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We do not presume…

Ushakov_NerukotvorniyFor many of us who were not shaped by the 1962 Book of Common Prayer (and some who were), the language therein (and unto all men) can be a little challenging to participate in. The prayer of humble access, for some, is just unprayable. The seemingly endless emphasis on our wretchedness and sinfulness can become a noisy cymbal, a clanging gong.

However, I think we need to be very careful with the bathwater.

In Sunday’s Gospel, the centurion’s disposition rings with a similar tone: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” (Luke 7:6-7)

The thing is, by all accounts, this guy was worthy of blessings: he was a lover of the people of God, he built them a synagogue, he had soldiers and slaves under his command, and was a man of means and authority who used it for the good of others. He even risked contacting a suspicious rabbi to heal his beloved slave.

His self-effacing words are not coming from Luke’s usual meek characters who show similar humility, like the poor widow (Luke 21:1-4) or the confessing tax collector (Luke 18:13). It is not because of his worthiness that the centurion’s slave is healed, but it is because of his faith. It is his acknowledging his need for God, it is his awareness of his helplessness. The humility that accompanies faith does not belong to economic status. The act of faith itself is not a membership card; rather, it is the posture that makes our receptivity to grace possible: the abandoning oneself to God seems to be the key to this whole Christian business.

Abkhazian elder Murat Yagan used to say, “you can’t pray for more grace. God has given you everything already—in fact, his own life. What more do you want?!?!” You can only pray for the ability to receive it. Acknowledging one’s need for God, one’s powerlessness, and turning to God does not make God like us more, or influence God to feel inclined to grant our wishes; rather, it is the depth of our turning towards God, our abandonment, and the realization of our smallness in relation to the unspeakable vastness of crucified love that creates the space for us to receive what he is already giving us. The humility of faith is not for God, it is for us to make room for God, to enable us to yield.

Our own strength and self-sufficiency, piety, theological profundity and spiritual refinement become barriers to the one and only thing we need to yield to God’s transforming grace: faith. “Humility,” according to Murat Yagan, “is knowing our dependence on God.” Sometimes, I wonder if those of us glowing in our liberal, progressive, and self-empowered “inclusive” Church, are so afraid to offend, afraid to not be in control, afraid of the word “obedience,” or afraid to surrender our self-directed spiritualism, that we miss the pearl of great price.

Can we really presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness?

As we will pray from the propers on Sunday:

Eternal God,
May we hear and do what you command,

Give us the wisdom of obedience

Deliver us from all spiritual pride,
and give us a quiet confidence in your mercy.

Gregor Sneddon

About Gregor Sneddon

Gregor Sneddon is a Presbyter in the Diocese of Ottawa and the Rector of St Matthew’s, Ottawa. He received an MA from the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies and is the founding Coordinator for Contemplative Outreach of Eastern Ontario. Gregor is a council member of the Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission and serves on the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation. He is a husband, a dad, and enjoys being in the woods, a good dinner party and swinging the blues.

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12 Responses to We do not presume…

  1. Thank you for this article. I have grown to appreciate the prayer of humble access and its depth of truth and wisdom, after some times of finding it difficult. Now it is a prayer that speaks for those moments when I need reminding that God is God….I am not, but am valued, loved and welcomed into a mystery beyond my deserving and my comprehension. I am a liberal theological anglican formed in the 70’s/80’s – which was all about immanence. Balancing that now with transcendence and the intimate incomprehesiveness of the Holy One. “I am not worthy,” – but I am invited and welcome. Wow.

  2. Once a month I celebrate communion in the home a retired justice of the BC Supreme Court. We use the BCP because it is the liturgy that formed him and which now with loss of sight is the liturgy he knows. I am humbled to be with him and aware of how this prayer is one he prays with deep integrity. A truly inclusive church gives us the opportunity to give voice to this sense of unworthiness before God which actually gives rise to deeply-rooted gratitude.

