The English Litany owes its content and its English prose to the mind and hand of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury.
March 21st is the anniversary of the martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was burned at the stake in Oxford on 1556.
This year of 2002 is the 450th anniversary of the publication of the second edition of "The Book of Common Prayer" (1552) edited by Cranmer.
In Oxford there will be a joint celebration of these two anniversaries on Thursday, 21st March. In the Chapel of Balliol College there will be a celebration of Holy Communion at 11.a.m. according to the 1552 BCP and then a wreath will be laid outside the College on the spot where Cranmer died, marked by an iron cross in the road.
In my parish, some 140 miles from Oxford, we shall use the English Litany on the Eve of the anniversary, Wednesday March 20th. The BCP of 1662 (as those of 1549 & 1552) requires that the Litany be prayed on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
The text of the Litany that is found in the BCP (1662) is virtually the same as that found in the BCP of 1549 and 1552. And it is only slightly different from the original translation and arrangement done by Cranmer in 1544.
In fact, the first vernacular service of worship to be authorized in England was the processional service of petition and intercession known as the LITANY and this is the first example we have of Cranmer's liturgical craftsmanship and English prose. It was published as a separate booklet on May 27, 1544.
In general, Cranmer followed the late medieval structure of the Latin Litany but of course changed its doctrine so that it was reformed Catholic rather than medieval Catholic. He had before him as he worked a variety of types of litanies including the latest Lutheran ones, but his eyes were primarily on the Latin litany familiar in English churches.
The Latin Litany very familiar in England was composed of these parts: 1. "Kyrie Eleison"; 2. Invocation of the Holy Trinity, with response "Miserere nobis"; 3. Invocation of Saints, with response, "Ora pro nobis"; 4. "Deprecations" for deliverance from evil; (5) "Obsecrations," entreaties by some aspect of Christ's life, each with response, "Libera nos Domine"; (6) Supplications with response "Te rogamus, audi nos"; (7) "Agnus Dei", "Kyrie" and Lord's Prayer, and (8) conclusion - suffrages, psalm and collects.
The chief changes introduced by Cranmer were the use of English, the addition of the petition for deliverance "from the Bishop of Rome and all his detestable enormities", the omission of the "Kyrie Eleison" at the beginning, the elimination of virtually all requests for the prayers of the saints, and longer composite petitions instead of many shorter ones.
Cranmer reduced the 62 invocations to saints and angels to three, which were addressed to: St Mary, Mother of God our Saviour; the Holy Angels, Archangels and all Holy Orders of Blessed Spirits; and the Holy Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, Confessors, Virgins and all the Blessed Company of heaven.
In 1549 "The Litany and Suffrages" as it was called was annexed to the new "Book of the Common Prayer" (1549). It had been slightly edited. To conform to growing Protestant convictions about life after death the requests for prayer of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Angels and Saints had been removed.
In 1552 it was placed in the revised edition of "The Book of Common Prayer" after Evening Prayer and the Athanasian Creed with these words: " Here followeth the LITANY to be used upon Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.."
In 1559 in the reign of Elizabeth I the petition referring to the Bishop of Rome was removed. And with very minor changes made in 1660-1662 the Litany became part of the BCP (1662).
Regrettably these days few churches and persons pray to God using it on Wednesdays, Fridays or Sundays! Some use it in Lent but not at other times.
It is especially good when used by Anglicans who have gone over to extempore prayer in either charismatic or traditional prayer meetings. If it is prayed first, before extempore prayer begins, it usually adds to the quality of the free prayer.
Take a look at the Litany and use it!
The Revd Dr Peter Toon March 19, 2002.