We now come to one of the most cherished and beloved prayers in the Prayer Book tradition: The Prayer of Humble Access. If your training in Anglican liturgy is primarily via the 1979 Prayer Book or another such modern book or text, you may not be very familiar with this prayer. This was the case over on Twitter a couple weeks ago, resulting in a brief-but-intense #humblegate incident complete with penance. So let’s dive in and see what this prayer is all about.
The text of the prayer in our 2019 prayer book 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 only major difference between the wording here and the traditional wording is the word “character”, marked above with an asterisk*. The classical prayer book word is “property” – it is a property of God that he has mercy. Earlier drafts of our prayer book used a different term and phrase there; “character” is a better update to “property” than our previous draft “who always delights in showing mercy.” In that draft, mercy is God’s delight, but the original (and now also 2019) text identifies mercy as property of God’s very nature or character. It is the same as how we speak of God’s love – God is not simply loving, rather, God is love. God does not just delight in showing mercy, God’s character is to have mercy. If you think on that for a moment, you will find this a very comforting and moving reality.
Lots of Scripture references went into this prayer. These are the main ones I know of:
- Exodus 34:6-7 = God’s character of mercy and forgiveness
- Daniel 9:18 = we pray not in our righteousness but in God’s mercy
- Matthew 15:27 = dogs eat the crumbs from their master’s table
- John 6:47-58 = Jesus’ flesh & blood are to be eaten & drunk for eternal life
- John 17:20-26 = that we may be in Christ, and Christ in us
- 1 Corinthians 10:14-18 = partaking in the bread & wine is partaking in Christ
One of the challenges to which some people are probably responding negatively today, especially without previous exposure to this prayer, is the strong realist language: “Grant us so to eat the flesh of your dear son… and to drink his blood.” We must remember, though, that just as there are different theological interpretations of our Lord’s words of institution and of his Bread of Life discourse, so too will this prayer take on different tones according to one’s theology. A Lutheran can see this as an affirmation of the Real Presence – Christ’s human and divine natures actually present in the bread and wine. A Calvinist an see this as an affirmation of the Real Spiritual Presence – Christ’s body and blood actually communicated to us sacramentally as we receive the bread and wine. So there is no problem with this prayer from either end of the churchmanship spectrum.
Another question that might also get raised is the “effects” of the bread/body and wine/blood of Christ. A simplistic reading of this prayer might indicate that Christ’s body cleanses our bodies, and his blood cleanses our souls. But that is not the intention of this prayer – the historic belief has always been that Christ’s body and blood go together, just as any other real creature. It’s like talking about the Father creating, the Son redeeming, and the Spirit sanctifying – all three persons of the Trinity actually do all three of those things… there’s a convenient prominence of different Persons with different roles, but never an actual division between them. Similarly, this prayer affirms, poetically, that the body and blood of Christ together sanctify our entire being – body and soul. (Honestly, though, I’ve never actually heard anyone confused about this before. I explain this only because I imagine someone somewhere has probably wondered about it before.)
One misunderstanding and mistreatment of this prayer that I have heard about, however, concerns its penitential tone. Some people claim this prayer is extraneous in light of the confession and absolution already offered in the liturgy. Such a claim is to miss the point of this prayer. This is not a confession of sin, this is an acknowledgement of unworthiness. Even with our sin absolved we are still unworthy participants at the Lord’s Table. Even with the grace of divine forgiveness upon us, “blessed are they who are invited to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9). Furthermore, some of the language in the prayer – “that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us” – is echoed in the 8th paragraph of the prayer of consecration, plus the language of unworthiness is echoed in the 9th paragraph of the same. So this prayer is integrally connected to the rest of the communion liturgy.
A Wandering Prayer for Wandering Pilgrims
Our prayer book (I think for the first time?) puts this prayer in the mouths of the whole congregation. Some users of the 1928 Prayer Book may have already started using it as a congregational prayer, in violation of the rubrics (that’s just a story I heard, no idea how true it is), but especially because of its thematic and linguist connections to the consecration this is a great prayer for all the people to pray together, because it gets everyone involved in some form of eucharistic piety. In pre-modern times, preparation for receiving Holy Communion was a big deal both for Protestants and Papists alike. Now that Communion is received weekly by the majority of (liturgical) Christians, we tend to kind of take it for granted, and many of us have lost a sense of preparation and piety for the Sacrament. This prayer is a helpful, powerful, and beautiful treasure to that end.
But since I’ve mentioned its history of being spoken only by the priest, let’s now look at its placement in the liturgy. It’s something of a “wandering prayer” in the history of the Prayer Books. In the 1662 Prayer Book, the Prayer of Humble Access was said by the Priest immediately between the Sanctus and the Prayer of Consecration. The language echoes I mentioned above, then, connected to one of the two options to pray after the reception of Holy Communion, providing a before & after dynamic when it comes to the theme of unworthy reception.
The American Prayer Book of 1928 moved this prayer after the Consecration and Lord’s Prayer, immediately before the Ministration of Communion. That is essentially where it is placed in the 2019 book too, the only visual difference being that where the 1928 book says a hymn may be sung, the 2019 book prints the Agnus Dei as an anthem that may be sung or said after this prayer and before the Ministration. So, functionally, 2019 and 1928 are doing the same with the Prayer of Humble Access.
I’ve heard of other churches in the Anglican Communion doing other things with this prayer, like lining it up alongside the Confession, Absolution, and Comfortable Words, but that’s just playing into its penitential tone and missing its eucharistic piety and preparation. Perhaps such a misunderstanding could be due to a misuse of the original 1549 prayer book, where this prayer follows immediately after the Comfortable Words, but in that book the Confession/Absolution/Comfortable Words sequence took place after the Consecration and Lord’s Prayer and Fraction! So in actuality, the 1549 placed this prayer directly before the reception of the Sacrament, much like the 1928 and 2019.
It was in the Prayer Book of 1552 that the Prayer of Humble Access moved earlier, between the Sanctus and Consecration, where it then remained, through to 1662.
But it’s optional…
Last of all, it must be noted that the 2019 Prayer Book says this prayer “may be said“, meaning it’s optional. This is largely a concession to the 1979 fan club; in light of historic Anglican tradition we should always say it. Some people have suggested we pray it during penitential seasons like Advent and Lent. That is bad advice, because that sends the message that this is primarily a penitential prayer, and it’s not! It’s an expression of eucharistic piety, not penitence as such.
Also, from an ecumenical standpoint, it should be noted that the Roman Rite has a different (shorter, less elegant) sort of prayer of humble access. The wording may have changed over time, but the one I was familiar with in the mid 2000’s was:
Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof; but speak the word only, and my soul shall be healed.
This prayer draws from the words of the faithful centurion whose servant was healed by Jesus’ word, rather than actual visit and contact. And it communicates the same basic premise: we are unworthy of God’s presence (regardless of how recently absolution has been pronounced) and approach him only by his grace.
So, in short, yes, pray this prayer at every Communion service.
And if your church doesn’t, and you’re not the celebrant, then pray it silently yourself before receiving the Sacrament. This is our tradition, this is our theology.