For nearly 2,000 years Christians have prayed and sung in procession through villages, on pilgrimages, and in the church as both a practical means of moving from one place to another and as liturgical acts of devotion. The Anglican Litany was once the most popular devotion for Anglican Christians. At one point being prayed several times a week, sadly it has now largely fallen out of use all around the world. Is time to revive its regular use, not for sake of nostalgia, but with the intent of its author? Thomas Cranmer described in his letter to King Henry VIII, that the Litany
“will much excite and stir the hearts of all men unto devotion and godliness.“Oh Sing Unto The Lord- A History of English Church Music, page 64 [Kindle]
A litany, also called rogation, (both meaning “supplication” or “prayer”), is a series of prayer petitions and congregational responses. While there are various small litanies within prayer and sacramental rites, The Litany, or modernly called The Great Litany (being the greater, or larger, litany than the smaller ones located within other liturgies of the Prayer Book), is a stand-alone prayer rite that calls to mind the early Christian ritual of prayer processions. One of the earliest examples of such practices is found in the year 398 A.D. when the Archbishop of Constantinople (modern Istanbul), Saint John Chrysostom, inaugurated prayer processions and singing through the streets of the city. . Throughout Christendom, these contrite prayer parades became especially popular in times of war, disaster, and great strife. In 1544 England, amidst their dual wars with Scotland and France, King Henry VIII ordered all the people of the land to regularly conduct litany processions to pray for England. However, the participation of the people became less than enthusiastic, largely because the average person could no longer understand what was being prayed in Latin. In response, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer did what most Reformers had been so anxious to do: put the liturgy in English.
A few years before the first Book of Common Prayer was published, Cranmer released The Exhortation and Litany. Being the first liturgy in the vernacular of the people, it became remarkably popular. Prayer Book Historian Alan Jacobs noted that the Litany
“…would be the first installment of a book, the Book of Common Prayer, that would transform the religious lives of countless English men, women, and children; that would mark the lives of millions as they moved through the stages of life from birth and baptism through marriage and on to illness and death and burial; that would accompany the British Empire as it expanded throughout the world. ”(The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography- Alan Jacobs)
The manner of use of The Litany has varied since the 16th Century. The practice in most churches up until the 20th Century was for the litany to be prayed according to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer instructions “after Morning Prayer upon Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays”. Until the later 20th Century, a typical Sunday expectation for most Anglicans consisted of four services: Matins (Morning Prayer), Litany, Communion, and Evensong (Evening Prayer). These regular uses of the Litany were normally said or sung by a deacon or priest while the congregation knelt in the church. A special kneeler, called a litany desk or faldstool, was used by the officiant to pray from the middle of the congregation (rather than from up near the altar like most prayers). This is possibly related to the instructions in Joel 2:17 “Let the priests, who minister before the LORD, weep between the portico [porch] and the altar.” Where the Litany was done weekly in the church, the more elaborate processional singing was usually for Rogation days or other days of fasting. Cathedrals and Collegiate Churches often sang and processed more frequently.
Unfortunately today, the Great Litany has fallen largely out of use, even in England. More recent Books of Common Prayer prescribe the Great Litany for use only a few times a year, such as the First Sundays of Advent and Lent. These are good starting points for its return. Like the disappearance of regular public Morning and Evening Prayer in most churches, why the Litany fell away from use is a mystery. Is it simply because modern Christians don’t have the attention span to tolerate much more than they do at church already? Do people have a distaste for the penitential tone or the constant reminder of fallen humanity? Is it just seen an “old dry dusty” liturgy that naturally faded away?
A revival of the regular use of the Litany is just what we need. Yes, our Prayers of the People, collects, and confessions pray very broadly for our own sins and for the needs of the world. And other extemporaneous prayers may hit on a subject or two. However, nothing can compare with the depth, beauty, and comprehensiveness of the Litany. We pray for deliverance from disasters, heresy, schism, violence, war, blindness of heart, hypocrisy, and oppression. We bid the lord to visit the lonely and grieving, to strengthen marriages, to protect unborn children and women in childbirth, to care for those who have lost children. This is only a small sample. Christians should be praying for these things, regularly. This was the point of praying it several times a week at home and in the church. Further, if we truly believe that what we pray shapes what we believe, then one must wonder how the hearts of the people would change if the Litany were prayed more regularly.
Section I: The Invocation. The Litany commences with a petition to the Persons of the Trinity to have mercy upon us. It is unfortunate that modern prayer books, including the 2019, omit the original full response “Have mercy upon us miserable sinners.” This section ends with “Spare us, good Lord”. If sung in procession, the invocation begins at the altar with the ministers facing east.
