Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Returning to the Prayer of Humble Access



Patrick Comerford

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. – (Book of Common Prayer 1662)

We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But thou art the same Lord, whose nature 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. – (Book of Common Prayer, Church of Ireland, 2004)

We are back to our full programme in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute since the students returned last weekend, and it was my privilege this evening (Wednesday, 24 September) to celebrate or preside at the first College Community Eucharist of the new academic year.

The Revd Alan Barr, who was a sacristan in his final year and is now a curate in Bray, Co Wicklow, has been one of the visiting lecturers in this “pre-term week,” and he preached at the Eucharist in the chapel this evening.

Although it was not on the service sheet, I decided to use the Prayer of Humble Access during this evening’s Eucharist. I suspect I am no different than many of my priest colleagues in the Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough when I say I rarely use the Prayer of Humble Access. Yet it is one of the best-loved traditional prayers in Anglican liturgies, succinctly and elegantly expressing the extraordinary grace of God, without wallowing in overdone humility.

In the past I have used this prayer rarely. I used it on the few occasions I presided at the mid-week Eucharist in Christ Church, Leeson Park, during the recent vacancy, as I was using Holy Communion One according to the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland (2004). But I rarely used it at other times during Holy Communion I, and have only used it during Holy Communion 2 during the weekday celebrations in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, when I have been the canon-in-residence. The rubrics for Holy Communion 2 only provide for its use if the Penitence follows the Intercessions or Prayers of the People (Book of Common Prayer 2004, p. 207), and I have never followed this practice.

Yet the Prayer of Humble Access is a beautiful prayer that is part of the rich heritage of Anglican spirituality, and it is one of those great prayers that, like most Anglicans, I can recite by heart and from memory. However, my reluctance to use it stems from an acute awareness of the way in which infrequent reception of Holy Communion developed though a sad misinterpretation of this prayer.

Having confessed our sins earlier during the Liturgy of the Word and having received assurance of God’s forgiveness, the Prayer of Humble Access then comes at a point in the liturgy after we have already confessed our sins and our sinfulness and accepted that we have been forgiven by God, and invited to his banquet. At that point, it appears that we are being asked once again to recall our unworthiness.

Many Anglicans can recall a time when the emphasis on preparation and the “worthy” acceptance of the sacrament left many people feeling unable to undertake such an examination frequently. And so, they tended to receive Holy Communion only once a month – or even less frequently, perhaps only at Easter and Christmas.

One of my early memories is of people standing up to leave Church at the end of Morning Prayer, walking out during the final hymn, with only a handful of people behind, meekly kneeling on their knees, to receive Holy Communion.

But that sense of unworthiness does not reflect the original intentions of this prayer. Indeed, it was the intention of the Reformers, including Thomas Cranmer and the Anglican Reformers, as well as Luther and Calvin, was that we should all receive Holy Communion each week.

The Prayer of Humble Access has some similarity with the prayer immediately prior to Communion in the Roman Rite Mass: Domine, non sum dignus, ut intres sub tectum meum: sed tantum dic verbo, et sanabitur anima mea (“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed” or “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.” See Matthew 8: 8).

Through the influence of Cranmer, the Prayer of Humble Access was an integral part of the first editions of the Book of Common Prayer and has continued since then to be used throughout much of the Anglican Communion. It is not a prayer warning people against receiving Holy Communion, but it is a beautiful prayer encouraging us to frequent reception said as a prayer of preparation before receiving Holy Communion (hence, humble access to the altar or to the Blessed Sacrament). The prayer appeared in the earliest prayer book, the First Prayer Book of Edward VI (1549). It is derived from a similar Latin prayer in the Sarum liturgy – and, like much of the Sarum use, was translated and adapted by Thomas Cranmer.

In its earliest appearance the prayer followed the confession and absolution and “comfortable words,” which, in 1549, came after the Eucharistic Prayer.

In the revision of 1552, the prayer appears immediately after the proper preface of the Eucharistic Prayer. In subsequent revisions by different Anglican churches around the world, and in the proposed 1928 revision of the Book of Common Prayer in the Church of England, the prayer was moved to after the Lord’s Prayer and before the Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God …”) after which the consecrated elements are administered.

