LItany signifies an humble, an earnest Supplication. These Forms of prayers call'd Litanies, (wherein the people are more exercised than in any other part of the Service, by continual joyning in every passage of it,) are thought by some to have been brought into the Church about four hundred years after Christ, in times of great calamity, for the appeasing of Gods wrath. True it is, that they are very seasonable prayers in such times, and therefore were by Gregory and others used in their Processions, for the averting of Gods wrath in publick calamities, but it is as true, that they were long before that time, even in the first Services that we find in the Church, used at the Communion-Service, and other Offices, as Ordination of Priests, and the like: witness Clem. Const. l. 8. c. 5, 6, 10. where we find the Deacon ministring to the people, and directing them from point to point what to pray for, as it is in our Litany, and the people are appointed to answer to every Petition, Domine miserere, Lord have mercy. And in all Liturgies extant, (as Mr. Thorndyke hath well observed in his Book of Religious Assemblies,) the same Allocutions or prosfwnhseiV, which are indeed Litanies, may be seen. And S. Aug. Ep. 119. c.18: tells us of the Common-prayers, which were indited or denounced by the voice of the Deacon. All which make it probable, that the practice of Litanies is derived from the Apostles, and the custom of their time. And S. Chrys. in Rom. c. 8. seems to assert the same: For upon that verse, We know not what we should pray for as ne ought, but the Spirit helps our infirmities, he saies thus; In those daies amongst other miraculous gifts of the Spirit, this was one, Donum precum, the gift of making prayers for the Church, to help the ignorance of the people that knew not what to pray for as they ought; he that had this gift, stood up, and prayed for the whole Congregation, and taught them what to pray for: whose Office now the Deacon performs: viz. by directing them from point to point, what to pray for. To every of which Petitions, sayes Clem. above cited, the people were to answer, Domine Miserere. This continual joyning of the people in every passage of it, tends much both to the improving and evidencing that fervour and intention, which is most necessary in prayers. Hence was it that these Forms of prayers, (where the peoples devotion is so often excited, quickned, and exercised by continual Suffrages, such as Good Lord deliver us, We beseech thee to hear us good Lord,) were called ekteneiV dehseiV, earnest or intense Petitions. In which, if they were relished aright, the earnest and vehement devotion of Primitive times, still breaths; and in these prayers, if ever we pray with the Spirit.
Concerning the Litany of our Church, we may boldly say, and easily maintain it, that there is not extant any where; 1. A more particular excellent enumeration of all the Christians either private or common wants; Nor 2. A more innocent, blameless form, against which there lies no just exception; Nor 3. A more Artificial Composure for the raising of our devotion, and keeping it up throughout, than this part of our Liturgy.
In the beginning it directs our prayers to the right object, the Glorious TRINITY. For necessary it is, that we should know whom we worship. Then it proceeds to Deprecations, or prayers against evil; lastly, to Petitions for good. In the Deprecations, as right method requires, we first pray against sin, then against punishment; because sin is the greatest evil. From all which we pray to be delivered by the holy actions and passions of CHRIST, the only merits of all our good. The like good order is observed in our Petitions for good. First, we pray for the Church Catholick, the common mother of all Christians; then for our own Church, to which, next the Church Catholick, we owe the greatest observance and duty. And therein, in the first place for the principal members of it, in whose welfare the Churches peace chiefly consists. After this we pray particularly for those sorts of men that most especially need our prayers, such amongst others, as those whom the Law calls miserable Persons.
The Litany is not one long continued prayer, but broken into many short and pithy Ejaculations: that the intention and devotion which is most necessary in prayer, may not be dull'd and vanish, as in a long prayer it is apt to do; but be quickned and intended, by so many new and quick petitions; and the nearer to the end, the shorter and livelier it is, strengthening our devotions by raising in us an apprehension of our misery and distress, ready, as it were to sink and perish; and therefore crying out as the Disciples did, Master, save us, we perish: O Lamb of God hear us, O Christ hear us, Lord have mercy upon us. Such as these are the active, lively spirited prayers, energoumenai, which S. James mentions and tells us, avail much. S. Iames 5. 16.
The Doxology, or Glory be to the Father, &c. is much used in our Service, after Confession, after Athanasius's Creed, and especially after each Psalm and Canticle, as a most thankful adoration of the holy Trinity, upon reflection on the matter going before, And therefore is very fitly divided betwixt the Priest and people in saying it, according as the matter going before was; and it is in those places said standing, as the most proper posture for thanksgiving or Adoration. Here in the Litany, it is said in a way somewhat different; for after that the Priest and people have in the supplications afore going besought God that He would arise, help and deliver them, as he did their fore-fathers of old for his Names sake and Honour, the Priest does Collect wise sum up This; praying, that by such deliverances, all glory may redound to God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, &c. the people answering only, Amen, as it were after a Collect, and continuing kneeling; because both this, as it is here used, and other parts of the Litany before and after, are matters of humble supplication, and so most fit to be tendred to God in that posture.
