Thursday, October 13, 2011
A Little Cranmer Legacy
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 [in these holy Mysteries], 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.
This wonderful prayer shows forth the able handiwork of Thomas Cranmer. It first appeared in the 1548 and has undergone a few revisions but I prefer the 1662 version. I do like the slight difference of 1548 in which the phrase "in these holy Mysteries" was added. The Prayer of Humble Access stands then as a good illustration of Cranmer’s Biblical liturgical style, not merely translating nor paraphrasing but incorporating Biblical reference within some of the most eloquent and yet clear language. It is a prayer that prays well; its phrases connect easily and its rhythm easily fits the unspoken or spoken voice. It should be noted that this prayer was not without its detractors. Both in placement within the liturgy and its content, there have been several controversies. Some have made a point of excluding certain of its phrases and even omitting it in its entirety. It is, perhaps, one of the reasons those Anglicans seeking union with Rome or Constantinople desire also an Anglican rite in which the richness of this liturgical language which they have come to know and love may be preserved.
Clearly the phrases draw especially upon the Gospel of John (both chapters 6 and 15) with specific reference to other texts such as Mark 7, Daniel 9, Romans 3, Ephesians 2, and Hebrews 11. But the references may remind us of even more images and passages from Scripture. I could not even begin to count how many references there might be to other liturgies (Eastern, especially) and theologians - though I am sure that these are less scientific than accidental quotes. One often quotes unknowingly the phrases and expressions of his or her schooling and reading.
Lord knows that the English Reformation was filled with even more political intrigue and drama than the German and I love the telling of a good story replete with historical fact and a little fiction thrown in... but on this account I leave the politics and theological conflict to others and simply appreciate the words for what they are -- a very fine prayer.
Though this prayer did not make the cut when Lutherans were searching for help in finding an English voice for their German and Scandinavian liturgical forms, it is an example of why we were well served to listen to and follow the example of those whose English raised liturgical language to new heights. In our collects especially we are indebted to Cranmer and his like but I have always had a special fondness for this prayer and it has become one of the many that I pray as I break the host, lift the cup, and commune myself and then the assisting ministers and acolytes at the altar with me.