Originally published in The Living Church, 22 Mar. 2015.
Just after the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001, the students and faculty at General Seminary in Manhattan gathered in the chapel. The seminary is less than a ten-minute drive north of Ground Zero, and for the students and faculty it was a moment of great confusion, anxiety, and fear. The Rev. Teresa Daniely, now an Episcopal priest, was in her first week of studies at General that day. “I did not know if I would live through that day; I assumed that I would not,” she wrote in 2010 for the Grace Prayer Network’s weblog (is.gd/U77vAr). “We got on our knees and prayed the Great Litany, a series of prayers that includes prayers of confession and prayers in preparation for death.
On that day, when the world seemed to be falling apart, the people of General Seminary found in the Litany the only fitting words for their deepest anxiety and hope. They were in good company. The Litany is a text forged out of tragedy. The eruptions of fourth-century volcanoes, the perils of the Black Death, and wars of the 16th century all left a mark on its historical development. It is a text that speaks to pastoral need, the Church’s gift for times of crisis. When you do not know how else to pray, there is always the Litany.
Litanies, in a sense, are among the most ancient and common forms of prayer, and the Eastern church has a vibrant tradition of litany use, dating back to fourth-century Antioch. The traditional Litany in the West, though, was a specific response to tragedy. In 467, after his Easter Vigil congregation fled in terror during a volcanic eruption, Archbishop Mamertius of Vienne organized a series of solemn outdoor processions on the three days before the Ascension. The practice, which came to be called the Rogations, along with forms of responsive prayer used by Mamertius’s penitential congregation, spread throughout the Western church for the next three centuries, gradually moving indoors.
The Black Death and the political and ecclesiastical instability of the 14th century served to magnify this devotion’s popularity. The invocations of hundreds of saints were added to some forms of the Litany, and the annual Rogation processions, with their focus on warding off potential dangers, became important civic occasions. Versions for private use, sometimes on particular devotional themes, were invariably included in primers for use by literate laity. Of all medieval liturgical forms, they allowed for the widest form of participation, and they surely became popular because the simplest peasants could join in the responses.
By the late Middle Ages, the Western Litany had achieved a stable form, consistent in most of its manifold variations. It began with Kyries and invocations of the Holy Trinity. This was followed by invocations of the saints, then a series of petitions, all addressed to Christ. These included the deprecations: prayers that the Lord would deliver his people from distress. These were followed by the obsecrations: prayers that appealed to God for deliverance for the sake of the saving events of Christ’s life. A series of intercessions followed, and then there were invocations of the Lamb of God, a Kyrie, an Our Father, and closing versicles and collects. The Great Litany of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer preserves the basic structure of the late medieval form.
The real father of the Anglican Litany was Martin Luther. Luther had a great affection for the Litany and suggested its use after the sermon as well as at Matins and Vespers in a 1528 pamphlet, “The War against the Turks.” He revised the Litany of his religious order to reflect the Reformation’s emphasis on the doctrine of free grace, eliminating the invocation of saints and intercessions for the pope and the departed. With a pastor’s eye on the Turkish menace at the gates of Vienna, Luther extended the deprecations by specifying additional perils, namely pestilence and famine, war and bloodshed, turmoil and discord. He also added a lengthy series of intercessions that gave the Litany a more evangelical character. These included appeals for the faithful ministry of the Word, the maintenance of true belief within the Church, and the work of the Spirit in establishing and building up believers.
Luther’s Litany was the most important source for Thomas Cranmer’s 1544 English revision of the Sarum Litany, prepared at the request of King Henry VIII as a petition to be used in churches during a war against France and Scotland. Cranmer incorporated nearly all of Luther’s additions. He added additional petitions to both sections that sharpened the text’s penitential focus by asking for help against specific categories of sin and for particular spiritual graces. Cranmer’s Litany was the Church of England’s first vernacular liturgical text and thus the mother of the Book of Common Prayer.
For Anglicans, both the persistence and the eventual decline in the use of the Litany are linked to a 1571 Injunction by the Puritan Archbishop Edmund Grindal, which ordered that Morning Prayer, the Litany, and Holy Communion (or the Ante-Communion) be read together on Sundays, without any intermission. Grindal’s intention was to ensure a fuller liturgical formation and order in worship: so that “the people might continue together in prayer, and hearing the Word of God; and not depart out of the church during all the time of the whole Divine Service. ”
Grindal’s rubric created the standard Anglican Sunday morning service for 300 years, and gave the Litany a foundational place in Anglican piety, as well as some cultural influence (the phrase “sudden death” is probably its most enduring literary legacy). The Litany also had a tangible presence in many Anglican churches where, following medieval Sarum use, a “Litany desk” was often placed between the nave and chancel. Litany desks were often immense and elaborately carved pieces (my church has a fine desk from the late 19th century). Litany books were also printed, or sometimes done in manuscript and illuminated. Rigid rubrics and elaborate furniture helped to preserve the Litany among Anglicans when the tide of popular piety turned against it in the late 17th century, nearly eliminating it completely in Lutheran use and even curtailing it sharply in the Roman Catholic Church.
