Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Reformed Catholicism of the English Litany

[Editor’s Note: The following account of the history of the English Litany was excerpted from Dyson Hague’s The Protestantism of the Prayer Book.]

As to the Litany, it is not only a wonderfully comprehensive and satisfying service of prayer, a very model of intercessory worship, it is also a striking monument of the Protestantism of our liturgy. The various stages through which it has passed, from its original form in the Roman service, to its form as now used in the Prayer Book, are trustworthy indexes of the various transition periods of our Church. In its Romish form, it need hardly be said, the Litany was full of error. There were in it no less than sixty-two petitions to angels and archangels, men and women, dead and alive. Invocations for intercession were addressed, not only to Mary, Holy Mother of God, to Michael and Gabriel, to angels and archangels, to all the holy order of blessed spirits, patriarchs, prophets, and apostles, to martyrs and evangelists, innocents and confessors, but also to St. Laurence, St. Vincent, St. Cosmas, and St. Damian, and to all the holy priests and Levites, all the holy monks and widows, all the holy monks and hermits. Kneeling upon their knees, the congregation would listen in ignorance and superstition, while there rolled forth in an unknown tongue, from the lips of the priest and the choir, such petitions as these —

“Sancta Maria, Ora pro nobis”

“Sancte Abel, Ora pro nobis,”

“Omnes sancti Dei, Orate pro nobis,”—

petitions, it need scarcely be added, as unedifying to the Church, as they were unintelligible to the suppliants.

The year 1544 marks the second stage of the Litany. It is a year worthy to be held in grateful remembrance from generation to generation of Protestant Englishmen; for in that year, 1544, thanks, under God, to the untiring vigilance of Archbishop Cranmer, prayers were used for the first time in the English tongue. “Hitherto, the people had understood no part of such prayers and suffrages as were used to be said or sung,” but now, by royal mandate, it is enjoined that certain prayers and suffrages are to be said in the language of the people.

It was certainly a most momentous innovation; it was, in fact, a national revolution. It gave a new character to the Church and the nation. It broke the spell of Popery; it established the Protestantism of England. Simply, and quietly, yet most effectually, it brought back again to primitive usage the forms of public devotion, and the religious sentiment of the people. The English Litany now introduced by authority, though substantially differing from the Roman in that it was in the English tongue and contained much new matter, was marred by many unscriptural features. While the numerous petitions to the monks and hermits, and other saints of the Roman Canon, were omitted, petitions still remained to Mary and the angels.

“St. Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.”

“All holy angels and archangels, and all holy orders of blessed spirits, pray for us.”

“All holy patriarchs, and prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, and virgins, and all the blessed company of Heaven, pray for us.”

However, on the whole, it was a worthy monument of Cranmer's evangelical zeal, and of the ripening Protestantism of the English Church.

The reign of Edward the Sixth witnessed the Litany issuing forth from its final revision as pure gold refined in the furnace. Not only were all the invocations to saints and angels finally and summarily disposed of; not only was the petition, “ by the intercession of thy saints turn from us all those evils that we most righteously have deserved,” omitted from the Collect at the end; not only were numerous petitions, breathing the most fervent spirit of evangelical truth, inserted; but the whole was remodelled and adjusted to meet the ever varying and perpetual needs of the hungering and thirsting spiritual mind. The most devout and loyal Christian can find nothing in it that, being weighed in the balance of scriptural truth, will be found faulty or wanting.

Why then, perchance some one will ask, was that grand old petition omitted, “From the tyranny of the Bishop of Rome, and all his detestable enormities, Good Lord, deliver us”? For the simple reason, in truth, that it was no longer necessary. Finally and wholly, the Church of England had been delivered from Rome's accursed thralldom. The declaration of the King's supremacy had as completely demolished Rome's political despotism, as the establishment of the Reformed religion had abolished her spiritual despotism. What need, then, for the free man to pray that he might be freed from a yoke which he no longer wore, and from a chain which God's grace had snapped asunder?

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