A brief history of the Great Letany

The Great Letany is 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),(and what we are using today), distinguishing it from other litanies in the Prayer Book.

AS THESE prayers and suffrages folowing, as set furth of most godly zeale for edifying and stirringe of devotion of all true faithfull christen hartes: so is it thoughte convenient in this commune prayer of procession to have it set furth and used in the vulgar tungue: and it shall be every christen mans parte reverently to use the same, to the honour and glory of almyghty god, and the profitte of their owne soules. And such amonge the people as have bokes, and can reade, may reade them quietly and softly to them selfe, and suche as can not reade, let them quietly and attentifely give audience in time of the said praiers, havyng their myndes erect to almighty god, and devoutly praying in theyr hartes, the same petitions whiche do entre in at their eares, so that with one sounde of the hart and one accorde, God may be glorified in his churche.
¶ And it is to be remembered, that that whiche is printed in blacke letters, is to be sayde or songe of the priest with an audible voyce, that is to saye, so loude and so playnely, that it maye well be understande of the hearers: And that which is in the redde, is to be aunswered of the quiere [choir] soberly and devoutly.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated,
New York, NY, (All Rights reserved) from
An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,”
Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors

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