The First Sunday in Lent is coming up and if your congregation uses the Great Litany at all, this may well be the one time every year it gets dusted off. This seems like an opportune time, then, to offer a very brief historical sketch of this liturgy to better appreciate the oldest liturgy retained in the Episcopal Church’s current Book of Common Prayer (1979).

First, that claim: this is the oldest English liturgy in our current book. It is clear that by the late 1530s, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was already at work drafting revisions for the Daily Office using a variety of sources. But these were drafts and certainly not formally published liturgies. Likewise there was a rambling corpus of English prayers for private lay devotion during the Mass.[1] But, if we are to determine the first official vernacular liturgy for the Church of England, that honor goes to the Litany. And it was, as we will see, an unusual choice for Archbishop Cranmer.

Second, what raw materials did Cranmer have at hand? What were the shared perceptions of and expectations for litanies? To answer that question we need to define the technical word “litany.” The worship of the late medieval church drew from a variety of liturgical books one of which was the processionale. The forms of prayer outlined in this book were normally festive, celebratory, and even triumphant. They were predominantly sung rites, offered while walking, and they happened on saints’ days and Sundays, usually linking different stations (altars, shrines, even separate churches).

To be very clear, however, the litany was distinct from general or festive processions. The litany was a specifically penitential processional rite used in times of trouble (e.g. drought, plague, famine, war) or at set times like Rogation Days to invoke God’s protection and lament sins. It may be helpful to consider the particulars of the litany according to the Sarum use (the most common use of the Roman rite in England). Sung in plainsong, the litany began with the antiphon Exsurge Domine (“Rise up, O Lord”), a psalm verse, the doxology, and then the antiphon once more. At that point walking joined singing: 7 invocations to the Godhead, 69 invocations of saints (some named, some generic), 44 supplications for deliverance from evil, 4 invocations of Jesus as Lamb of God followed by the Kyrie to close. To this was added a series of suffrages: the Lord’s Prayer, 11 versicles and responses, and 7 prayers from the officiant alone. Again, the general purpose of the litany was penitence.[2]


Third, what was the context of the appearance of the English Litany in May 1544? In the first instance, Henry VIII was resuming war with France and wanted his people to pray for the occasion. Cranmer, already drafting other liturgies, seized the opportunity. This was a curious first outing for Cranmer the evangelical reformer. Processions of all sorts were bound up with the stations they connected, often altars and shrines, the very elements of the old religion for which Cranmer clearly had a deep antipathy. One needs only to skim his homily “On Good Works annexed unto Faith” in the first Book of Homilies (1547) to find the reformer lambasting a long list of traditional devotions, not simply shrines but also palms on Palm Sunday, candles at Candlemas, and the fire on Holy Saturday. Likewise, regarding the musical notation, Cranmer felt anything other than the most simple plainsong obscured the words for prayer (the 16th century reformations were logocentric if anything!). In fact, the exhortation attached to Cranmer’s litany has the officiant declare that “God doth not regard the sweet sound of our voice.” This must have galled singers ready to set out! And the whole act of walking seemed unnecessary to Cranmer’s practical sensibilities. As we will see, by 1552, the English Litany became an experience not for the feet, but for the knees.

Nevertheless, Henry wanted a litany, and this was Cranmer’s first bite at the liturgical apple! What he produced was, to borrow from Diarmaid MacCulloch, an ingenious effort of scissors and paste using a variety of sources, including Luther and John Chrysostom. However, the bones for the new litany were already in place in one of the many primers (personal books of prayers) printed in the 1530s. Cranmer adopted the basic pattern found in William Marshall’s Goodly Primer of 1535. And when compared with the previous Latin patterns, it is radically pared down. The only saint mentioned by name is Mary “Mother of God, our savior Jesus Christ.” This is a far cry from what had been known and prayed previously.[3]

After Henry’s death, one of the earliest liturgical changes in Edward’s reign was the injunction that the Litany should be sung not in procession but kneeling. So strange was this sight that one conservative London chronicler declared that a procession was held kneeling. When the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer appeared in 1549, the Litany lost its invocation of saints, angels, and the Blessed Virgin, and it was appended to Holy Communion. In the second edition of the prayer book in 1552, the Litany was moved closer to the Daily Office. Cranmer expected it to be part of the weekly worship of English Christians on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The two most notable changes (before our own Litany appeared in 1979) were arguably the removal of the petition against the “tyranny” and “detestable enormities” of the bishop of Rome in 1559 and the shift in 1662 from “bishops, pastors, and ministers” to “bishops, priests, and deacons.” Likewise the Elizabethan Injunctions relaxed the requirement that it be done kneeling and allowed for processions, though these were surely not the norm.[4]

Much can be said about the substantial alterations in the 1979 Litany. Much like the eucharistic prayers of the current American prayer book, the language expands Cranmer’s focus on the Cross to rightly include Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension as critical parts of the work of Christ for our sake. Rather than reflect on this, I want to conclude by pointing out that Thomas Cranmer never got around to reforming the processional itself, with its happier festive forms of prayer that celebrate rather than mourn. Instead, the litany we have is at its core penitential. It is a rite that laments our sins, invites honesty about our needs in rather specific language, and calls upon the mercy of God to spare us.

Walking prayers do not necessarily have to be penitential. I’m reminded of the practice of taking a walk during Easter week hoping to meet the risen Jesus just as the disciples did on the road to Emmaus (a practice called Emmausing). That is surely a joyful walk! But it is interesting that in the historic corpus of Anglican liturgies we only have this one form of walking prayer and indeed it is penitential. And it’s also worth knowing that the precious blood of Jesus covers all the very real sins we lament. Too bad that Cranmer never got on to the processional – but, like he reminds us in his “comfortable words,” Christ came to save sinners like you and me.

Other posts by Calvin Lane may be found here. Photo of pre-1662 BCP via Paul Hodges


[1] H. Boone Porter, “Hispanic Influences on Worship in the English Tongue,” in J. Neil Alexander (ed.), Time and Community (1990), pp. 171-185; E. C. Ratcliffe, “The Liturgical Work of Archbishop Cranmer,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 7 (1956), pp. 189-203.

[2] Roger Bowers, “The Vernacular Litany of 1544 during the Reign of Henry VIII,” in G.W. Bernard and S.J. Gunn (eds)., Authority and Consent in Tudor England (2002), pp. 151-178.

[3] Bowers; Ratcliffe; Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (1996), pp. 328-332; C. C. Butterworth, The English Primers (1953), pp. 269-272. For an older but still relevant study, see F.E. Brightman, “Litany under Henry VIII” English Historical Review 24 (1909), pp. 101-104.

[4] Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book (New York: Seabury, 1980), pp. 154-162.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Calvin Lane has served in various ministry settings and is currently associate rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Dayton, Ohio.

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