It’s Anglican. It’s ancient. It’s controversial. It’s the Prayer of Humble Access:
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.
In our constant thirst for affirmation in the modern world, we tend to discard this prayer from the Anglican service of Holy Communion as being Uriah Heepish. It involves too much prostration and humility, especially as we generally say it whilst kneeling. Its detractors imagine we are mentally hand-wringing: ‘Oh, Lord, we really are unworthy of receiving You — oh, yes we are, make no mistake.’ Then, comes the corollary thought that, in our humanity, we might actually be less than perfect, yet the Lord thinks enough of us to invite us to His holy table to receive the gifts of His Body and Blood. Hmm. It’s all so 16th century, even some clergy reject it.
Yet, thankfully, it remains endlessly popular with Anglican laity. It’s my personal favourite, too. As you recite it, something happens. Thoughts of self-aggrandisement vanish. You become an empty vessel, suddenly focusing on Christ’s Body and Blood and their signifcance. By the time you finish the prayer, a sense of calm envelops you. You experience a strange oneness with the Lord. You become truly prepared to receive Communion.
Archbishop Cranmer wrote the Prayer of Humble Access for the 1548 Order of the Communion, a newly-decreed collection of prayers in English to prepare worshippers for the sacrament in both species, bread and wine. It is thought that Cranmer borrowed it from the Sarum Missal, specifically: ‘Let not the sacrament of thy body and blood, O Lord Jesus, which, although unworthy, I presume to receive, be to me for judgment and condemnation, but may it avail, through thy mercy, for the salvation of my body and soul. Amen.’
Cranmer’s prayer was included in the subsequent Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The version at the top of the page dates from the 1662 liturgy, which is still in use in the United Kingdom. However, other slightly amended versions are used in traditional and modern Anglican services of Holy Communion throughout the world.
Canon Patrick Comerford of the Church of Ireland (Anglican) takes a closer look at the prayer here, exploring it from his own point of view as well as the layman’s. I cannot think of a better or more powerful prayer to say in anticipation of Christ’s Body and Blood. Here’s hoping all Anglican priests will be persuaded to use it — often.