On the First Sunday of Lent we will be using a new element in our liturgy – The Great Litany. So, I thought it might be helpful to share some information about this ancient practice.
The following definition of the Great Litany comes from Don S. Armentrout’s An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church: A User-Friendly Reference for Episcopalians Church Publishing Inc., 2000.
An intercessory prayer including various petitions that are said or sung by the leader, with fixed responses by the congregation. It was used as early as the fifth century in Rome. It was led by a deacon, with the collects led by a bishop or priest. The Litany was the first English language rite prepared by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. It was first published in 1544. Cranmer modified an earlier litany form by consolidating certain groups of petitions into single prayers with response. The Litany’s use in church processions was ordered by Henry VIII when England was at war with Scotland and France. It was printed as an appendix to the eucharist in the 1549 BCP. The Litany was used in each of the three ordination rites of the 1550 ordinal, with a special petition and concluding collect. The 1552 BCP called for use of the Litany after the fixed collects of Morning Prayer on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The 1928 BCP allowed the Litany to be used after the fixed collects of Morning or Evening Prayer, or before the Eucharist, or separately. The 1928 BCP included a short Litany for Ordinations as an alternative to the Litany. The 1979 BCP titled the Litany “The Great Litany” (p. 148), distinguishing it from other litanies in the Prayer Book.
The Great Litany may be said or sung. The officiant and people may kneel or stand, or it may be done in procession. The Great Litany may be done before the Eucharist, or after the collects of Morning or Evening Prayer, or separately. Because of its penitential tone, it is especially appropriate during Lent. The Great Litany includes an invocation of the Trinity; a series of deprecations which seek deliverance from evil, spiritual harm, and natural calamities; a series of obsecrations which plead the power of Christ’s Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection for deliverance; prayers of general intercession; the Agnus Dei; the Kyrie; the Lord’s Prayer; a versicle and response based on Ps 33: 22; a concluding collect; and the grace (BCP, pp. 148– 154). The Supplication (BCP, p. 154) may be used at the conclusion of the Great Litany, taking the place of all that follows the Lord’s Prayer.
When the Great Litany precedes the eucharist, the Litany concludes with the Kyrie and the eucharist begins with the salutation and the collect of the day (BCP, p. 153). The Great Litany should not be preceded by a hymn, psalm, or anthem when it is used as an entrance rite at the eucharist. The Great Litany takes the place of the prayers of the people at the eucharist. The confession may also be omitted.
The Great Litany is also especially appropriate on Rogation Days. The Book of Occasional Services (BOS) order for a Rogation Procession calls for the Great Litany to begin as the procession enters the church. It adds petitions for favorable weather, productive lands and waters, and God’s favor for all who care for the earth, the water, and the air. The Great Litany may also conclude the BOS Service for New Year’s Eve.