The Prayer of Humble Access: A Rookie Anglican Guide

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The Prayer of Humble Access is a traditional part of the Anglican service of Holy Communion. I recently learned how beloved the Prayer of Humble Access was to so many Anglicans when I posted about it on Twitter. I posted what I thought was a slightly humorous tweet poll that 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!

Text

The text of the Prayer of Humble Access in the 2019 Book of Common Prayer is:

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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.

Scriptural Allusions

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?”

Theology

The Prayer of Humble Access holds together the two sides of the Gospel. 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 always connects these two realities. We are sinners; God is merciful. Other religions and heresies tend to separate these two or 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 remember 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 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 receive the assurance that our life in him is eternal, 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.

Theological Objections

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. For them, this prayer is offensive. But the offense is really to the Gospel itself. These objections are 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. If the prayer did not pair our unworthiness with God’s mercy and grace, then theological objections would hold. However, this objection does not hold for me since the prayer does just that.

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 some’s desire to use it only during penitential seasons have led to its being retained but made optional.

Interrupted flow?

Initially, it appeared after the Sanctus, at a part of the service where we already emphasize God’s holiness and our need for forgiveness and grace. We then recite the story of salvation in Christ. Yet later Prayer Books moved the prayer to appear immediately before the ministration of communion. The possible objection here is that it interrupts the flow of our liturgy. We have already 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 effect. It is their prayer for preparation, and the timing seems right.

Separate Accomplishments?

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 often explain this to people, and this prayer could undo that by allowing the possibility of misreading.

Separate Salvation?

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 reach 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.

Objections answered

I personally do not believe this prayer intentionally teaches a dual application of the elements or dual salvations of human beings. I think it alludes to various Scripture passages in which the body or blood of Christ refers 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 versus 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 one sacrament. Some churches use this prayer year-round, others only during penitential seasons, and some not at all.

Humble Prayer

One of my Twitter followers pointed out that Carl Trueman, a Presbyterian, wrote that the Book of Common Prayer is the single greatest liturgical achievement of the Reformation and then selected the Prayer of Humble Access as a particularly beautiful example (in Between Wittenberg and Geneva). Many Christians have celebrated the prayer itself as a clear and concise summary of the Gospel and our need for God’s grace.

It has been 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 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 familiarize yourself with it, and may the Lord, who is always merciful, bless you.


Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash.

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