Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video. Alison Walker, one of our curates currently serving in Much Wenlock, has just submitted her doctoral thesis and she let me read the final chapter the other day. It contained a slant on the prayer of humble access, that I’ve never spotted before.
We say it at communion services after the priest has broken the bread and before the elements are distributed. It reads,
“we do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have 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.”
We tend to say it as a prayer of personal penance. But the theme of the prayer is drawn from an incident in the gospels where a Canaanite woman seeks a healing for her daughter. The point is that she was outside the Jewish faith. She looks to Jesus and wonders if there is a place at the table of the Jewish God for her and her daughter, or just some cast off crumbs. It reminds us that Jesus’ ministry wasn’t so much about starting something completely new, but incorporating a whole new group – gentiles; you and me, into the project he had begun centuries before in the people of Israel. The prayer does its work if it fosters an appropriate humility in us. We are recipients of the extravagant mercy of God and we should expect to offer the same generous hospitality to others, irrespective of their racial or cultural background.
When working at its best the parish church does that. Our congregations comprise a variety of spiritual outlooks and experiences. Some are committed, others less sure, others value the community generated by the church and its contribution to the common good but are not convinced about the God bit at all. We have (I hope) a warm heart and fuzzy boundaries. After 11 years in a rural parish I always found it most productive to have the front door open as wide as possible and focus on spiritually warming people rather than policing the boundary.
When we were first married, we didn’t find what was on offer at the local parish church particularly congenial, so commuted 10 miles to church in the local town. When I began the discernment process for ordination this didn’t go down very well with the panel! As part of the process I had to do a placement there for a number of weeks. The congregation members were not particularly friendly. On one occasion I pitched up a bit late and creaked my way in through that enormous church door that is uniquely noisy when you’re running late. The assembled congregation looked up as one from their preparatory prayers; Looked me up and down and then returned to their praying. It was the last interaction we had for the duration. There were several other families in the village who did the same as us. Looking back, if we’d all decided to stay put we could have made a big difference to the life of the place. I hope we would have learned some maturity and servant heartedness from them and they might have seen something of the joy of personal faith unmediated by the institution. Instead, we eyed each other with a mutual incomprehension and the big church got bigger and the smaller churches were impoverished. I was grateful as a vicar than my parish was too far from a big centre to commute easily. It meant that we had a congregation ranging from those who thought anything written after 1662 was a dangerous modern experiment to those who thought the only way to worship properly was half an hour of continuous singing to a driving mid-western rock track. I hope after 11 years there we grew together by finding common ground. The vision of the church in the New Testament isn’t of cultural homogeneity its of diversity. If we want to be that sort of church we must provide that sort of welcome. We must be a place where people can explore the faith at their own pace; where they can be accepted while they do that.
But that’s not to say we do that at the expense of dumbing down the key tenets of God’s revelation. A key part of our worship is where we recite the creed together. Personally, I can do that without my fingers crossed, although I know others struggle. We don’t say it because God has self-esteem issues and we have to reassure him we’re still signed up each week. We do it to encourage one another that indeed its true. If we are to really encourage one another in faith we should perhaps ask the question not what we get out of church, but what do we put in to build a community where others can find Christ and grow in him.