    • Gregor Sneddon

      Hi Richard, though I don;t have opportunity to use the BCP rite very often, (and tend away from it) I am always profoundly moved by those words on a personal level. Working with the marginalized, however, I am forever trying to convince folks of their belovedness, their holiness, and just cringe when they always want to sing “Amazing Grace” or if they are to speak the BCP language. Probably more my issue than theirs! I am in favour of reclaiming a patristic, or Byzantine, emphasis on our soteriology and anthropology which maintains the goodness of human nature as made in the Image, that is being restored to its fullness (to the likeness) through grace and our own free consent. The substitution atonement theology that is still woven into our liturgy can, in my view, misdirect our understanding of repentance and sin.

      • If we understood and saw sin the way God saw sin we would say wretch was too soft of a description .When we talk about salvation ,it means that we are saved from the wrath of God poured out on those who have not repented of their sin. None are righteous without God

  3. The prayer of humble access is one of my favourites, and I very much appreciate the richness of the BCP. It is a constant reminder: more of you, Lord; less of me! It is a reminder of our need to submit and that while his grace is unmerited it is very much needed and we need to submit to him to receive it. I think one of the unintended consequences of the BAS’s emphasis on God’s infinite mercy is we have lost the needed reminder that not only is God’s mercy infinite, but it is needed and we are to humbly ask for it!

    • Gregor Sneddon

      Hi Matthew: I hear you! I am confessing that I am an Anglo-Byzantine….I think a soteriology that is not focused un the total corruption of the nature changes our understanding of sin and confession. If we believe that the nature is good as made in the Image, though ‘corrupted’, it is still capable of choosing goodness, of unlimited growth, turned into Christ and deified. We participate in the grace of restoration of our nature into the truth that it already is…

      • I am curious if you are familiar with the Rite of St Tihkon which is used by Western Antiochians (though sadly not in my city). It is an amended version of the American BCP. It does include the prayer of humble access, I believe. The main changes were simply to strengthen the epiclesis. While I very much respect the Christian East’s theology, I would still consider myself more of an Evangelical Catholic Anglican than anything else.

  4. actually, “no”. Many use religion as a front for racism, bigotry, hatred, segregation and other anti-Christian/ Christ-like things. Nothing wrong with having an open heart, nor being inclusive nor loving people for who they are and letting God be the judge. Is it so hard to let God do that job?

  5. Dwayne, I think that’s part of Fr Gregor’s point. When we step away from recognizing that we owe all to God, that we are called to submit fully to God and that not only is his mercy perfect, but that it is needed, how can we deal charitably with others?

    Sin is ultimately all that is harmful to our souls, and we are called to exhort our brothers and sisters to avoid sin because we love them. One of the ways the Church does that is through the liturgical reminders we practice in community including the prayer of humble access or the confession (I really quite appreciate the confession used with morning and evening prayer in the BCP). Helping our brothers and sisters identify and repent of their sins is the only way to be inclusive and loving: we are following God’s commandments.

    When we say that to be loving and inclusive we must ignore the sins of others, ultimately we are taking the place of God and passing judgement: simply instead of condemning their sins, we are justifying them or worse yet attempting to say that contrary to God’s word, we no longer view things as sinful.

  6. Thank you for this, Gregor. You continue to lead and encourage us by sharing your faith, your reflections, your struggles — and we are better for it!

    Marcie Taylor

  7. Just a point that the so-called Prayer of Humble Access actually predates the 1962 BCP. It has been part of the Anglican \Tradition for centuries. I grew to appreciate it most when I was a theological intern in the Diocese of the Seychelles, wherein this prayer is recited after the Agnus Dei and before coming to the altar for Holy Communion. The words may be challenging, but I find it odd that people might have objections to this prayer, but will go all out in requesting and singing “Amazing Grace” which ‘saves a wretch like me’… In the Prayer of Humble Access, in our prayer we remind ourselves that God is God, and that without God, we are nothing — but as the Syro-Phoenician woman reminds Jesus we can become worthy to gather up the crumbs under the table.

    • Gregor Sneddon

      John, it is always finding a balance I suppose. I am keen on the Byzantine soteriology which does not place weight on original sin – as the destruction of human nature unable to choose good, rather though corrupted, cannot be destroyed as it is made in the image of God. We can participate in our restoration through grace. The confession of our sins, becomes a act of metanoia, a kenotic expression of returning to the goodness of our nature, not running from it because it is “bad to the bone!”

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