve his people best either by using a missal or by discontinuing the use of a missal, the responsibility for the decision is his, and matters will not be helped one way or the other by lay interference with priestly responsibilities. At the same time, the wise priest will surely proceed on the principle that strange food may upset his flock and will make any change — whether to or from liturgical embellishments — gently and considerately.

There never is any substitute for charity and forbearance in Church life, and this is most particularly true of the life of worship. We hope that all who find themselves involved in discussions and decisions on this subject will make a sincere effort to bear each other’s burdens.

TLC correspondent and archivist Richard J. Mammana is a church historian.


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