Section II: The Suffrages. Here begins the first set of suffrages, or pleas, to the Lord. A procession would begin here. There are four sub-sections. They begin by deprecations, that is prayers asking for the deliverance from particular evil and disaster. They are followed by obsecrations, the petition for deliverance by the power of Christ (by his incarnation, baptism, Cross and Passion, resurrection, etc.). These two sub-sections are responded to by “Good Lord, deliver us”. The third and fourth set of suffrages are the intercessions for other groups or peoples and two supplications for ourselves. The responses are “We beseech you to hear us, Good Lord”.
Section III: The Kyrie and Lord’s Prayer. Processions should be reaching the altar by the start of this last section that begins with “Son of God, we beseech you to hear us.” As noted in most rubrics, the Lord’s Prayer is omitted if this immediately proceeds the Eucharist.
Section IV: The Supplication (a.k.a. The Second Litany). This additional section can be added onto the Litany immediately after the Lord’s Prayer (replacing “O Lord, show us your love and mercy”, the collect, and Grace), or used as a separate devotion (or added into Morning or Evening Prayer after the Office Hymn). It is especially useful in times of war or great anxiety. For instance, at St. Peter’s Anglican Cathedral, Tallahassee, the Supplication was used at Morning and Evening Prayer for the first few months of COVID-19.
Introducing the Litany To Your Congregation
Where do you start? First, pray it at home. For clergy, teach the Litany from the pulpit or classroom. Introducing it for use on Advent 1 and Lent 1, as per the 2019 BCP, is a good start. I personally prefer it over sung in procession, though it would not be practical for regular use. Percy Dearmer, in A Parsons Handbook, suggests that if it is sung (making it longer) it should be processed, because “people keep up their attention better because they become less weary” (p. 132). Processions, even if just inside the church, remember the idea of praying through the village. Most will find that children are much more interested when sung and processed. As my old boss, Archbishop Robert Duncan, would say “everyone loves a parade!”
The rubrics allow for it to be tailored to local custom, so shortening it down (especially when first introducing it) is okay. Some parishes may want to pray it more often, perhaps following the weekly patterns of the 1662 Prayer Book (though I’d suggest introducing daily public Morning and Evening Prayer in your churches first). The Litany should be the immediate “go-to” after great disasters such as 9/11, the start of a war, or…a pandemic!
When I became the Canon for Worship at Saint Peter’s Cathedral, Tallahassee; introducing the Great Litany was one of my goals. We introduced it for the first Sundays of Advent and Lent, chanting and moving throughout the aisle of the Cathedral. The previous practice during Lent was to chant the Decalogue in the entrance procession, an abnormal practice that doesn’t quite meet the rubrical intent. But a penitential tone in Lent was already in the congregation’s DNA. Before its use we published an article in our weekly newsletter. The Saturday prior we held a one-time training for the choir, acolytes, and clergy in order to understand how we would move throughout the church. Each Sunday before the Litany, a priest or music director introduced the Litany to the congregation (hopefully, a verbal explaination will not always be necessary in the future). Children were invited to join us.
The altar party began at the central altar, and the rest of the procession in the side aisles. As a priest or deacon chanted and the congregation responded, the procession snaked its way around the aisles eventually moving down the central aisle toward the altar. With some practice of the timing, the procession beautifully ended as the final portion of the Litany was prayed. It was pretty powerfully received by many. Though the lack of proper understanding of the history, purpose, and nature of the Litany was apparent. Ironically, a few wrote it off as “pomp and flowing robes [cope]”; somewhat surprising since high church cathedral liturgy is at the heart of Saint Peter’s life. This goes to show that while liturgical gurus may understand that the Litany, even with fancy vestments and processional appointments, is designed to be quite the opposite of pompous; to others it can have the opposite appearance. Despite the deliberate teaching, some still felt we were doing it just because it was tradition. Take this as a lesson. Like with all liturgy and tradition, the people need to be taught and formed. In retrospect, we could have first encouraged the use of the Litany at home, began its use without a procession, or even preached on portions of it on Sundays. The Litany is a powerful method of prayer that has the potential of shaping and deepening the prayer life of individual Christians and the Church. A careful and deliberate re-introduction of its regular use could, as Cranmer hoped, “excite and stir the hearts of all men unto devotion and godliness.”
1-Oh Sing Unto The Lord- A History of English Church Music, page 64 [Kindle]
2- Everyman’s History of the Prayer Book- Percy Dearmer