Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Litany: A Gateway to Prayer

By Robin G. Jordan

The Litany, also known as the General Supplication, is the oldest portion of the Book of Common Prayer. It was first published, with its accompanying music, in 1544, as a special supplication for the English nation then at war with France and Scotland. Archbishop Cranmer prepared the Litany at the request of King Henry VIII. It is the oldest liturgical service in the English vernacular.

The Litany has fallen on hard times since the nineteenth century. It has lost favor with Anglican clergy and consequently few Anglican congregations are familiar with it. In A Parson’s Handbook, in a footnote at the bottom of page 249, Percy Dearmer who championed the more frequent use of the Litany in his own day points to the reader’s attention:

There has been a widespread idea that the Litany, so beautiful a part of the Prayer Book, is wearisome, and in consequence a most regrettable tendency to omit it. It may be wearisome when sung in the usual dragging and monotonous way, but not when its beauty is brought out by proper rendering. On Wednesdays and Fridays, and on Festivals (p. 446), the priest may well kneel and read it without note, which takes but little time, and is most devotional. Then on Sundays it can be sung to the beautiful plainsong of the Sarum Processional (The Litany and Suffrages with the Musick from the Sarum Processional: from the Oxford Press, 95 Wimpole Street, W.I), which, of course, should be sung after the manner of good reading, and not in the style of chanting which a modern writer has compared to ‘an elephant waltzing’. In this setting there is some more elaborate music, but only in the anthem and following suffrages, which are sung by the chanters. The points of the service are fully brought out when it is sung to the old tones and properly divided up between chanters, priest, and people; still more, when it is sung in procession, as it may be on ordinary Sundays. In churches where it is usually said or sung at the Litany-desk, it might be sung in procession on Rogation Sunday.
The Litany is very ancient form of prayer, its use in the Christian Church going back as far as the Fourth Century AD. The Litany-form predates Christianity and is found in the Old Testament, in the Book of Psalms. The Litany is longer than other forms of prayer because it is the most comprehensive form of prayer in the Prayer Book. It covers a wide range of concerns. In Everyman’s History of the Book of Common Prayer Percy Dearmer tell us:

Thus the Prayer Book Litany…greatly extends the realm of intercession, stretching out those touching and melodious phrases, which are now of the very marrow of the English language, to all human needs, dangers, sorrows, aspirations, and efforts towards perfection, and ending with the two beautiful supplications in which the people turn at length to pray for their own necessities. In contrast to the weak and selfish spirit of many popular modern devotions, we think proudly of the English Litany, and have a right to be proud of it; for we can turn to the whole world, Christian and otherwise, and say, "This is how we pray, this is how we are taught to think of life and death, of God and man; and this is a service we really use, a popular service, known and loved and understood by all."
He goes on to stress:

We are indeed brought to the mysteries of the Eucharist through a noble gate, through the preparation of that generous, unselfish, and humble intercession for the human race which the Litany has given us; and it is our own fault if our religion falls behind the fullness of the Gospel of Christ.
For this reason the Litany has been called the “Anglican introit.”

In The Protestantism of the Prayer Book Dyson Hague in a description of the general characteristics of Prayer Book services draws attention to the co-operative and participatory character of these services:

The Church of England, to my mind, is unique in this, not in that she recognized the right of the people to participate in the public worship of God, but in that she alone practically has made this participation an accomplished fact. She looks for the co-operation of all the people in all her services. She desires all, not only to have a part, but to have a great part.
This, he notes, is particularly characteristic of the Litany:

The Litany is another wonderful example of a form of supplication in which the priesthood of the people is practically recognized, in making them all draw near to the Throne of Grace, with liberty to speak out before God.
The rubrics of the 1662 Prayer Book direct the Litany “to be sung or said after Morning Prayer upon Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and at other times when it shall be commanded by the Ordinary.”

