The Prayer of Humble Access

Some suggestions for a modern language version of Cramner’s Prayer of Humble Access, compared with historical versions from historical editions of the Book of Common Prayer, Methodist books of worship and other sources.

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I like the Prayer of Humble Access found in the United Methodist Service of Word and Table IV, which is itself based upon earlier Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren rituals. I came to know the prayer through hymnals and worship books that were still in use when I entered the United Methodist Church in 1980. The prayer as written in the UMC Book of Worship, however, retains archaic language. Let me offer you two versions of the prayer with updated language, and then move on to describing how the prayer has evolved.

Two Contemporary Versions

We do not presume to come to your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your great love and countless acts of mercy. We are not even worthy to gather up the crumbs under your table, but you are the Lord who always delights in showing mercy. Feed us, then, gracious Lord, with the body and blood of your son Jesus Christ in this holy mystery, that we might live as new creatures, grow into his likeness, and forever live in him, and he in us. Amen.

I have borrowed from the 1993 PC(USA) and 2013 ACNA forms (see below), including direct references to being fed with the body and blood of Christ, but I have retained the concluding Wesleyan themes from the 1964 Methodist version (see below).

I kept the PC(USA) term “feeding” in preference to Cramner’s language of “washing” or “cleansing.” Feeding better describes what God does at the table; washing is an image that better fits the font.

I have also retained the word “righteousness” instead of “goodness” for its Reformation connotations.

In addition, I have returned to the 1549 language of “mystery” (see below). Our denomination’s official statement on the Eucharist is entitled, “This Holy Mystery.” 

I think the phrase “great love and countless acts of mercy” is a suitable substitute for “manifold and great mercies.” It does add “love” as a parallel to “acts of mercy,”  which perhaps goes beyond what Cramner was trying to say. Wesleyans are happy, though, when they get to extol God’s love.

And I think “delights in showing mercy” gets to Cramner’s intent in contemporary language better than “whose property is to have mercy.”  In contempoary speech, “property” is a rather cold, scientific way of desribing the nature of something. I don’t think that fits the context very well.

Or, more conservatively,

We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your abundant and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord, who always delights in showing mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to partake of this sacrament of your son Jesus Christ, that we may walk in newness of life, may grow into his likeness, and may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

This version follows the 1964 Methodist model more closely, but borrows the updated 2013 ACNA language (see below), and again retains the concluding petitions from the 1964 Methodist version.

A Little History of the Prayer of Humble Access

When the Church of England separated itself from Catholic Church, Archbishop Thomas Cramner published English worship texts that we have come to know as The Book of Common Prayer. Cramner based his work partly on his translation of the Latin liturgy then in use through much of England. Known as the Sarum Rite, it was the liturgy of the Cathedral of Salisbury. Cramner also adapted Reformation worship texts then in use on the continent. The Prayer of Humble Access, however, was Cramner’s own creation.

The prayer, as Cramner drafted it, draws its imagery most directly from the gospels. The first part of the prayer echoes language found in the story of the centurion who protested that he was not worthy that Jesus should even enter his house (Matthew 8:5-18) and the story of the Syro-Phoenecian woman who asked only to eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table (Mark 7:24-30).

The contrast of our righteousness with God’s mercy as the basis for God’s action is found in Daniel 9:18: For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy.

Scholars also hear echoes of this same contrast in the Orthodox liturgies of Basil (“Not according to our own righteousness, for we have not done anything good on earth, but by your mercy and your compassions that your have bestowed liberally on us, do we approach with confidence your holy altar”) and James (“for our confidence is not in our righteousness but in your good mercy by which you make us your people”).

The concluding petitions, as Cramner wrote them, reflect the language of John 6:53-56, in which Jesus says that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood continually dwell in him, and he in them.

In the 1548 ritual and 1549 prayer book, Cramner’s prayer was set just before the congregation received the elements of bread and wine. By listing separate benefits for the body and blood, Cramner emphasized the importance of communing in both kinds (a new experience for most Christians in that era).

