The Prayer of Humble Access. What kind of a series on the Anglican Patrimony would this be if it had started anywhere else? I find that those who have little or no experience with Anglo-Catholicism often pick out this one prayer above all else. Rightly so, it's a fantastic example of everything the Anglican Patrimony is about: theocentricity, piety, meekness, contrition, hieratic language, beauty, eloquence, solemnity, nobility, and so on.
"WE do not preſume to come to this thy table (o mercifull lord) truſting in our owne righteouſnes, but in thy manifold & great mercies: we be not woorthie ſo much as to gather up the cromes under thy table: but thou art the ſame lorde whoſe propertie is alwayes to have mercie: Graunt us therefore (gracious lorde) ſo to eate the fleſhe of thy dere ſonne Jeſus Chriſt, and to drynke his bloud in theſe holy Miſteries, that we may continuallye dwell in hym, and he in us, that our ſynfull bodyes may bee made cleane by his body, and our ſoules waſhed through hys moſt precious bloud. Amen."
"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 be 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, in these holy Mysteries, that we may continually dwell in him, and he in us, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood. Amen."
The prayer was revised slightly for the 1662 Prayer Book (the book still in force in the Church of England), which is identical to the version that appears in both the 1928 American BCP and traditional language rite of the 1979 book:
"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 they 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."
"Strange to say, it was in the Middle Ages, 'the Ages of Faith', that Communion [of the laity] was less frequent than at any other period of the Church's history," (Catholic Encyclopedia). It is likely that this was due largely to the influence of the development and prevalence of Jansenistic tendencies, many believing that they could never approach the Sacrament in confidence by virtue of their great unworthiness. While it is, of course, true that we shall never merit the great mercies which Christ deigns to bestow upon us, this does not mean we should not accept them when he does, provided we are aware of our unworthiness and properly disposed as a result. Aside from the stain of serious sin, it is the simple acknowledgement of our lowly estate that puts us in the right place to receive grace. That is humility, which is all God asks. This is, in fact, precisely what Saint Paul prescribes:
"Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged," (1 Cor. 11:27-31).One of the common tenets of the Reformation was the stress of more frequent Communion of the laity. To be sure the more radical strains, including that of Dr. Cranmer himself, emphasized this as a result of their belief that the Eucharist was not a recapitulation of the Sacrifice of Christ, but nothing more than a memorial meal. The "virtue [of the Eucharist] was limited to the receivers of the communion, and the laity derived no benefit from private masses performed by priests," (Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation, 1489-1556).
As with so many other things, for whatever reason Dr. Cranmer did what he did, the result is not only beautiful, but, in and of itself and leaving aside historical implications, doctrinally sound and praiseworthy. In this particular example, we can even see a direct fulfillment of the wishes of the the Council of Trent, which also sought to reform the Church, though whilst preserving unity and orthodoxy, of course. Consider the following prescriptions from the Council:
"'Frequent and daily Communion...should be open to all the faithful, of whatever rank and condition of life; so that no one who is in the state of grace, and who approaches the holy table with a right and devout intention, can be lawfully hindered therefrom.' (2) 'A right intention consists in this: that he who approaches the Holy Table should do so, not out of routine, or vainglory, or human respect, but for the purpose of pleasing God, or being more closely united with Him by charity, and of seeking this Divine remedy for his weaknesses and defects'. Rule 3 declares that 'it is sufficient that they (the daily communicants) be free from mortal sin, with the purpose of never sinning in future', and Rule 4 enjoins that 'care is to be taken that Holy Communion be proceeded by serious preparation and followed by a suitable thanksgiving, according to each one's strength, circumstances, and duties,'" (Catholic Encyclopedia).
In other words, the Reformers weren't all wrong. Funnily enough, the Prayer of Humble Access provides a near perfect liturgical expression of these Tridentine instructions. But more than that, it is beautiful. I can speak from experience, unlike many of the prayers of the current Ordinary Form, if one is paying attention at all, it is really very difficult to pray the Humble Access and not mean it; like all good prayer, it evokes that for which it is petitioning God. Of course, grace has something to do with it, but who's to say that the grace of God cannot be mediated to us through the agency of liturgical language itself? Isn't that just to say that there should be a reciprocal relationship between words and belief? Prayer and work? Liturgy and life?
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