Ever since I was in seminary, I have had friends and colleagues who get up in arms about the “Prayer of Humble Access.” While the 1979 Book of Common Prayer eliminated the prayer from the contemporary liturgy (Rite II), it is still retained as an option in the traditional language service (Rite I). But for those who are most offended by the prayer, even having it as an option is enough to earn their ire.
For the uninitiated, the Prayer of Humble Access was brought into our liturgy by Thomas Cranmer who hoped that it would replace the private prayers that the priest once said before receiving, back when the priest was likely to be the only one to receive. The prayer was written by Cranmer himself, but according to Marion Hatchet’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book (first edition, p. 382), it “incorporated phrases or concepts from the Liturgy of Saint Basil, Mark 7:28, a Gregorian collect (nos. 851 and 1327) which had been printed at the end of the 1544 litany, John 6:56, and the writings of Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica, Part 3, Question 74, Article 1),” so it has quite a good theological pedigree. The prayer was introduced for trial use in the Church of England’s Latin Mass in 1548 and made its way into the Eucharistic liturgy of the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. In that first prayer book, the prayer came right before the people receive Communion, but in 1552 it was moved to the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer, which is where it remains in 1662. However, in many of the BCPs around the Communion, including the 1928 and 1979 American books, it has been moved back to its original placement. The 1662 version of the prayer goes like this:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
The argument against the prayer that has been advanced to me by friends and colleagues is that it misinterprets the scripture in the first place and denies the power of God to absolve sins in the second. There is not much to be done about the scriptural interpretation, except to reiterate that the traditional understanding of Mark 7 is that it is about Jesus extending the covenant beyond the Jews to include the Gentiles, and that modern novel readings that seek to make Jesus into some kind of racist are not analyzing the passage from a first century point of view.
The second part of the argument, however, has always seemed to me to be at least plausible if not convincing. The confession and absolution earlier in the service should mark a turn away from the burden of the law and towards the grace that is offered in the sacrament. It makes for a strange and unsettling logic to have the priest tell the people they are forgiven and made whole, but then to tell them five minutes later that they remain unworthy and unable to receive. For this reason, I have often thought that while it is a fine prayer, it perhaps would make better sense to be placed in its 1662 position rather than where it remains in the American BCP today.
Nevertheless, I had something of a minor epiphany about the Prayer of Humble Access this week. During a Wednesday healing service, I celebrated using the 1928 BCP. It was the first time I had ever used that liturgy, and I made many clunky, amateur mistakes, but the group of faithful women who attend the service were very pleased since this was the liturgy that most of them grew up on. When we got to the Prayer of Humble Access, everyone joined in, as is the custom in the 1979 BCP though this was not allowed in the 1928 book. And I noticed for the first time the lines that were omitted from the 1979 version, “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood…” In the current American prayer book, that whole bolded section is lost. The prayer skips right ahead to “that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.” I was dumbfounded as I read these long lost words. I submit that the problem that many of my colleagues have with the placement of this prayer is largely caused by this omission.
I cannot tell you what liturgical scholars would say about these lines because I haven’t looked, but what I get from them is a sense that our underlying condition is one of corruption by sin, even when we have been absolved of the guilt for our sins, or indeed even if we never sin at all. Yes, we are released from our sins by the grace of the confession and absolution, but that does not mean that we are released from the sinful condition of our humanity. Otherwise, what would be the point of continuing to live at all once we received Jesus into our hearts?
A crude but useful analogy: If you were to have your leg chopped off, a doctor could heal you in a sense. He could sew up the wound to make sure that you do not bleed out. He could give you medicine to make sure that you do not get an infection. In time he could even attach a prosthetic that would allow you to walk again and do most of the things you did before. You could be healed, but you would still be missing a leg. There would still be, in other words, a condition that you would have to live with. The doctors could make sure that your injuries do not destroy you, and they could give you the best possible quality of life, but they cannot change the fact that you are now a person without a leg.
Sin can be wiped away, but the condition of sin remains. We can be set free from our personal sin, but we still continue to live in a world in which sin reigns, in which we continue to face all the evil effects of sin, including sickness and death. Like the remnant of a virus that remains in your system long after the illness has passed, sin continues to live in our bodies even after they have been claimed for Christ (Romans 7:23). What I hear then in the Prayer of Humble Access is an acknowledgement of this ongoing condition of weakness and a plea to God that when we receive His Son in the sacrament that the grace given thereby will not only set us free but make us new. It is a plea for sanctification. And taken that way, the prayer makes sense in either of the places in the liturgy that it has been set.
I fear, though, that the problem that many people have with this prayer is actually not about liturgical flow at all, but that they do not believe that sin has so extraordinarily damaged us that we can do nothing apart from God’s grace. In an essay on the development of the 1979 BCP, Lesley A. Northrup writes that the reason the Prayer of Humble Access was eliminated from the contemporary language liturgy was not just that it clashed with the flow of the service but that it was simply too penitent. “The pervasive language of unworthiness that characterized the earlier succession of American books,” says Northrup, “reflected the Reformation-oriented flavour of American religion from its beginnings, but clashed loudly with contemporary values and emerging images of God’s relationship with the faithful, increasingly understood to be a cooperative partnership rather than an authoritarian hegemony” (The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer, 2006 Oxford University Press, page 366, emphasis mine). I have made clear before that I am a defender of the 1979 BCP. Nevertheless, it is clear to me that there are places in that book–particularly in the Eucharistic liturgy–in which a do-it-yourself, just-be-good message has infected The Episcopal Church’s presentation of the doctrine of salvation and placed the center of our worship on ourselves rather than on God. If we are all just good folks who only need a bit of encouragement, then it hardly makes sense that we need to have the Eucharist at all, let alone every week.
The Prayer of Humble Access is beautiful, not just in the way it describes our frailty but in the way it acknowledges the goodness of God, that He would be so merciful and loving as to gather us up and make us whole through His grace. It is a shame to lose such a prayer from our liturgy. The prayer is well worth saying, whether at the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer, at the end of it, or even in our daily devotions.