March 15, 2011
Most years it is our custom at All Saints’ to begin the First Sunday of Lent with The Great Litany chanted in procession. It is not my favorite liturgical moment of the year, but it is the only time that we pray the Litany as a rule. There have been, and will be, other times of course. I will never forget the power of that prayer in the days after 9/11 or the time we said it together in a special service of Prayer for Peace at the height of the second war in Iraq. Some of that flavor came through for me in our 8 a.m. service at which the prayer was said rather than sung and I thought about Japan, those whose lives were devastated by tsunami and fear of nuclear meltdown, the people in Libya being shot at by their own government, people in Bahrain being shot at by Saudi troops and on and on and on.
When I was first ordained it was still the practice in some parishes in which Morning Prayer was the principal Sunday service, to offer ‘The Great Litany and Sermon’ on the fifth Sunday of those months which had such. I confess that I don’t miss that practice.
Diarmaid MacCulloch in his magisterial biography of Thomas Cranmer (Yale, 1996) wrote about the Litany “The occasion may not strike modern worshippers as especially edifying: it was designed to encourage the people of England to maximize their effort of prayer for the threatening international situation, and by implication to enlist God’s aid for Henry’s massive summer relaunch of his war with France.” (p.328)
Approved for use in 1544, the Litany was a somewhat liberalizing and evangelical move away from triumphalist processional rites and a traditional association of such litanies with prayer for the saints. If sung, it was to be sung in plainsong and the 1549 Book of Common Prayer made abundantly clear that ‘Romish practices’ were off limits with such petitions as:
“From all sedicion and privye conspiracie, from the tyrannye of the bishop of Rome and all his detestable enormities, from al false doctrine and herisy, from hardnes of heart, and contempte of thy word and commaundemente:
Good lorde deliver us.”
This inflammatory petition was removed in the first Elizabethan Prayer Book of 1559, a gracious act of statesmanship on someone’s part.
The association of Litany with procession makes it more than a lengthy responsive prayer and turns it into something else. Any procession in worship can be the symbolic gathering of the people for Divine Service. It can also be a kind of enactment of pilgrimage, an icon of our procession through life, winding here and there, ever dependent on God for life. At its best, the prayer in this sung form becomes almost a mantra-like means to meditation for me almost irrespective of the words themselves. So I find the Litany to be most effective prayer in a threatening international situation when it is said, and most effective as a meditation on our dependence on divine grace throughout life when it is sung in procession.