The Great Litany was the first liturgy put out by the Church of England, before the Prayer Book as a whole was compiled.  It has undergone little edits since then in just about every edition of the prayer book, yet is arguably the least-changed piece of the prayer book to this day.  I suspect this is due, in part, to the fact that it has been slowly declining in prominence.  The fewer people pray it, the fewer changes people bother to make to it.

You can even trace this decline in prominence from book to book.  In 1662 the Litany was appointed to be read after the three collects in Morning Prayer every Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday.  By the American prayer book of 1928, it was broadened to be after the three collects in either Morning or Evening Prayer, with no directions of how often it was to be used.  The 1979 prayer book broadened the options further by allowing it to be used immediately before the Eucharist (which is probably how it’s best-known in American parishes right now – as a solemn procession maybe once a year if at all).  But in that book, it’s physically located in a very cluttered part of the volume between the Daily Office and the Communion services, physically isolating it, sending the tacit message that it’s just window-dressing and there for the sake of tradition.  They didn’t even bother updating its language to match “Rite II.”

The 2019 Prayer Book, now, keeps the broad options open but provides a little more direction and accessibility.  The Litany begins on page 91, between the Office and Communion liturgies which is not quite so cluttered compared to the 1979 book.  There is also this suggestion on page 99:

It is particularly appropriate to use the Great Litany on the First Sunday of Advent and the First Sunday in Lent.  It is also appropriate for Rogation days, other days of fasting or thanksgiving, and occasions of solemn and comprehensive entreaty.

In one sense this is a “toothless” rubric.  It’s not rule, not even an authorization, but merely a suggestion.  The phrase “it is appropriate” appears in a few such rubrics, and is so gentle that it almost doesn’t count as a real rubric (or rule).  But as a suggestion, it does help point us in the direction of how we might implement the Litany in parish life in accord with some semblance of tradition.  Originally the Litany was supposed to be a thrice-weekly affair at the end of Morning Prayer, so having two Sundays and a short list of other occasions when the Litany is “appropriate” is extremely gentle indeed.  But, as things stand in the American church, once a year is about as often as the Litany is used, if at all, so by making these suggestions explicit in the book, and by making the Litany a bit easier to find (and connect to the primary liturgies) there is a definite intention here to restore this excellent service of prayer.

In your own devotions, I heartily encourage you to pray this Litany often.  Every Sunday, between Morning Prayer and Holy Communion, is a good place to start; or perhaps every Friday as a sort-of-penitential discipline.  It is longer than modern worshipers tend to be used to, so it can be an overwhelming experience for some.

But if you can bring it into your church, definitely start with the rubric’s suggestion: the beginning of Lent and Advent.  From there you can also add it to Epiphany II (when the festive part of the Christimas-Epiphany cycle has ended), Lent V (Passion Sunday, signalling the approach of Holy Week), the Sunday after the Ascension (following the apostolic spirit of prayer between the Ascension and Pentecost), and periodic Sundays after Trinity such as Propers 10 and 20 (even spaced out between Ascension and Advent).  The more, the better, in my opinion, but it’s usually easier to introduce new & different things to people when there’s an easy liturgical explanation.

Anyway, today’s a Wednesday, so how about you give it a go in your own prayers after Morning Prayer?

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