I won’t ask for a show of hands, but graying hair and wrinkles tell the tale: some of us can remember the “prayer-book” controversies of the late sixties and early seventies. Should the Nicene creed begin with the communal ‘we’ or with the singular ‘I believe…’? Should the Holy Spirit continue to proceed from Son as well as Father, as it had in the West since the sixth century? or pursuant to Anglican-Orthodox dialogue, should we confess that Holy Spirit comes from the Father alone? Explanatory booklets accompanying trial rites were poorly reasoned, followed tradition in mounting political arguments for changes of doctrinal substance. Grassroots battles seized standards closer to the heart–compared to Cranmer’s poetry, the new rites were artless, didn’t scan. Truth to tell, the language of prayer is so woven into us, informs and forms us so deeply, so frames our traffic with God that to change would be like being forced to speak to spouse and children only in a foreign language. Most of us who used it, loved the ‘28 prayer book. And yet, there were issues of evangelism: how could others–younger, culturally different–get acquainted with God, sing praise in sixteenth century tongues so alien to them?
One substantive issue that actually got “put on the table” was the emotional tone of the service; and here the Prayer of Humble Access became the cause célèbre. You, well, some of us remember:
“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 they 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, that we may evermore dwell in Him and He in us.”
Revisionaries complained that Cranmer’s service was too gloomy, always forcing us to grovel, say how worthless we are! Having banished private sacramental confession, he interjected the penitential theme at every opportunity: beginning with the summary of the law, confession in the middle, returning to our unworthiness at the end of the eucharistic prayer, then rubbing it in again with the Prayer of Humble Access. Many experienced the whole thing as one giant “guilt trip” as alienating to the 60’s as Thanksigiving dinner according to Miss Manners. Besides, it was bad theology. Hadn’t God pronounced creation “very good”? Weren’t we created in God’s own image? Didn’t God find us sufficiently engaging to become one of us in Christ Jesus? These facts call for “up-beat” rejoicing. Better to make confession optional, at least cut it short, put it quickly behind us, to spend our time on thanks and praise.
The Prayer’s defenders countered with their own theological arguments. After all, it’s God before Whom we’re bowing, the infinite and eternal One in relation to Whom we are almost nothing. Naturally, we American’s do not kiss the king’s foot, courtsey before lords and ladies, as if birth or station made them better than we are. But God really is radically different in kind, immeasurably greater and more wonderful. The bible says we are no more entitled to a place in God’s household than maggots or mice are in ours. So far from morose, reverent awe is a sign of spiritual maturity that appreciates Who it is we are addressing. Besides, Humble Access keeps our horizons from flattening out, saves us from a humanistic focus that in the face of two world wars, nuclear explosions, and crashing global economies, would quickly drag us down to despair.
Theologically, there was merit on both sides. The liturgical dispute resolved in what used to be typical Anglican fashion: “almost-‘28” Rite I at 8 o’clock with the Prayer of Humble Access option; less flowery, plain-speaking Rite II at 10. Unfortunately, both were too early for inclusive language, so that our church is once again in the business of publishing supplementary booklets, not quite ready to face another prayer book revision.
Rarely noted in the 60’s debate about Humble Access was the prayer’s biblical warrant. When we return to its script in today’s Gospel, we discover how both parties mistook the essential point. For the Canaanite woman’s story is not about grovelling, but about refusal to lose, about chutzpah in the face of manifest contempt.
Foreigners mini-vacationing in Syrian territory, Jesus and His disciples cut the figure of “ugly American tourists.” They are getting away from it all; have no professional obligations, entangling relationships in these parts. Jesus is Israel’s prophet; they are just passing through. When the woman runs out of the house, cries after them, they pretend to ignore her. Jesus answers her not a word. When she persists, the disciples urge Jesus to dismiss her. Jesus declares, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Like relentless beggars in Italy, India, or Brazil, her running up, kneeling down, blocking their path exhausts their patience, calls down insults on her head: “it is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Can we ever sympathize! Have we never thought on our travels, “What’s wrong with this country? Why don’t they get a welfare system and take care of their own?”
Racial and ethnic contempt have been with us ever since humans left Eden, had to win bread by sweat of the brow. Scarcity is assumed. Clains and tribes scramble for survival, divide the work, give everyone a job, share the effort and the produce. Offering the necessities of life to outsiders would be unfair, because it would take food out of the mouths of those who worked for it, away from children who will care for them in old age. Fear of want is deeply rooted in our animal nature. And it degrades, bearing the bitter fruit of brutality, driving us to see other people as mortal threats instead of vital friends.
Yet, because human family resemblance is hard ot ignore even across national and class lines, we have to “cover up,” rationalize our deaf ears to others’ needs with a contempt that degrades them. “Contempt-lite” only makes them morally bad–turns welfare mothers into lazy freeloaders; unemployed men into thieves, con-artists, and drug pushers. Desperation goes further, demotes them to non-persons–Gentile dogs, Nazi pigs… Remember the Vietnam-war gooks whose casualties didn’t really matter because they don’t care about individual lives the way we do?
The Canaanite woman calls their bluff, exposes the pretense of scarcity. Jesus’ reputation precedes Him. So does the boast that the whole world belongs to Israel’s God. Frantically, she confronts them with truth about what’s wrong. “The kingdom hasn’t come here yet; my little daughter is still demon-possessed!” “The kingdom hasn’t come here in rich America, where some still live on streets, get little or no medical coverage, play hookie from schools where they can’t learn!” “The kingdom hasn’t come here, where both political parties speak with forked tongues about tax cuts and budget balancing, where prosperity for most requires 4-5% unemployment, and even in these bad times people are still shamed and blamed for not having jobs!” “The kingdom has not come in our hearts yet, so long as we believe animal anxiety more than God Who raises the dead!”
The Canaanite woman was cunning, knew how to play the contradictory game, where deferential speech cloaks brazen deeds. Her words concede, she is a serf before Caesar: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy”; “Kyrie eleison”; “don’t destroy me for entering your presence before you extend the scepter of invitation!” But run, chase, invade His space she does. The Canaanite woman wastes no words debating whether ethnic slurs are politically correct. Instead, she trumps their irony with a tour de force: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table!” Jesus grants her wish, and the joke is on Him. For they both know, she was not after a crumb. She settled for nothing less than God’s coming kingdom!
Cranmer’s rite, penned in the days of kings and queens, observes the same subversive etiquette. We enter the name with apologies–Kyrie eleison–but take a pew all the same. We beg pardon again in the middle, kneel before God at the end, as we barge into God’s sanctuary, come right up to God’s table. In Cranmer’s script we do not ask to be doorkeepers or hired servants, but for incorporation, the intimacy of mutual indwelling, to be parts of Christ and fellow-heirs. The repeated penitential routine was not morbid self-degradation, but energetic individual and corporate scouring, sweeping to locate all those nooks and crannies where God’s kingdom has yet to come, the better to storm the heavens, demanding its arrival.
Here in America, with our ideals of equality, new rites could be more straightforward. “No way” should they be less fierce and persistent than the Canaanite woman. Everywhere and always, wherever we see it isn’t, “Your kingdom come! Now is the time!” should be our work and prayer.