On humble access
AT A WEDDING reception a few years ago, a friend of mine turned to another friend and said, motioning to their wives, “You know, Mike, we really outkicked our coverage with these ladies.” They then exchanged a handshake, clapped one another on the back, and returned to their dinners.
Our friends at UrbanDictionary define “outkicking your coverage” as: To engage in a romantic relationship with a person who is much better looking, and/or smarter, and/or in a higher socioeconomic class than you. Essentially, a person who is widely considered to be ‘out of your league.’ As far as my two friends were concerned, in marrying intelligent, kind, attractive, and successful women, they were out of their league.
To an outside observer, this might have appeared hyperbolic, if not ridiculous, as both friends in question are themselves intelligent, kind, attractive, and successful. Degenerates and bums, they are not. That, however, is beside the point. The point here is gratitude (and good humor). You’ve outkicked your coverage, my friend, is another way of saying, Boy, aren’t you lucky? Way to go.
I’m always gratified to hear someone express such a sentiment. Given the countless grievances that can be levied against a spouse, to instead offer praise, gratitude, and a measure of disbelief at one’s own good fortune is a bracing tonic. While of course my two friends really did outkick their coverage, there’s no mandate that they acknowledge it. There’s nothing to keep them in awe of providence and the willingness of their wives to have said yes to their proposition of marriage. A posture of gratitude, in our culture of rights and the things we are owed by the world, is a healthy thing indeed.
And, although they probably weren’t thinking about it, gratitude is entirely biblical.
O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is gracious : because his mercy endureth for ever.1
IT IS OFTEN SAID, by way of objection to its regular use, that Rite I is the more penitential rite. The objection is often clarified by sentiments that Rite I is so much more somber; it’s depressing; it’s too downbeat.
Without acknowledging our incompleteness, our inability to plug Pascal’s famous God-shaped abyss,2 we cannot fully recognize and give thanks for what God has done in Jesus Christ, Who for us men, and for our salvation came down from heaven.
In Jesus Christ, we have outkicked our coverage, and this the good news itself. The God who has created all things is the God of love, and he has treated us with his infinite goodness and mercy, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses. God set his own son upon the Cross to take sin and death upon himself, that through his death and rising again he might defeat death, once and for all of us.
Too often in the church, we forget — and thus lose the ability to preach — that penitence and joy are flip sides of the same coin. Without penitence, we cannot fully appreciate the cosmic, singular thing that God has done for us in Christ, the singular thing on which our faith and the church rest. As a result, we become hostile at any suggestion that perhaps God is both infinitely different from us, yet also present with us, that he is both almighty and merciful. Forgetting that, in all of our frailty and imperfections, we are made by God, in the image of God, we turn a blind eye to the error of our own self-absorption and our stubborn pride, rather defensively maintaining that God is all very well and good, but we can dig ourselves out of whatever hole we find ourselves in, thank you very much. To such a people, the Prayer of Humble Access is like a voice from outer space, spouting gibberish both unintelligible and objectionable.
Katie Badie, in her excellent tract on this prayer, observes that:
…we can question if [penitence] was Cranmer’s intention, as it would seem that he considered it a prayer of humble thankfulness and for ‘worthy reception’ rather than a prayer of repentance. After all, in its original 1548 Order setting, the Prayer of Humble Access came after the declaration of Absolution and the assurance of the Comfortable Words—Bible texts confirming the forgiveness of those who repent (Matt. 11:28, John 3:16, 1 Tim. 1:15, 1 John 1:21). In the Protestant perspective of justification by grace alone, the believer does not respond to such ‘evangelical’ sentences by more penitence, but with thanksgiving. The Prayer of Humble Access therefore stands apart from the initial penitential sequence and is perhaps more joyful than we modern listeners appreciate!3
It is not, after all, a prayer of mere humility, but the Prayer of Humble Access. There are two parts to it, and Ms. Badie rightly notes that in this text Cranmer moves us from the penitence of our confession to the joy of our admission to Holy Communion.
The naysayers always get caught up in the words “not worthy,” which evidently form some sort of slur against well meaning church people. This sounds to me like a little too much protesting. If we have undertaken the hard work of sober self-examination and confession, this lovely turn of phrase shouldn’t bother us. If we understand properly what confession is, that it isn’t about feeling bad about ourselves, but about being frank about where we stand before God and our neighbor, then the concept of our own unworthiness shouldn’t be any big news. To believe otherwise is very much to trust in our own righteousness and to neglect what Kierkegaard called the “infinite qualitative distinction” between God and his human creatures. As St. Paul writes: O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’4
But again, human fallibility is not the end of the story! The beauty of the Prayer of Humble Access lies in the conjunction at its very center: BUT. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table, but… BUT! The prayer doesn’t end there, just as the story of God and men didn’t end in the third chapter of Genesis. Left to ourselves, things would be just the same old, same old. BUT thou are the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy, and thanks be to God for it!
Although the concluding sentences saw some revision in the 1979 Prayer Book, the sentiment remains the same: that through our reception of the Holy Communion, we may be partakers of Christ’s triumph over the power of sin and death, and that we may be united with him in everlasting life.
The Prayer of Humble Access is one of Cranmer’s unique additions to the Reformed liturgy of the Church of England, one which has no exact precedent in any English or the Roman rite, and it expresses a peculiarly apt sentiment for those of us who would kneel before the altar. If we are, as we proclaim ourselves, a Eucharist-centered (not to say Eucharist-obsessed) church, then we would be well to embrace this prayer and the subtle explication of our proper relationship to God that it provides. We are unworthy, BUT God is merciful, and that is some good news for us. When we have confessed that this is so, the Prayer of Humble Access moves us forward, to the humble joy of our reception at the Lord’s Table, and it gives us a language with which to express the gratitude appropriate to such a welcome.
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.
1. Psalm 118:1
2. See Pascal, Pensées 10.148
3. Katie Badie, “The Prayer of Humble Access,” Churchman 120:2 (2006): 103–117 (105).
4. Romans 11:33-34