In the Fourth Nocturn

Missal parishes are neither Anglican nor catholic

An common practice in certain ‘high church’ parishes is the adoption of various missals as a liturgical source for regular worship. Despite the aspirations of the parishes which do this to ‘Anglo-Catholicism’, the practice is neither Anglican nor catholic, for the reasons outlined below.

First I should explain what I mean by ‘the missal’. There are ‘missals’ available for Anglican use which essentially consist only of the liturgy of some particular authorized prayer book, with additional rubrics directing ritual actions in places in which they are left unspecified by the original text, as well as private prayers for the priest and others to say during the service, and hymns and anthems such as introits and offertory verses.

It would be silly to object to the use of books like these on principle, since they merely add to what is authorized anyway. If hymns and anthems are allowed, as they ought to be, why ought they not to be the hymns and anthems which have been used in the service since ancient times, and why ought they not then to be conveniently printed in one book together with the other parts of the liturgy? As a mere ‘high’ expression of common prayer, mass books such as these are in perfect accord with the principles of our reformed liturgy.1

What I am objecting to here is the wholesale adoption of either pre-Reformation English mass books, or of liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church since the Reformation, in either Tridentine or ‘Novus Ordo’ forms.

To be Anglican is to be united into one visible branch of the catholic Church, not by common acceptance of a confession like the Catechism of the Catholic Church or the Augsburg or Westminster Confessions, nor by acceptance of a single global political hierarchy, but by common acceptance and consent to an heritage which is largely liturgical in nature. The elements of this heritage are usually called ‘the historic formularies of the Church of England’2 or ‘of the Anglican Communion’: the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer is undoubtedly the most important part of that heritage, because it is the last such liturgical expression of doctrine which belongs in common to the history of essentially all the Anglican Communion’s member churches today. Even though today all the provinces have their own books, or have authorized alternatives to them, they are generally evolutions from and ought to be seen as doctrinal equivalents to the 1662 book (and indeed to the books and services which preceded it, going back to 1549).

This makes our own, reformed liturgy, in the pattern of the prayer book, a central part of what it means for the Anglican church to be its own politically independent free-standing communion. For those who are not explicitly Anglo-Papalist — that is, for the vast majority of Anglicans who, though they long for visible unity in the Church, are not willing to accept ‘reunion with Rome on Rome’s terms’3 — this fact behoves us to defend our own local communion’s distinctive identity, founded in the descendants of these formularies.

In particular, it is impossible to ignore that the central raison d’être of the Book of Common Prayer is that it is an explicit reaction against the breviary and the missal. In adopting the prayer book, Anglicanism rejected the missal on several grounds: we rejected the Roman explanation of the real presence; we rejected the Roman understanding of the sacrifice of the mass; and thereby, and in other regards, we rejected the theology behind a good deal of the prayers in the missal. We also rejected the disorderliness of the Roman service, as in the Articles of Religion: ‘the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies, but also in matters of faith’ (emphasis mine).

Anglicanism, as a tolerant, free-thinking denomination, will generally accept those who cannot accept some parts of our reformed nature. If you find yourself struggling to shake some aspects of Roman doctrine, Anglicanism still has a place for you. But those who find themselves accepting basically all of Roman doctrine (except perhaps papalism), which is what use of the missal implies, are not theologically Anglican in any meaningful sense. They’ve fallen into believing in their own kind of ‘creedal minimalism’: in particular, thinking that the Anglican church is defined by the ecumenical creeds and nothing else,4 and that everything else outside them is adiaphora. This may qualify one to receive communion at our services, but it does not make one Anglican. The Roman Catholic Church itself has several structures which more closely match this kind of theology (the Eastern Catholic Churches, or the Personal Ordinariates for former Anglicans), or there are various Old Catholic communions which each maintain different elements of Roman Catholic belief without papalism.

