The primary difference between our contemporary wording here and the traditional wording is the word “character”. The classical Prayer Book word is “property” – it is a property of God that he has mercy.
Our Prayer Book also puts this prayer in the mouths of the whole congregation. This is a first in official North American Prayer Book tradition, though alternative liturgies had already leaned in this direction for years. This is an appropriate change for our time because it gets everyone involved in some form of eucharistic piety. In pre-modern times, preparation for receiving Holy Communion was a noteworthy process both for Protestants and Papists alike. Now that Communion is received weekly by the majority of liturgical Christians, it is easy to take it for granted, and many have lost a sense of preparation and piety for the Sacrament. This prayer is a helpful, powerful, and beautiful treasure to that end.
The Prayer of Humble Access is also something of a “wandering prayer” in the history of the Prayer Books. The first Prayer Book placed it immediately between the Words of Comfort and the Ministration of Communion to the people, making it an acknowledge of our unworthiness to receive the Sacrament even in a state of grace. In the Prayer Books of 1552 an after, the Prayer of Humble Access is said immediately between the Sanctus and the Prayer of Consecration, making it a final preparatory prayer before approaching the Altar Table, and dissociating it from the penitential overtones that may have been associated with it in 1549. Finally, the American Prayer Book of 1928 moved this prayer once again, to be read after the Consecration and Lord’s Prayer, immediately before the Ministration of Communion. That is essentially where it is placed in the present volume too, the only visual difference being that where the 1928 book says a hymn may be sung, ours 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 thing with the Prayer of Humble Access: making it (as in 1549) a final devotion before reception of the Sacrament.
From an ecumenical standpoint, it should be noted that the Roman Rite has a different (shorter, less elegant) sort of prayer of humble access. Its wording has changed over time, but one form reads thus:
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 (Matthew 8:8, Luke 7:6). 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.
This is one of the most beloved prayers among traditional Anglicans, yet unfamiliar to many who were formed according to modern liturgies such as that in the American Prayer Book of 1979. Its inclusion here is part of the restoration of properly Anglican devotion and doctrine, though the rubric concedes it to be optional, should a more brief liturgy be desired.
The language of this prayer also took some consideration as it was adopted back into the 2019 Prayer Book. The phrase “whose character is always to have mercy” is an update from the original term “whose property”. This is a better update than a previous draft in Texts for Common Prayer which rendered it “who always delights in showing mercy.” In that draft, mercy is God’s delight, but the original (and now still official) text identifies mercy as a 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. Reflection on this should bring the worshiper great comfort and joy.
Apart from that phrase, further challenges may face the modern worshiper who is not yet accustomed to this prayer. One of these is the strong realist language: “Grant us so to eat the flesh of your dear Son… and to drink his blood.” It must be remembered, 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. Its survival through all the pre-modern Prayer Books should be evidence enough of this.
Another question that might also be raised concerns the “effects” of the Body and 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 with any other real creature. It is like speaking 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 is simply 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. A third misunderstanding and mistreatment of this prayer concerns its penitential tone. Some argue that 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 sin absolved the worshiper is still an unworthy participant 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” (Revelation 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. As the 1549 Prayer Book amply demonstrated by placing this prayer after the Absolution and Words of Comfort, it is not excessively penitential to express our unworthiness before the Lord.