The length of Grindal’s tripartite service, however, was sharply criticized by clock-watching 19th-century parsons and people, and new early morning Eucharists pushed against the common assumption that the Communion Service could not be read without being proceeded by the Litany. The 1892 American Prayer Book provided “tardy relief” by allowing that the three morning services could be separated “provided that no one of these services be habitually disused,” but without rubrical reinforcement the Litany suffered a serious decline. In the words of one 20th-century handwringer: “The moment they were free to choose, it became apparent that most clergy prefer the briefer and more flexible provisions of the Prayers of Intercession in the Daily Offices to the fixed solemnities of the Litany. ”
Despite an extensive and careful revision in 1979, there seems to have been little if any revival in the Litany’s use among Episcopalians. The editors’ decision to print the Litany only in Elizabethan English (the only liturgical text to be so treated) seems to suggest common use only by the most reactionary parishes and a consignment to the dustbin of history. In most parishes today, aside from an occasional Advent or Lenten service, the Litany almost never appears.
What have we lost by often abandoning this great prayer? Liturgical commentator John Jebb once described the Litany as “a most careful, luminous, and comprehensive collection of the scattered treasures of the Universal Church.” The dust should be knocked off several of these treasures, which bring distinctive gifts to the Church’s worship.
The first of these treasures are the moving deprecations, the first petitions in the main body that evoke the response “Good Lord, deliver us.” They describe the fragility and peril of human life with particular emphasis. Taken together, as Charles Krauth Fegley has noted, they powerfully evoke the Litany’s origins in “times, crowded as they were with droughts, famines, pestilences, invasions, and with confused and insecure political institutions, [which] tended to emphasize and multiply those necessities for these ‘fastings and prayers.’” In the face of such unpredictable and uncontrollable evil, we turn to God for protection and help that he alone can provide.
This is what those at General Seminary on 9/11 surely understood anew as they took up these prayers on that dark day. Our ingenuity, reasonableness, and pluck are not enough in the face of natural disaster, bloodshed, and the sudden approach of death. We face great threats from environmental catastrophe, a fraying social fabric, and international terrorism, and the grand promises of science and technology seem to be wearing thin. In the face of evil that baffles, frightens, and overwhelms us, we must beg for deliverance.
The obsecrations are another of the Litany’s unique features. Following the deprecations, they remember before God the various saving acts of Christ’s life (“By the mystery of thy Holy incarnation, by thy holy Nativity amd submission to the Law; by thy Baptism, Fasting and Temptation, Good Lord, deliver us.”). Especially appropriate in a devotion addressed to Christ, they presume that the mystical union of Christ’s divinity with his human life fills each of its successive stages with saving power. We bring each of these events to God, asking for their particular grace. As the great Book of Common Prayer commentator John Henry Blunt noted, “we plead them before him as mystically effective, as instinct with life-giving grace, as parts of a Mediatorial whole.”
In the words of Philip Pfatteicher, this concept of the “life-giving energies” of Christ’s life is at the root of all liturgical theology and helps to establish the spiritual significance of the Church’s calendar. Outside the Litany, it is rarely stated with such directness and dignity. The obsecrations invite us to ponder how Christ’s experiences may illuminate and strengthen us as we undergo the same trials.
Finally, the Litany is particularly helpful in its juxtaposition of prayer for spiritual growth among Christians with the physical needs of the world. Archbishop Mamertius’s original insight, especially sharpened by Cramner’s revisions, is that intercession must be mingled with penitence; we cannot pray rightly for others without recognizing our abject dependence upon God’s grace and need for continued conversion.
It is true that some collects and certain versions of the Great Thanksgiving include petitions for spiritual growth. But praying only for others in our specific times of intercession can suggest a kind of spiritual blindness. Can we pray that others be delivered from poverty without also asking God to “give us true repentance” for our complicity in their sufferings? Is it right to ask for a peaceful resolution to wars without also praying that God also deliver us from “envy, hatred, and malice; and from all want of charity”? It has not been unknown for the Prayers of the Church to be used as a platform for articulating partisan political views. Using the Litany more regularly might strike back a bit at the endemic semi-Pelagianism of our civil religion, both right and left.
A wise Episcopal priest once told me that, during his years of ministry in several different parishes, he had come to know the Litany best during a particularly contentious time in one of them. “We read it every Sunday,” he remembered, “until we could work together again.” It reminded that particular company of “miserable sinners” that they stood together under God’s judgment, sustained only by his grace. They could only begin to love each other and serve God together faithfully when their common life had been renewed by calling these particular truths to mind week by week.
It is indeed a collection of “scattered treasures,” this most solemn intercession of the Western church. It brings a word of consolation and hope on dark days. It points us anew to the saving mystery of our Lord’s life and death. And it grounds us in a common life of repentance, grace, and renewal.