28 March 2014

Praying the Litany in the ‘Book of
Common Prayer’ on Fridays in Lent

The 1549 ‘Book of Common Prayer’ ... Bishop Alan Wilson says ‘The Book of Common Prayer’ is rooted in the Litany (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In the Church of Ireland, a rubric in the 2004 Book of Common Prayer recommends using the Litany Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, particularly in the seasons of Advent and Lent and on Rogation Days (see The Book of Common Prayer (2004), p. 175).

There are two versions of the Litany in The Book of Common Prayer, one in traditional language (pp 170-174), with no rubrics or recommendations for its use, but ending with the Lord’s Prayer, the so-called Prayer of Saint Chrysostom and the Grace, and a second form in contemporary which, when used as a separate service, may be preceded by a psalm, canticle or hymn, and one of the readings of the day, and conclude with the Lord’s Prayer.

In addition, there are other litanies, such as those as the ordination of a bishop (see pp 542-545, 557, 585-590) and the ordination of priests and deacons (see pp 520-522, 528-530, 557, 568, 579, 585).

The term “the Lesser Litany” is sometimes used to refer to the versicles and responses, with the Lord’s Prayer, that follow the Apostles’ Creed at Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.

The Great Litany, which we are praying this morning in the second, contemporary form, is used at different times and seasons, but is probably most frequently experienced during the season of Lent because of its distinctly penitential nature. In the Church of Ireland, The Book of Common Prayer recommends its use in Lent, and on Wednesdays and Fridays.

The Great Litany is a reminder to pray for God’s intervention and involvement in all areas of life. It is said to be the first prayer composed in the English language for use in public worship and that is not an English translation from another language. Bishop Alan Wilson wrote in the Guardian some years ago (4 October 2010) that The Book of Common Prayer is rooted in the Litany.

The Litany is a responsorial form of supplication and is the most comprehensive of all the prayers in The Book of Common Prayer, embracing all sorts and conditions of people. In the Litany, nearly every general area of prayer is addressed, including prayer for different aspects of the Church, the world, the government, and the poor.

These petitions are prefaced by a series of requests asking God to deliver us from all manner of afflictions, including: evil, sin, heresy, schism, natural disasters, political disasters, violence, death, and so on. It also includes an intercessory prayer including various petitions that are said or sung by the leader, with fixed responses by the congregation.

We find a Litany being used in Rome as early as the fifth century, when it was led by a deacon, with the collects led by a bishop or priest. But the Litany as we know it today was the first English language rite prepared by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.

In 1544, as King Henry VIII was at war with both France and Scotland, he ordered processions throughout England. At the time, it was the practice for litanies to be offered in public processions in the streets. Henry VIII was disappointed that people were not responding and joining in the prayers, but keenly perceived that this was because the people “understode no parte of suche prayers or suffrages as were used to be songe and sayde.”

When Henry VIII commissioned Cranmer to write the Litany, Cranmer took the opportunity to translate the traditional litany, prefacing it with an exhortation, and consolidating certain groups of petitions into single prayers with response. He trimmed the earlier text and, echoing the traditional response people knew, miserere nobis, and the commendation for the sick, called on God to “have mercy upon us miserable sinners.”

Cranmer drew on a variety of sources, chiefly two medieval litanies from the Sarum rite, but also the German Litany of Martin Luther. Cranmer also made a notable change in the style of the service by expanding and grouping together those said by the priest and providing just a single response to the whole group.

Cranmer originally retained the invocations of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the angels and the saints in very shortened forms, referring to the “Holy Virgin Mary, Mother of God our Saviour Jesu Christ ... All holy Angels and Archangels and all holy orders of blessed spirits” and “All holy Patriarchs, and Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, Confessors, & Virgins, and all the blessed company of heaven.” But these were omitted when the Litany was printed as an appendix to the Eucharist in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer.

In 1552, the Litany was moved to a position in The Book of Common Prayer between the daily offices and the Holy Communion. An anti-papal clause in the 1544 version, praying for deliverance “from the tyranny of the bishop of Rome and all his detestable enormities,” was omitted in 1559, the processional aspect was soon eliminated and the service was no longer used in processions but said or sung kneeling in the church.

The Litany in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is substantially the same as that written by Cranmer in 1544.

In 1926, the rubric in the Church of Ireland Book of Common Prayer said the litany was to be “sung or said upon Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and on such other days as shall be commanded by the Ordinary.”

In the US, The 1928 Book of Common Prayer allowed the Litany to be used after the fixed collects of Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer, or before the Eucharist, or separately. It also included a short Litany for Ordinations as an alternative to the Litany. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer in TEC named the Litany “The Great Litany” to distinguishing it from other litanies in the Book of Common Prayer.

The second, contemporary form of the Litany in the 2004 Book of Common Prayer which we are using this morning is derived from the version that first appeared the Alternative Prayer Book in 1984.


Psalms 26, 32; Genesis 47: 1-31; I Corinthians 9: 16-27.

Collect of the Day (Lent 3):

Merciful Lord, Grant your people grace to withstand the temptations
of the world, the flesh and the devil
and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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