In 1552, Cramner moved the words into the Eucharistic prayer itself, immediately following the Sanctus and before the words of institution. There it stayed through much of the next several centuries. The 1928 Book of Common Prayer (U.S.) moved the prayer back to its original position just before the reception of the elements, as did the Methodist Book of Worship in 1964.

The 1964 Methodist Book of Worship significantly changed the concluding petitions of the prayer. Gone are all references to body, blood, flesh and the like. Instead, there is a general reference to “this sacrament.” Gone, also, are references to communion as a “cleansing” or “washing.” Instead, the prayer asks that we might walk in newness of life and grow into Christ’s likeness. The prayer loses something with these changes, I think, but it gains a Wesleyan emphasis on sanctification and communion as a means of grace that God uses toward that end.

Some Christians are not fond of the prayer at all, primarily for two reasons. It is a decidedly Anglican prayer, without foundation in the wider catholic tradition. And some see it part of Cramner’s overly penitential (in their opinion) approach to the sacrament. I see it as a way of gratefully, joyfully and humbly receiving the precious gift that Christ gives us in the sacrament of the table.

The common name for this prayer (“Prayer of Humble Access”), by the way, is not Cramner’s. It was first used in a Scottish Prayer Book in 1637.

1549 Book of Common Prayer
1548 Order of Communion

Shown with modern spelling.

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.

1662 Book of Common Prayer

This is essentially the same version of the prayer that appeared the 1552 prayer book, with updated spelling and grammar. The 1662 prayer book is the edition in use in John Wesley’s Day. Wesley included the prayer verbatim in his Sunday Service for the Methodists in North America. This is also the version included in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer in the United States.

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.

The language about “these holy mysteries” disappeared in 1552, and the order of the petitions at the end of the prayer also changed. In the 1662 BCP and Wesley, this prayer came within the broader Eucharistic prayer sequence, being said by the elder after the Sanctus, and before the prayer of consecration. In the 1928 BCP (US), the prayer returns to its position just before the receiving of the elements.

1935 Methodist Hymnal

Also in the 1938 Cokesbury Worship Hymnal

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 souls and bodies may be made clean by his death, and washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Within the Eucharistic prayer sequence, the elder prays these words after the Sanctus, and before the prayer of consecration. The concluding petition of the 1662 model has been altered so that souls and bodies are both made clean by his death (not body) and washed through his blood.

1964 Methodist Book of Worship

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 partake of this Sacrament of thy Son Jesus Christ, that we may walk in newness of life, may grow into his likeness, and may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

This version of the prayer runs away from bodily imagery. Instead of “eating the flesh” and “drinking the blood,” the prayer simply speaks of “partaking of the sacrament.” The concluding petitions of the 1662 model have now changed completely. Instead of asking for our souls and bodies to be made clean by his body and blood, now we ask to walk in newness of life, grow into Christ’s likeness and live eternally in him. This prayer is said in unison just before the elements are received.

This is also the version currently found in the United Methodist Book of Worship’s “Service for Word and Table IV.”

1979 Book of Common Prayer

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 we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Only in Rite I, and the rubric lists this prayer as optional. This version omits “that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood”. It comes after the Eucharistic Prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Agnus Dei, immediately before receiving the elements of bread and wine.

1999 Book of Common Worship
Presbyterian Church (USA)

We do not presume to come to your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own goodness, but in your all-embracing love and mercy. We are not worthy even to gather up the crumbs under your table, but it is your nature always to have mercy. So feed us with the body and blood of Jesus Christ, your Son, that we may forever live in him and he in us. Amen.

Listed as one of many prayers suitable for use before worship.

2013 Texts for Common Prayer
Anglican Church in North America

We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your abundant and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord, who always delights in showing 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.

Simply modernizes the 1662 / 1928 US version.