In A Parson’s Handbook, on page 253, Percy Dearmer points to the reader’s attention:

The Litany is the authorized prelude to the Eucharist, and ought not to be treated as a mere appendage to Mattins; the practice of so regarding it was a gradual result of the neglect to celebrate the Sunday Eucharist.
In a footnote at the bottom of the same page, Dearmer goes on to write:

‘After Morning Prayer’ is only another way of stating what had already been ordered by Elizabeth’s Injunctions of 1559, that the Litany should be said ‘immediately before the time of communion of the Sacrament’ (Cardwell, Doc. Ann., I, p. 187); for Mattins has always been said before the hour of Communion.
The Litany formed with Morning Prayer, Ante-Communion or Holy Communion, Evening Prayer, and Catechizing a regular part of the pattern of worship on Sundays in Anglican churches until the nineteenth century. While contemporary Anglicans accustomed to an hour-long service on Sunday morning and perhaps an adult Christian education hour before the service, this pattern may seem very rigorous and even tedious, it has a long history in the Christian Church and is observed to this day in Eastern Orthodox Churches. Where this pattern has been restored in Anglican churches, and the members of the congregation pray and worship from the heart rather than going through the motions of praying and worshiping, it has transformed the life and worship of the local Anglican church community. It has helped to shift the focus of Sunday away from the churchgoers themselves to God.

In Loyalty to the Prayer Book Percy Dearmer reminds us:
The ideal of the Prayer Book, then, is plain. On Sunday morning, people are to come to church for the Holy Communion, and to hear the sermon. Preparatory to this Service is the Litany, which is the Anglican preparation for Holy Communion, and ought not to be misused: to shift it to the afternoon or evening is to do a grievous wrong to the meaning and order of Divine Service. Some time before the Litany, Mattins is to be said or sung.
The Litany is particularly appropriate in times of war, pestilence, famine, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters. We certainly live in such times. The islands of Japan were just struck by a succession of devastating earthquakes and a tsunami in a twenty-four hour period. The death toll is rising along with the number of reports of missing persons who may have been swept away by the tidal wave. Thousands are without food, shelter, and water. Fires have broken out due to ruptured gas lines, a number of nuclear reactors have malfunctioned, and radiation leaks and one explosion has been reported.

The Litany is traditionally said or sung on the Rogation Days—the three days preceding Ascension Day. They are days of solemn supplication to God for fruitful seasons and a good harvest. Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Injunctions recognized the medieval custom of singing the Litany in procession during Rogationtide. The practice of “beating the bounds of the parish” has continued in a number of churches to this day. The same injunctions direct that the Litany should be said “immediately before the time of communion.”

Due to the penitential nature of the Deprecations, the final Supplication, the Invocations, and Kyrie in the Litany some Anglican churches have adopted the practice of singing the Litany in procession on Sundays in Lent and Advent. In churches that use the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and observe this practice, the Litany ends at the Kyries and replaces all that precedes the salutation and collect. Any setting of the Kyrie may replace that printed with the Litany, and the Prayers of the People are, and the confession may, be omitted. No entrance hymn is appropriate when the Litany is used in the entrance procession of the Eucharist on Sundays of Lent and Advent. John Merbecke’s setting of the Litany is found in The Hymnal 1982 at S 67. Music for the supplication is found in the Accompaniment Edition at S 338 and S 339.

A number of more recent Prayer Books incorporate provisions to keep the Litany from unduly lengthening the service when combined with Morning Prayer or The Holy Communion. These provisions also minimize redundant elements. The General Directions for Publick Worship in the 1926 Irish Prayer Book contains the following provisions:

If Morning Prayer, the Litany, and the Order for the Administration of Holy Communion are used in conjunction, the Minister after Te Deum Laudamus may proceed to the Litany, first saying, Let us pray. In this case, at the Morning Prayer the Minister shall read either the First or Second Lesson of the Day, and in the Litany he shall omit the intercessions from That it may please thee to guard and bless to That it may please thee to give to all nations, inclusive.
The rubrics preceding the Litany in the 1926 Irish Prayer Book contain these provisions:

When the Litany is used as a separate Service, it may be preceded by a Hymn and one of the Lessons of the Day; or when used in conjunction with the Communion Service the Minister may, instead of a Lesson, use one or more of the Sentences appointed to be used at the commencement of the order for Morning Prayer, and then say, Let us pray.

