The Prayer of Humble Access is a traditional part of the Anglican service of Holy Communion. I recently found out how beloved the Prayer of Humble Access is to so many Anglicans when I posted about it on Twitter. I posted what I thought was a slightly humorous tweet poll which indicated some questions I have about the placement of the prayer and some of its wording. The reactions were immediate, and many were not happy. So what is the Prayer of Humble Access and why is it so dear to so many? As penance, I will attempt to answer those questions!
The text of the Prayer of Humble Access in the BCP 2019 is:
We do not presume to come to this your table, O merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in your abundant and great mercies.
We are not worthy so much as to gather up
the crumbs under your table;
but you are the same Lord
whose character is always to have mercy.
Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord,
so to eat the flesh of your 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 primary Scriptural allusion for this prayer is Mark 7:28 in which Jesus says “it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” and a Gentile woman replies, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” It also appears to have an allusion to Luke 7:6, in which a Centurion says to Jesus, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” It may also allude to passages such as I Chronicles 16:34, “his love endures forever.” In John 6, Jesus teaches the people to “eat his flesh and drink his blood” and many turn away from him. Another allusion may be to I Corinthians 10:16, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”
The Prayer of Humble Access is the two sides of the Gospel held together. We are fallen creatures, and in our sinfulness we are not worthy to stand before a Holy God. Whenever we speak of human sinfulness, we immediately speak the word of Grace, that our Lord’s nature is always to have mercy. The Christian Gospel holds these two realities always together. We are sinners, God is merciful. Other religions and heresies tend to separate these two, or to hold to one or the other. Jesus showed us that in him, because of his grace, we can accept our own unworthiness, and then be lifted up by and through him into the presence of God. As Jesus taught in Luke 17, we are to keep in mind that we are unworthy servants, as we serve the Lord, retaining gratitude for and awareness of his grace.
The Prayer of Humble Access also teaches that receiving the body and blood of Christ is a gift, a grace that is granted to us. We do not “take” the communion, we “receive” it because it is a gift. Through it we participate in the body of Christ, nourished, cleansed, and renewed in him. We are also given the assurance that our life in him is eternal, and so we receive a taste of the future in the present. Christian eucharistic theology of the real presence of Christ is stated in this prayer very clearly.
Origin and Use in Prayer Books
This prayer first appeared in the Order of Communion in 1548, and then was retained in the 1549 Prayer Book. In the standard 1662 Book of Common Prayer, it appears after the Sanctus, with the instruction that the priest, kneeling, should pray this prayer on behalf of all gathered. In the 1637 Scottish prayer book, it appears immediately before the administration and reception of communion. The 1928 BCP places it before ministration, and also includes the instruction that the priest should kneel and say the prayer “in the name of all who shall receive the Communion.” In Rite I of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer it appears before the ministration of communion as optional (“may be said”), and does not appear, but is noted as an option in the Rite II (Contemporary language) text. In the Book of Common Prayer 2019, it appears as optional before the ministration of communion.
Those who do not accept the Gospel have theological objections to this prayer. Some groups today do not believe that we are to see ourselves as sinners, or unworthy, etc. For them, this prayer is offensive. But the offense is really to the Gospel itself. These objections are really rooted in heresies. For those who accept Scripture and the actual words and teachings of Jesus, alongside the Creeds (“I believe in the forgiveness of sins” for example), there is no objection to the Prayer for Humble Access. Especially keeping in mind that our unworthiness is immediately paired with God’s mercy and grace. If the prayer did not pair these two, then theological objections would hold. Since the prayer keeps our sin paired immediately with God’s grace, this objection does not hold for me.
Why is the prayer made optional in the Book of Common Prayer 2019 (ACNA)?
I was not involved in any liturgical revisions. However, my understanding of some of the objections related to its placement in the eucharist canon (order of service), some of its wording, and a desire by some to use it only during penitential seasons, have led to it being retained, but made optional.
Originally it appeared after the Sanctus, at a part of the service where we are already emphasizing God’s holiness, and our need for forgiveness and grace. We then recite the story of salvation in Christ. Yet the prayer was later moved to appear immediately before the ministration of communion. The possible objection here is that it interrupts the flow of our liturgy. We have already been made ready and prepared to receive, when this prayer seems to go back and repeat what we’ve already done.
Yet for many, perhaps most, this prayer has the opposite affect. It is their prayer for preparation and the timing seems just right.
Another objection is the possibility that this prayer, when placed immediately before people receive communion, could be misread to imply that the body of Christ accomplishes one thing, and the blood of Christ another. Our theology of the eucharist is that the body and blood of Christ are the one sacrament. To receive in one kind is to receive Christ in full, though receiving both is normative. Priests are often explaining this to people, and this prayer is seen as possibly undoing that by allowing the possibility of misreading.
A slightly less possible misreading would be the idea that our souls and bodies need to be cleansed or saved in separate ways. I think you would have to stretch the wording of this prayer far to get to that conclusion. But it is helpful to note that some may possibly interpret this prayer to teach that our souls and bodies are saved in different ways, so that we can direct them to the salvation of the whole person by the one Christ.
I personally do not believe the prayer intentionally teaches a dual application of the elements or dual salvations of human beings. I think it is alluding to various Scripture passages in which the body, or blood, of Christ are used to refer to his death on the cross for our sins and his power to save and cleanse us from our sins as a unity of body and soul. Yet since liturgy does form our beliefs, we do have to make sure that people understand that the Prayer of Humble Access is not teaching different effects of the body and of the blood or of a different application of salvation for our soul verses our body.
Of course, not everyone has these objections, perhaps not many do. Many believe that this prayer has found its perfect home just before the ministration of communion, and is the ideal way to prepare oneself for reception. They also feel that it is a simple matter to teach someone that the body and blood of Christ heal us wholly as as one sacrament. Some churches use this prayer year round, others only during penitential seasons, and some not at all.
As always, our goal at Anglican Pastor is to inform you about these things, as descriptively as we can, so you will know more about Anglicanism and Anglicans and our worship, faith, and life.
One of my Twitter followers pointed out that Carl Trueman, a Presbyterian, wrote that the Book of Common Prayer is a single greatest liturgical achievement of the reformation, and then selects the Prayer of Humble Access as a particularly beautiful example (in Between Wittenberg and Geneva). The prayer itself has been celebrated by many Christians as a clear and succinct summary of the Gospel and our need for God’s grace.
It been a part of the tradition of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer for hundreds of years, and it is used in various Roman missals, and later became a part of some Protestant prayer guides. So, if you have never done so, check out the Prayer of Humble Access, perhaps using it in your personal prayers this week to become familiar with it, and may the Lord, who is always merciful, bless you.