As for why it’s also not catholic to use the missal: to be catholic implies acceptance of the catholic Church order, including the authority of bishops to authorize forms of service for use within their respective provinces. When perfectly acceptable liturgies have been promulgated by the ordinary, to use an unauthorized form of worship is a serious breach of this order. It simply isn’t possible to claim to be catholic while ignoring the directions of one’s own bishop.

I grant that there may be cases in which it arguably is catholic, in this sense, to use the missal. Some ‘Continuing Anglican’ churches, for instance, have explicitly canonically authorized it; some parishes within the Anglican Communion may have been able to obtain permission from their bishops to use it. Those bishops are wrong to have given such permission: firstly for the reasons outlined above; but secondly because an equally important part of the catholic order is the respect of bishops for the consensus of their episcopal peers, which in our churches is expressed through synods and canon law. Some churches may be different, but neither in the Church of England nor (as far as I can tell) in the US Episcopal Church does the canon give bishops permission to authorize arbitrary liturgies.5 Such authorizations thus rest purely on a principle of episcopal absolutism — itself also rejected by Anglicans at the Reformation.6

The early tractarians counselled priests who were disappointed at receiving episcopal sanctions for introducing such innocent practices as wearing copes that obedience to the catholic order — in this case, submission to one’s bishop — was more important to the nascent Anglo-Catholic project than any sense of ritual correctness. That is true catholicism: to do everything within the church with respect to the structure of authority which has been handed down from the apostles’ time,7 and not just to cargo-cult aesthetically-pleasing rituals and prayers in ignorance of one’s ecclesiological context.

Further reading

H. M. Lee has written ‘And so we have become liturgical capitalists’ on his blog in objection to selection of liturgy on purely aesthetic grounds, in ignorance of their underlying theology.

Thanks to many people, too many to name, on the Anglican Discord server for reading an initial loose draft of this post and responding so positively. As ever, though, the opinions are mine only.

  1. Provided that the hymns, anthems, and additional prayers are themselves checked for compatibility with the reformed doctrine.

  2. As, for instance, in section 1.1.2 of the draft Anglican Covenant. (The rejection of that Covenant is testimony to the value Anglicanism places on a somewhat looser idea of unity based on common history, compared to the Covenant’s proposed legal framework for synchronic unity.)

  3. That is, on ‘Rome’s terms’ as they currently stand.

  4. Or by the Lambeth Quadrilateral and nothing else, which is essentially equivalent in theological emptiness, adding only sacraments (without specifying their nature or effect), the Scriptures (without stating anything about their origin or nature or how they stand in relation to post-biblical tradition), and the episcopate (without specifying the significance of that particular form of polity), besides many other theological issues left untouched by it.

    These omissions are, of course, quite deliberate: the quadrilateral is intended as a basis for ecumenical discussions and as a description of the uniting elements of the whole Church as seen by our own branch of it, and not as a definition of Anglicanism itself. Note that the visible reunions we have thus far achieved based on it — with Old Catholics, Marthomites, the Philippine Independent Church, and in some provinces with Lutherans and others — have not involved political absorption in either direction, because in essentially all cases, issues beyond the quadrilateral remain outstanding.

  5. In the Church of England, ministers have a certain leeway in conducting authorized services, subject to episcopal discipline if this power of discretion is abused; in addition, the archbishops, bishops, and parish priests may draw up liturgies for use in their respective provinces, dioceses, and parishes to cover pastoral needs not otherwise addressed by synodically-approved prayer books. Neither canon covers the authorization of replacement communion services, or even individual eucharistic prayers.

  6. This, however, is an issue for the bishops in question, and not for any priest acting under their authority. If one’s diocesan bishop has given permission for use of a form of service, then that permission stands regardless of whether it was ultra vires for the bishop to give it. Nonetheless, respect for the catholic order does impose on parishes the requirement not to impertinently ask for something which is not in the bishop’s canonical power to allow.

  7. The only exception being that if one’s bishop were to force the adoption of obviously heretical belief, then those committed to their charge have a duty to rebel, and to hold fast the catholic faith — but ‘low church’ liturgical practices do not render a service heretical.