In the former part of the Litany, the Priest hath not a part so proper but that it may be said by a Deacon, or other, and it useth to be sung by such in Cathedral and Collegiate Churches and Chappels, and both it and all other our alternate Supplications, which are as it were the Lesser Litanies, do much resemble the ancient Prayers indicted by the Deacons, as we have said; but in the latter part of the Litany, from the Lords prayer, to the end, the Priest hath a part more peculiar, by reason of the eminency of that prayer, and other Collects follow, wherein the Priest doth recommend again the petitions of the people to God (as in that prayer, We humbly beseech thee O Lord mercifully to look upon our infirmities, &c.) and Solemnly offers them up to God in the behalf of the people, to which the people answer, Amen: and therefore these Collects after the Litany, though the matter of them hath been prayed for before particularly in the Supplications foregoing, may be said, without the charge of needless tautology, for here the Priest does by vertue of his sacred Office, solemnly offer up and present to God these petitions of the people, as it was usually done in ancient Liturgies; Praying God to accept the peoples Prayers as he doth more than once in S. Chrys. Liturgy, particularly in that Prayer which we have out of it in our Litany. For when the Deacon hath (as we have observed) ministred to the People several Petitions, to which they answer, Lord have mercy, Litany-wise, then the Priest Collect-wise makes a Prayer to God to accept the peoples petitions, the Deacon in the mean time proceeding to dictate to the people more Supplications, which the Priest in another Collect offers up to God Solemnly, but secretly, so that though in some of those Collects the Priest at the Latter end, spake out so that the people might hear and answer, Amen, or Glory be to the Father, or the like, (which they might well do, for though the Prayer were said by the Priest secretly, yet it was prescribed, and such as the people knew before hand) yet some of them were said throughout secretly by the Priest, to which the people were not required to make any Answer;
The reason of these Secreta, secret prayers said by the Priest, may be partly for variety to refresh the people, but chiefly, as I conceive, that by this course the people might be taught to understand and reverence the office of the Priest, which is to make an atonement for the people, and to present their prayers to God, by that very offering of them up, making them more acceptable to God. All which depends not upon the peoples consent or confirmation of his office, but upon Gods alone appointment and institution; who hath set him apart to these offices of offering gifts and Sacrifices for the people, Heb. 5. 1. And therefore as it was appointed by God, that when Aaron by his Priestly office was to offer for the people and make an atonement for them, none of the people were to be present, Lev. 16. 17. So the Church ordered that at some times, when the Priest was making an atonement for the people, and offering up for them and the acceptation of their prayers, the Merits and Passion of Christ, none should seem actually to assist, but the Priest should say it mustikwV, secretly and mystically. Yet lest the people should be unsatisfied, and suspicious that the Priest had neglected this his office, which they could not be assured that he had performed, because it was done secretly; therefore the Church appointed that the Priest should at the end of the Service come down from the Altar, and standing behind the Pulpit in the midst of the people say a loud prayer, (call'd euch opisqambwnoV Goar. p. 154.) which was a sum or Compendium of all that the people had before petition'd for, which he then solemnly offered up to God.
The Church of England is generally in her Common Prayers, as for an humble, so for an audible voice, especially in the Lords Prayer appointing it to be said, in the Rubrick before it, with a loud, that is, an audible voice, not secretly; and this, for the more earnest repetition of so divine words, and to make them more familiar to the people. But though this Church does not order the Priest to say these Prayers secretly, yet she retains the same order of offering up by the Priest in Collects following the peoples foregoing supplications.
The Litany is appointed in the Rubricks to be read Wednesdays and Fridays, the dayes kept in the Greek Church for more solemn Fasts, because the Bridegroom was then taken from us, being sold by Iudas on Wednesday, and murdered on Friday, Epiphan. adv. Aerium. And though our Church in imitation of the Western hath chang'd the Wednesday-Fast to Saturday, yet in memory of the Eastern custom, she still appoints the Litany to be used upon Wednesday.
Friday was both in Greek Church and Latin a Litany or Humiliation-day, and so is kept in ours. And whosoever loves to feast on that day rather than another, in that holds not communion with the ancient Catholick Church, but with the Turks, who in contumely of Christ crucified, Feast that day. Chemnit, in 3. praec.