Many contemporary Anglican liturgies have either retained the 1662 wording or revised it to varying degrees. Some contemporary versions omit the phrase “that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood,” since some argue that this suggests that the Eucharist in itself has the power to absolve the partaker of sin. Other Anglican liturgies omit the prayer entirely.

In the 1979 Prayer Book of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, the Prayer of Humble Access is an option in Holy Eucharist I, traditional language, after the fraction or Breaking of the Bread and before the invitation to receive (Book of Common Prayer 1979, ECUSA, p. 337). But it is not an option in the contemporary-language Holy Eucharist II (see pp 365-366).

In Holy Communion A and B in the Alternative Service Book of the Church of England (1980), the Prayer of Humble Access was placed after the Prayers of Penitence and before the Peace, Offertory and Eucharistic Prayer, as the congregation began to contemplate the shift in liturgical focus from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Sacrament (Alternative Service Book, pp 126, 188). The prayer found the same place in the 1984 Alternative Prayer Book of the Church of Ireland (Alternative Prayer Book, p. 52).

The Prayer of Humble Access was repositioned in Common Worship (2000) of the Church of England. In Order Two it returned to its traditional in the Book of Common Prayer – after the Preface and before the Prayer of Consecration (Common Worship, p. 241). But in Order One (Traditional), the Prayer of Humble Access has been moved to a point immediately after the invitation to communion (“Draw near with faith... remember that he died for you, and feed on him in your hearts, by faith, with thanksgiving”) and before the distribution (Common Worship, p. 225), which has destroyed its sense, in the opinion of many critics.

It is said that members of the liturgical commission could not agree on where to place it. However, they felt English people at prayer would be more appalled to lose this spiritual gem than any other prayer, and felt it couldn’t be lost altogether. They were not in entire in agreement about the proposed positions.

For some, the use of the prayer of Humble Access after the invitation before the distribution has something of the nature of movement of the Eucharist stalling quality.

For others, the Prayer of Humble Access comes at a point after we have already been assured that we are standing at God’s table through the grace and love of God. This is the moment of consummation, not the moment to step back and protest my own humility. To say at this moment “we do not presume ...” poses the danger of being over-anxious to demonstrate my own righteousness and to protest my own humility. I might appear to be saying something like: “Oh, you may think you’re very merciful, God, but you clearly don’t understand how seriously humble I am ...”

But we are not competing with God to prove that we’re at least as humble as he is merciful. There comes a point in any relationship when you either say “yes” or say nothing at all.

At this stage of my life, conscious of hurt, betrayal, denial, and alienation, I am feeling particularly humble in the presence of God throughout each and every day and night. And this evening I was particularly captured by the beauty of the prayer. I can never receive Holy Communion because I am worthy – at all times I am unworthy, and I must come to worship God without any presumptions, never knowing what God has in store for me.

The table I come to and invite others to is not my own, but the Lord’s, and this is the ever-merciful Lord God, without whose mercy there is nothing I could do. Once I start trusting in my own righteousness and start believing in myself, I start depending on myself and start losing my dependence on God … it is not what I do that matters, it is who God is. In simpler, evangelical terms, it is not my work that matters, but God who matters, I must depend on God in faith, not on what I do or have failed to do.

At present, I can only trust in the manifold and great mercies of God, but this is all I really need in life anyway.

It is never that I am worthy to approach the altar, for I can never be worthy enough; indeed, how can I even be worthy to gather up the crumbs under his table – although the Syro-Phoenician or Canaanite woman could point out that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15: 27), while Lazarus longed for the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table (Luke 16: 19). But these are not just the crumbs, but the real food, and when I eat them I also receive the host at the banquet too.

God is the same yesterday, today and forever, and the God who has shown me mercy in the past shows me mercy today and forever. In his gracious goodness, he invites me eat the flesh of his dear son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood – to become a full participant in the life of Christ, who is truly present among as and makes us the Body of Christ.

As I used the Prayer of Humble Access this evening, I was confident too that as part of that Body of Christ my sinful body has been made clean, inside and out, and my soul washed clean too. May he evermore dwell in me, and I in him.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute