Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Litany: an introduction

On the first day of Advent, our Parish said The Litany from the Book of Common Prayer. It was read in a very solemn procession of crucifer (cross-bearer), lucifers (light-bearers), Lay Reader, Deacon and Priest. This was about as large a procession as our tiny, suburban parish could muster, but it was an impressive experience for our congregation, none-the-less!

What is a litany?

In simple terms, a litany is a ‘prayer’ or a ‘supplication’. The word itself comes from a Greek word (litaneia), that since ancient times has denoted a form of public, corporate supplication.

Over the centuries of the history of the Church, ‘litany’ has come to have a more specific meaning as a responsorial prayer in which the leader initiates a short suffrage that is then followed by a response from the congregation. Often it is said in procession, either on occasions of great solemnity or in a time of great need.

In the Anglican Book of Common Prayer it is very common to find the suffrage/response model for public prayers, for example, the suffrages after the creed in Daily Morning & Evening Prayer. However, in the American Prayer Book (1928) there are only three major responsorial prayer-forms which are actually entitled “Litany”.

We have a “Litany for the Dying” to be offered by the bedside of a person soon to depart this life. There is a “Litany for Ordinations” that may be said on behalf of a man about to be ordained to the sacred ministry. And then there is “The Litany”, the progenitor and precursor to the other forms, and the subject of our present discussion.

[NOTE: In the 1979 prayer book of The Episcopal Church, loosely related to The Book of Common Prayer, The Litany is termed “The Great Litany”. This is perhaps to distinguish it from the various forms of the “Prayers of the People”, which are the new litanic forms for the Eucharist.]

According to long-standing practice in Anglican Churches, The Litany is to be said regularly, each Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. This is actually mandated in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, but in the American Church its implementation was not made very clear, and thus The Litany is more often read at the discretion of the parish priest.

In practice, this has meant that The Litany is said only on select occasions, or as a processional. In my own parish, I presently offer it regularly on Wednesdays and Fridays (frequently on Sundays), and also in solemn procession on select days.

This is intended as the first in a Brief Blog Series on The Litany.