Episco-Fact #83
March 1, 2018

"The Great Litany" was mentioned in the service on Sunday, what is "The Great Litany," what is its history, and when is it used?

The Great Litany comes from a long tradition in the Church and was the first rite published in English (remember, the liturgy was still in Latin at this time) in 1544 when Henry VIII was at war with Scotland and France. In that version, it was to be used in procession in Lent, especially on the special days of devotion, Wednesdays and Fridays, and on Rogation Days (traditionally, the three days before Ascension Day, when processions were held to bless the fields and crops associated with rural life and good harvests).

Structurally, the form of litany comes from the Psalms, especially Psalm 136. It is prayer or more specifically, supplications, in which the people make short fixed responses to biddings or petitions. In the Church the biddings and supplications are offered by a lay person, deacon, or priest. These processional forms came into common usage in the fourth century with competing theological positions being represent by competing processions, such as during the Arian controversy, which led to the convening of the Council of Nicaea in 325. One of the earliest known uses of The Litany for purposes of petitioning God for help occurred in Vienne (France) when the Bishop Memertus instituted it when the area was terrorized by earthquakes.

The principal sources to Archbishop Cranmer for the composition of the original litany were: the Sarum (Salisbury Cathedral) litanies for rogations, processions, and the hour of death; Luther's litany, and the litany from the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (Bishop of Constantinople, 397-407 AD).

In the BCP revision of 1979, we are directed to use "The Great Litany" as follows: "To be said or sung, kneeling or standing, or in procession; before the Eucharist or after the Collects of Morning or Evening Prayer; or separately; especially in Lent and on Rogation days. When used in the Eucharistic Liturgy, the litany effectively replaces the Song of Praise, the Trisagion, or the Kyrie.

The power of the litany comes from its public and corporate nature. The community as a whole is calling upon God for protection, deliverance, or blessing, and it does so as it remembers the ways in which the community as a whole, and the individuals separately, might have sinned, misused God's gifts, or otherwise fallen short of God's ways. At the same time, God is called upon to guide, protect, and provide.

In times of great communal stress, the Litany provides a ritualized means of gathering and rehearsing the ways we have failed God, and the ways we are to show we are God's people.