Against the 1979 Edit to the Prayer of Humble Access

Recently, a friend asked me my opinion on The Episcopal Church’s 1979 Rite 1 edit to the Prayer of Humble Access in the Book of Common Prayer.

The edit

The original says, in the Prayer Books of 1552, 1559, and 1662 (and in America, 1789, 1892, and 1928),

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 1979 edit omits the purpose clause that says, ‘that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood’.

The friend’s opinion

To my friend, someone who loved the original version, the 1979 edit made quite a bit of sense. The original Prayer of Humble Access, he thought, could easily be ‘misunderstood’ to mean that the body and blood of Christ had different effects from each other: thus, he said, the prayer would give the impression that the bread/body redeemed our bodies and the wine/blood cleansed our souls, when in reality both elements did both things.

My own judgement

On the omission of the clause ‘that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood’, my judgement was completely different.

First, we Anglicans haven’t the notion that one or the other is sufficient. Jesus said eat and drink, not eat or drink. It seems to be that the authors, in the wording of the Prayer of Humble Access, intentionally distinguished the effect of the body and effect of the blood. The two elements’ effects they did not distinguish strictly, but rhetorically. The authors did not deny absolutely that the bread and the wine could be interchangeable (or, in the language of Rome, concomitant), but they did more than merely refer to God’s command to take both bread and wine: going further, they distinguished the effects of bread and wine rhetorically, to connect body with body and blood with blood, the body of Christ with the body of man, and the blood of Christ with the soul of man. The body of Christ is a human body, and the blood is the symbol of the soul (‘but flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat’, Genesis 9.4), and thus the joining of body with body and blood with blood would be the believer’s union with Christ in both body and soul. Thus, distinguishing in words between the effects of the bread and those of the wine encourages people to receive communion in both kinds (i.e., both bread and wine); and not only so, but it implies a theological basis for doing so, a basis more intelligible to us, and apter to help us know God, than simply ‘Jesus said so’.

Second, the effect of the clause’s 1979 omission has been to weaken the worshipper’s sense of original and actual sin’s effects on both body and soul, and that weakening (not all caused by the change in the Prayer of Humble Access, of course) has been devastating in the last 50 years. We need all the help we can get in strengthening the Church’s confession that sin pollutes both our bodies and our souls, and that Christ cleanses both. In terms of our standing before God, he does so through our faith in his promises (without needing to count any good deeds on our part), so that the full promise of the Last Day is ours in potentiality; in terms of our character and knowledge of God, so that we bear God’s image in full, he does so by increasingly filling us with us his own perfect character as we struggle to live as Christians and fight against sin. To omit a clause on how Christ makes our sinful bodies clean by his body, and washes our souls through his most precious blood, is to aid the neglect of this saving doctrine.

Third, the Church very much needs an emphasis on the sacramental salvation of the body, as against visions of salvation that concern only the naked soul and are curtailed, cut off, to leave only a justification that happens in a moment. Rather than being content with such a mutilated salvation, we need to bear the crucifixion of Christ in our bodies, as St Paul did (Galatians 6.17; Philippians 1.20; 3.17–21; Colossians 1.24), identifying in our very bodies with the body of the Christ who was crucified for our sins and raised on the third day to bring us to peace with God and the full measure of what God intended for man created in his image. This salvation of our body and all its works, this participation in Christ, happens through the sacraments. The two sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are God’s visible word to us, that we may take his offer of salvation for ourselves and make it our own continually. To cease to mention the cleansing of our human body by the body of Christ, then, would be to refuse a great help to a full understanding of what God in Christ is doing in our bodies by his Holy Spirit.

For these reasons, I think we would gain nothing from allowing that this clause be omitted, and we should give thanks that it remains in many places and in other places (such as those that have switched from the 1979 to the 2019 ACNA Prayer Book) has been restored, that the Lord’s people may better partake of his gifts and thereby know him in body and soul.

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