Project Canterbury

The People's Book of Worship
A Study of the Book of Common Prayer

By John Wallace Suter and Charles Morris Addison

New York: Macmillan, 1919.

Chapter VI. The Litany

THE Litany is in a peculiar and impressive sense the people's service. In this fact rests its claim upon the constant affection of Christian congregations. It is through the full recognition of this quality in it that we are to understand its preeminent place among those great offices of devotion which are the recognized instruments of the people's worship.

That it belongs in a special sense to the people is made very clear by a consideration of its historic uses. It is the service which leaves the remoter sanctuary, and the place of the high altar, and comes down to linger in procession in the midst of the kneeling congregation. More than that, it goes out through the Church's open door, and walks the familiar streets of traffic. It passes close to the doors of the homes, and the humblest of them, where the people dwell, and winds its way among the fields where they toil, mingling itself with all the intimacies of their daily experience.

It is said that the Litany form had its origin in the time which followed upon the break-up of the Roman Empire, and that it was the invention of Bishop Mamertus, whose soul was burdened by the needs and distresses of his day, when moral degradations and excesses were emphasized by the occurrence of earthquakes, pestilences and droughts. There must be a new form, he felt, for "drawing down the mercy of God." It was a similar need, in the exigencies of the Reformation and the convulsions of that age, which urged the setting forth of our English Litany. There were many varying forms of Litany, which sprang up in different times and places, but the general manner and outline are the same, and our Litany retains a place of preeminence, just because it has grown into its present outline through accretions and additions which have sprung spontaneously out of recurring experiences of human needs. It is the people's, because it goes out among them and their deepest needs, and because through it the people reach out of themselves to lay hold upon God's mercy and deliverance.

Furthermore, it is close to the heart of the people, because after its opening invocations to the Triune God, it is consistently, from beginning to end, from the appeals to "the precious blood" of the first suffrage, through the appeal to his promise to be present with the "two or three," even to the end of the world, of St. Chrysostom's prayer, a prayer to Christ. It keeps close to the heart of the Elder Brother. It gives every one, the un-worthiest and the most hesitant, a chance to be included, because of the assurance that he who was tempted like as we are understands. It lays fast hold of the Humanity of God.

Finally, in its form and method, it expects and requires the constant participation of the people themselves. It is not done for them, as if a sacrifice by a priest. It is not prayed for them, by a minister however truly their leader, or by one who represents, however welcome, or trusted, or sympathetic his representation. It is prayed by themselves. As an actual fact, throughout the service, the prayer utterance is in the mouths of the people. The minister recites the needs, but it is the people who pray the prayer. The people's voices are forever the dominant and all-embracing note.


But there is something still deeper, which forms the basis of the service's power and appeal. We ought to expect that a form of service which has so long endured in the affection of the people, and which has provided them with so potent a vehicle for worship, would possess in the very genius of the service itself an explanation of its power. It challenges us to find an answer to the question as to what is the "worshipful content" which explains its greatness. "This is a great service," say the people. "We love it." What is it that makes it great? Let us try to answer that question, that understanding, we may love it the more, and use it the better.

The answer is that it unites in a wonderful way the two primal instincts of prayer. These are what we may call "the right of petition," and "the rest in God." If prayer be prayer, then may we bring to God all our needs, as children ask their father for what they want, without stinting and without hesitation. We do not know if we shall get that for which we ask, or if it is best that we should have it. We know that we may ask, and that it is good for us, and for God (may we not say?) that there should be this asking. Therefore we bring all our fears in the face of Nature's terrors, or of man's cruelties; and all our wishes for the welfare of those dear to us, in their sicknesses and sorrows, their misfortunes and lonelinesses, their great experience in child-bearing, and in conflict, and in dangerous adventure. It is this primal instinct in prayer which is met by the piled up petitions of the suffrages, with their insistence of need and their haunting rhythm.

And the other instinct is supplied by the constant refrain of the "Good Lord," singing its way through the whole, as it weaves itself in and out in the progress of the prayer, and reassures the heart in its confidence in God. The instinct of "rest in God" has not need for many words. Sometimes it requires only silence, and rest in the thought of him, and openness of soul. If there be a word, as in this people's service, for the assurance of heart to heart, it is only the one word that is required, said over and over again to the soul's refreshing, of "the goodness of the Lord."

Sometimes, it is to be feared, the gist of the matter is obscured or forgotten, when the mind or voice stresses the other part of the response, the "deliver us," or the "we beseech thee to hear us," which is not to be stressed at all, but is only the formal prayer-expression. It is this false emphasis, which leads some at times to imagine that the Litany is a process of wresting from an unwilling God the blessings which in reality he waits to give.

Even if it be historically true that the thought of inventing a method of wresting mercy from God lay at the heart of the Litany's origin, we must not forget that the inventors builded better than they knew. Nor must we forget that succeeding ages of Litany users have by their interpretation filled the great prayer with its deeper and truer meaning. Indeed, in the very prayer forms themselves we have a right to find and feel a meaning more original than their origin. The word "deliver us" means "set us free," and in it our hearts speak, not a last resort in our despair to God's possible mercy, but a laying hold on that liberty which is the heritage of the sons of God. In like manner the prayer utterance of the people, "we beseech thee to hear us," is not a hesitating approach to our Lord's possibly unwilling attention, but our glad and confident claim upon him whose concern for our needs we know beforehand, upon One who heareth prayer, and to whom all flesh shall come.

The purpose here is merely to indicate and make clear this underlying idea of the whole service. It is this combination of the two primal instincts of prayer which constitutes its genius, and which explains the fact of its being so great an instrument of worship.


With this principle in mind, one may approach each part of the service with new appreciation, and especially find new beauties in its changing phases, which save it from undue monotony, and furnish it with fresh and inspiring surprises, or terms of thought. The remembrance of its inherent principle and source of power will illuminate its opening section of seven "deprecations" or prayers for "deliverance from," with its two "obsecrations," or recollections of the meaning of Christ's whole life for us, and will fill with understanding and satisfaction the section which follows of seven plus ten "intercessions," with the closing "lesser litany," and culminating Lord's Prayer, of the Litany's main division. And it will give added value to the second section, sometimes called the "war section," with its versicles and responses, its antiphon, and its prayers.

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