When the Litany is followed by the Communion office, or by that part of it appointed to be used when there is no Communion, it shall be lawful to omit from the Litany the Lord’s Prayer and all that is set down after it. When the Litany is said at any other time, it shall be lawful to omit from it all that follows the Lord’s Prayer, and use one or more of the Occasional Prayers; the whole to conclude with A Prayer of St. Chrysostom, and The grace of, etc.
The rubrics of An Australian Prayer Book(1978) permit the saying or singing of the Litany after the Apostles’ Creed after Morning or Evening Prayer, in which case the remainder of Morning or Evening Prayer may be omitted. If the service of Holy Communion follows, they permit the Litany to be concluded after the last two supplication for ourselves. After the Lord’s Prayer the minister may use other authorized prayers; he may ask the prayers of the congregation for particular persons and needs; he may read the Collect of the Day.

The Notes following the Litany state that the Litany may be said or sung as a separate service; or instead of the last part of Morning or Evening Prayer; or before The Holy Communion. They further state that when The Holy Communion follows the Litany, everything after the last two supplications and the general intercession of The Holy Communion may be omitted.

The Litany does not need an ordained minister to say or sing it. A prayer group might use the Litany to provide structure to their meetings. The person reading the Litany could pause after each petition to give the members of the prayer group an opportunity to name particular intentions silently or aloud before cuing the response—“ We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.” After the Lord’s Prayer the members of the prayer group could be given opportunity to ask the prayers of the group for particular persons and needs and to offer spontaneous petitions and thanksgivings. All might join together in reading the General Thanksgiving, followed by a Prayer of St. Chrysostom and the Grace.

Congregations and prayer groups using the Litany from the 1662 Prayer Book may want to add one of the following petitions to the Litany

After the petition for all Bishops, Priests, and Deacons—

That it may please thee to further the work of the Church in all the world, and send forth labourers into thy harvest.
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.[1928 Irish Prayer Book]


That it may please thee to send forth labourers into thy harvest. We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.[1928 American Prayer Book]


That it may please thee to send forth labourers into thy harvest, to prosper their work by thy Holy Spirit, to make thy saving health to all nations, and to hasten thy kingdom.
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord. [1962 Canadian Prayer Book]

Another suitable additions may be a petition for the armed forces (see the 1926 Irish Litany, the 1928 Proposed English Litany, and the 1962 Canadian Litany). The phrase “or by air” may be inserted into the petition for travelers.

The Litany was written for times like ours—times when the Church is troubled by heresy and persecution and the world by disease, famine, natural disaster, and war. I have a vision of Anglicans taking some time from their busy lives to gather together and to pray the Litany. Lent is a good time to start. But let us not confine praying the Litany to Lent. Let us pray it all year round. Let us dip its intercessions and supplications into our hearts and pray them from the heart. Let us also be open to what God says to us as we seek Him in prayer. Let us not forget the words of James, the brother of our Lord.

If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Depart in peace, be warmed and filled," but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? (James 2:15-16)
Let us be prepared, having prayed and heard God’s voice, to act upon what God has said to us, to obey the Holy Spirit’s prompting. Who is to say what may come from our prayer?


  1. Confitemini Domino
    Open for me the gates of the righteous;
    I will enter and give thanks to the LORD.
    This is the gate of the LORD
    through which the righteous may enter.
    I will give you thanks, for you answered me;
    you have become my salvation. (Psalm 118: 19-21)

    Urbs Fortitudinis
    We have a strong city;
    God makes salvation
    its walls and ramparts.
    Open the gates
    that the righteous nation may enter,
    the nation that keeps faith.
    You will keep in perfect peace
    those whose minds are steadfast,
    because they trust in you.
    Trust in the LORD forever,
    for the LORD, the LORD himself, is the Rock eternal.
    The path of the righteous is level;
    you, the Upright One, make the way of the righteous smooth.
    Yes, LORD, walking in the way of your laws,
    we wait for you;
    your name and renown
    are the desire of our hearts. (Isaiah 26:1-4,7-8)