The Prayer of Humble Access:
At the Heart of the Mystery
of God’ s Love For Us
By Desmond Scotchmer, past National Chairman of the PBSC
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.
This vivid and arresting prayer, known as the Prayer of Humble Access, appears on page 83 of the 1962 revision of the Canadian Book of Common Prayer. It is one of the most beautiful and memorable prayers in the English language, and has spoken to generations of devout and prayerful Anglicans. Yet it has evinced some of the most vitriolic abuse and contempt from the modernizers who reshaped Anglican worship, and tried to re-make Anglican doctrine in the process, beginning in the 1960’s.
I remember being profoundly dismayed, and puzzled, to come across this bitter antipathy in university, when, as an undergraduate, still burning with zeal from an intense conversion experience with the risen, ascended, glorified Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, I began to explore Anglicanism more deeply. It was, in fact, prayers like the Prayer of Humble Access that had spoken to me most deeply from the pages of the Book of Common Prayer, and had led me to start exploring the implications of my own conversion to Christ in an Anglican context, rather than some other. I was at a loss to understand why something that was so deeply meaningful to me could attract such animosity from these people, who were, after all, much older than I was, yet kept on talking about the need for “relevance”, and the need to connect with the younger generation.
In the years since, I have come to the conclusion that this hostility was no accident. It was not merely the prayer itself which they resented, it was the theology and world-view from which the Prayer of Humble Access sprang that they rejected: a world-view informed by piety, adoration, and prayerful meditation on the Scriptures, and a profound humility.
While its phrases recall the mediaeval collects and the Greek liturgy of St Basil, the Prayer of Humble Access itself is an original composition of Thomas Cranmer. The prayer echoes, of course, our Lord’s parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. It also alludes to two acts of Christ’s mercy to the Gentiles: to the Centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5- 13) and to the daughter of the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21). Significantly, both these stories foreshadow God’s adoption through grace of new sons and daughters into the stock of Abraham, and the new covenant with those who come to Him with deep humility, trusting not in their own righteousness, but only in His mercy. Many in Israel, in their “pride of righteousness which is the Law” despise and reject the coming Messiah, but these Gentiles, in humility and faith, receive Him with simplicity and joy.
The Prayer of Humble Access is a prayer of searching, uncompromising spiritual purity and power. In its dual emphasis, it turns our attention inward towards our own unworthiness, and upward to the graciousness of the living God, manifested in the gifts we receive from His Table. Its themes are forgiveness, nourishment, union with God. The prayer confronts us and challenges us. It is a call to reject the shallow values of ego, of vanity, and the world. It rings the death knell to Phariseeism and self-love, and encourages us to renounce trust in our own righteousness.
Significantly, the prayer is placed in the context of the prayer of consecration and the Communion, at the very moment when Time is suspended, and we partake of eternity, in the body and blood of the crucified, risen, ascended, and glorified Christ. The Prayer of Humble Access reminds us that it is God’s righteousness that enables us to enter into this most holy moment of communion with the living God, not our own merits. Nor are we to forget that our redemption is bought at a price: it is our sins that have put the Lord of Life on the Cross.
Some suggest that this emphasis in the Prayer Book is some outmoded vestige of mediaeval piety. Nothing could be further from the truth. One of the outstanding characteristics of the Book of Common Prayer is its fidelity to Scripture. Any emphasis in the Prayer Book is there because of a corresponding emphasis in the Bible. The worldview of the BCP, and its understanding of the fallen nature of Man and our need for God comes straight from, and is formed directly by, the Bible. The emphasis of the Prayer of Humble Access is profoundly Biblical. Any one who doubts this should start by reading Romans, 3:10-20 and 5:12, ff; Luke 18:18, Philippians 3:9. Many other passages could of course be cited. This is simply good, old fashioned, Biblical Christianity. It’s the message of the Old Testament, and the New, of Psalmist, Prophet, and Evangelist. It’s the message of St. John the Baptist, and the message of St. Paul. It’s mirrored in the emphasis upon the continual repentance for our sins in the writings of the early Fathers of the Church.
Humility, repentance: these are the essentials without which we cannot begin our approach to God, without which we cannot begin to understand the mystery of God’s love towards us, shown above all in Christ’s sacrifice upon the Cross. This is the message at the very heart of the Bible.
