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Formulary Friday: The Prayer of Humble Access

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Posted by Daniel Newman, 31 Jul 2015

The Prayer of Humble Access, composed by Thomas Cranmer and familiar to most, if not all, Anglicans, helps us to approach the Lord’s Supper with a right view of ourselves and a right expectation of what we are to receive.

Immediately this prayer presents us with the fact that we are participating in a corporate act: ‘We do not presume…’ Moreover, the rubric directs that this prayer should be said by the priest ‘in the name of all them that shall receive the Communion’, although this representative action is now widely expressed by the whole congregation actually praying the prayer aloud. Communion is not merely a private act of devotion. This confronts the individualism of much contemporary worship.

Early in the prayer, we are reminded that what we are coming to is a meal. We are invited as guests to a table where God is the generous host, not an altar where we make an offering to appease God’s wrath. The rubric refers to the piece of furniture as ‘the Lord’s Table’ or, in earlier versions, ‘Gods borde’. We shall explore below what it is that we receive at this meal.

This prayer creates in us an attitude of humility, helplessness, and dependency on God. We do not deserve to be here. We have no suitable garment of our own to wear to the feast. The contrast is repeatedly drawn between what we do not have and what God does, between what we are not and what God is: ‘not… trusting in our… but in thy… We are not… But thou art…’ Cranmer alludes to our Lord’s encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman, who says, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7.28). This allusion is double-edged, for it expresses both great humility and great faith, as seen by our Lord’s commendation of the woman in the gospel accounts.

The Prayer of Humble Access has the same dynamic. It does not leave us in a state of hopelessness and despair. Although ‘we do not presume to come… trusting in our own righteousness’, God’s many, varied (‘manifold’) and great mercies combined with his unchanging essence (‘the same Lord’) mean that we do presume to come. Praying this prayer is an enactment of the gospel of God’s grace.

So far, so uncontroversial. Some conservative evangelicals, however, wish to alter the second half of the prayer, seeing in the reference to eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ a residue of transubstantiation which Cranmer failed to eliminate. One elderly gentleman asks me to omit this prayer when I share communion with him in his home for the same reason. Ironically, this is one of the most directly scriptural parts of the prayer! Jesus says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (John 6.56). The context indicates that Jesus is referring to his death, and the response he is seeking is faith. It is debated whether Jesus had the Lord’s Supper in mind; from obvious verbal parallels with the Synoptics, and the absence of the narrative of institution in John, I think he did. Whatever you think about that question, receiving the sacramental bread and wine in faith is a means of trusting in Jesus, and enjoying union with him and the cleansing from sin achieved by his death on the cross. We can ask God to give us this without any qualms.

Whenever we say this prayer, then, let us pray all of it without embarrassment, and approach the Lord’s Board expectantly in the company of our brothers and sisters, conscious of our unworthiness but confident of God’s welcome.

The Revd Dr Daniel Newman is Assistant Curate at St John’s, Weymouth.

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