What since medieval times has been called “The Missal” is the Book used by the Priest to celebrate Mass. It contains not only the text to read or sing but also the rubrics or instructions to follow. Roman Catholics and Anglo-Catholics still speak of “The Missal” as “that Book on the Altar.”
In the reformed Church of England and in Anglican Churches around the world “that Book on the Holy Table” which has larger print, often printed in two colors and used by the Celebrant at Holy Communion (and in the Blessing of a Marriage) is referred to as “The Altar Edition” of the Prayer Book or “The Chancel Edition” of the Prayer Book. Thus it is not the whole of The Book of Common Prayer [BCP] but contains the Order for Holy Communion, the Collects, Epistles and Gospels for the Church Year and sometimes the Marriage Service (for part of this is taken from within the Chancel). One can find “Altar Books” whose content is taken from the BCP editions of 1662, 1962 (Canada) and 1928 (USA). One can also find “Altar Books” for the various forms of modern Anglican “Books of Alternative Services” used in various Churches of the Anglican Communion.
If one visits an Anglican church which is part of one of the small, traditional Continuing Anglican denominations in the USA (e.g., ACA, ACC, APCK and offshoots from them) for Sunday morning service, it may well be called “The Mass” and on the Holy Table/Altar will not be “The Altar Edition of the BCP 1928” but “The Anglican Missal.” And in the pews will be either the BCP 1928 or “the People’s Missal.” However, the content of the Mass will be determined by the Priest using the Missal on the altar, a complex book which contains not only the Communion Service with Collects, Epistles and Gospels from the BCP 1928 but also many additions and extras which are taken from the traditional (pre-Vatican II) Roman Rite and translated into English. The assumption is that the BCP Service is inadequate and incomplete when standing alone and needs to be supplemented in order to reach the standard of being a true Mass.
[It is worth noting that the use of such a Missal is rare in Britain for those who think that the Anglican Rite is imperfect and needs supplementing actually usually take the logical step of using the modern Roman Missal.]
Let us now reflect upon the symbolism which The BCP Altar Edition on the one hand, and The Anglican Missal on the other, can generate for the thoughtful and imaginative observer.
First of all, an observer may wonder why those who use the Missal remain Anglicans when they obviously feel the need to supplement the official Anglican text in so many ways at so many places.
In the second place, an observer may be so impressed by the complexity and richness of the Missal (where the Celebrant and assistants are “professional”) as to think the BCP to be pale in comparison. He may ask: why do not all Anglicans adopt all this?
Thirdly, an observer who is learned in the history of doctrines, may ask how it is that Anglicans use in the Missal a text which asserts doctrines and customs which are prohibited in the classic Anglican Formularies, especially in The Articles of Religion and by the Ordinal.
Fourthly, an observer, who is a Roman Catholic, may complain that he is missing so much in the modern short Catholic Mass and express a desire for his own Church to return to the Tridentine Rite.
Of course, one can think of other possible observations people would make.
What I now would like to suggest is this that the two following situations are very different.
1 Where the BCP only is on the altar and where some of the “extras” found in the Missal are used by the choir (from musical texts), the Celebrant (from memory) and congregation (from memory), the BCP remains the fundamental text, the formulary. Here ceremonial and extras are added to the BCP text at the local level and are seen as enriching for this particular congregation—yet what is done is regarded as optional and not binding on any other congregation.
2 Where the Missal alone is on the altar and where its whole content is regarded as authoritative and where it is used because the priest believes that it is the superior text and the better/best way. And, further, it is seen as the better/best way for all who would be real anglo-catholics! It is not just an option is the real and true way, for anything less may be mistaken for “Protestant.” In this mindset there is also usually an open rejection of the Thirty-Nine Articles as authoritative.
The second position knowingly and deliberately rejects the Reformed Catholic character of the Anglican Way as that is known through the Anglican Formularies and seeks to change the Anglican Way into an old-style “Catholic” way. The first position sits, as it were, at the edge of the comprehensiveness of the Anglican Way for it claims only local option for its extras and recognizes that the Formulary is the BCP. There is a world of difference between the two positions.
Of course, as many old-time Anglicans and Episcopalians knew, it is possible to use the BCP as it is and “enrich” it with appropriate ceremonial, based on what was in use in England in the 1540s. See the The Parson’s Handbook by Percy Dearmer.
A final word: THE PRAYER BOOK SOCIETY OF THE U.S.A. has available a first-class edition of the BCP 1928 for the Altar. It is printed in two colors and is bound in good leather. It is the edition originally produced by Oxford University Press and is made by the printers and binders used by that distinguished Press. It is on special offer from Thanksgiving until the end of December. Call 1-800-727-1928.
Peter Toon firstname.lastname@example.org