It’s a message that the contemporary world needs to hear. Our culture encourages us to think of ourselves as the centre of all that matters, to think of our advancement, our self-interest, and self-gratification as the supreme good. The seductive world of advertising whispers to us, holding out alluring images of what we most deeply desire, as if in the possession of them we will somehow find happiness. Not only can you have what you want, it says, but you can have it now, and you are wrong to deny yourself anything. Even those among us who are religious are lulled into a complacent attitude towards God and his gifts towards us. No wonder the Prayer of Humble Access seems to strike a note so dissonant to the contemporary ear.
The fact that the Book of Common Prayer places the Prayer of Humble Access after the congregation has said the General Confession and received absolution is regarded by the modernizers as further proof of the excessive, and obsessively penitential nature of the BCP. But such criticism misunderstands the very nature of the Biblical understanding of man’s fallen state, and the nature of confession and absolution.
Although we have confessed our sins, and God has been gracious to us and put them away, this does not somehow “immunize” us against sin: we are still frail creatures, in constant need of God’s grace. However justified, however sanctified through Christ we may be, we are still unworthy in relation to the absolute and infinite Good who is God. We are at once worthy and unworthy. We receive God’s gift of the Holy Communion (that is, we are worthy), recognizing that we fall short of the glory of God, and the goodness that He desires of us (we are unworthy). Indeed, herein lies the mystery, and the glory, of our salvation. A vast space remains between where we stand, on the one hand, fallen creatures in a fallen world, and the glory of God on the other, “the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy.” That gap is bridged only by Christ’s blood.
It is indeed towards the heart of this mystery that the Prayer of Humble Access addresses our prayerful attention. The same prayer that reminds us of our lowliness ends with the petition “that our sinful bodies 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.” The inextricable mystery of our salvation is held up for our meditation, and our adoration. There are few passages in all of Christian liturgy that are more sublime, or more gracious.
By recognizing the unworthiness of the communicant as a reality, our understanding of the transforming power of divine grace communicated to us by God is heightened. Without that sense of unworthiness, there would be little to wonder at in the gift of divine grace. St John Damascene reminds us in one of his great prayers, which is read by Orthodox Christians before sleep: “For to save a righteous man is no great thing and to have mercy on the pure is nothing wonderful, for they are worthy of thy mercy. But on me, a sinner, show the wonder of thy mercy.” Grace is amazing precisely because “it saves a wretch like me.”
Another of the great prayers from the Book of Common Prayer which has been bitterly criticized by the modernizers is the Thanksgiving after Communion. It is the lovely prayer that begins on page 85 of the BCP: “Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee that thou dost graciously feed us in these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, assuring us thereby of thy favour and goodness towards us…” and continues “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee…”
The prayer gathers up all the varied meanings of the Communion: thanksgiving, grace, incorporation, fellowship with Christ, anticipation of the Kingdom of God. The prayer emphasizes that we can only offer an acceptable sacrifice to God (one of praise and thanksgiving) after we have received the grace of the Holy Communion.
What offends the modernist critics, however, is the suggestion that we remain unworthy after taking the Communion: “Although we are unworthy, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences…”. But the Prayer Book, again, puts these words here because our human frailty is part of our ongoing mortal condition, and will continue as long as we live in this world. Communion, like confession and absolution, does not “immunize” us against sin. We turn to God in awe and gratitude for his unimaginable gifts. It is only through consciousness of our own unworthiness that we begin to comprehend the magnitude of those gifts.
The Prayer Book, in these two great prayers (and they are indeed companion pieces, mirroring one another from either side of the Communion), reminds us of Our Lord’s admonition: “When you have done all that is commanded of you, say, we are unworthy servants.” (Luke 17:10).
This profoundly Scriptural attitude encapsulated in the Prayer Book seems to offend those who believe that Christianity today can only be “relevant” if it conforms to the modern world view, still heavily under the influence of Freud and modern psychology. The Scriptural attitudes are viewed as “damaging to the psyche” and “morbid”. This indeed is the sticking point. There is a profound gap between the way the Bible sees human nature, and the way that the contemporary world does. The temptation for Anglican Christianity over the past thirty years and more has been to choose the modern view because it sits more comfortably with our egos.
But the Bible is not a comfortable book, and Christianity is not a comfortable religion. Christ’s words are always challenging, unsettling. The way of the Cross is difficult and demanding. The Prayer of Humble Access sets before us the uncompromising, yet realistic, viewpoint of Holy Scripture, and invites us to walk the road of humility which the saints have walked before us.
(From the PBSC Newsletter, Easter 2008)