The Great Litany is the oldest piece of liturgy in the English language; it was the first “worship service” that Cranmer assembled, a few years before the first Prayer Book was promulgated. It has been changed a little bit over the centuries, but on the whole is probably the “most original” piece of Reformation Anglican liturgy in our (or any) Prayer Book.
It’s also supposed to be very simple: start at the beginning and finish at the end, but in the 2019 Prayer Book (similar to what you see in the 1979 Book) it has three different endings! What gives? Welcome to Weird Rubric Wednesday.
The earliest rubrical ending is on page 96. When the Litany is sung or said immediately before the Eucharist, the Litany concludes here [between the Kyrie and the Lord’s Prayer] and the Eucharist begins with the Salutation and the Collect of the Day. This is a modern option inherited from the 1979 Prayer Book. The standard pattern set out in the English Prayer Books was that the Litany followed Morning Prayer, but the American Prayer Book tradition de-coupled the Litany from its usual standard times, and permitted it to be tacked on the end of both Morning and Evening Prayer and the beginning of the Communion service. What the 1979 and 2019 Prayer Books have done is simply chop off the end of the Litany and the beginning of the Communion service so they run into one another more smoothly and briefly.
The second natural place to stop is on page 97; this seems to be the default expected use of the Litany in the 2019 Book. One who is used to the 1662 Prayer Book Litany may be surprised here: why has the traditional ending been chopped off? This goes back at least to the 1928 Prayer Book (or maybe earlier; I haven’t checked), where a rubric on its 58th page notes that the majority of the last two pages of the Litany may be omitted. This last section has been given a section heading in modern prayer books: “The Supplication.”
The longest form of the Litany includes The Supplication, skipping the top half of page 97 and concluding on page 98.
That’s weird. How should I choose?
Well, it depends upon the situation. If you’re planning the Sunday morning worship service and you want to include the Great Litany, the easiest way to start your congregation out with it is to attach it to the service they’re most familiar with: so either as a special extended ending for Morning Prayer or a special prefix for the Communion service. The rubric on page 97 also states that the Supplication portion is especially appropriate in times of war, or of great anxiety, or of disaster. So, like, right now. We’re in the midst of a pandemic, race riots and protests are rocking the country, millions are unemployed or recovering from unemployment, and to top it all off it’s an election year. Pray the darn Supplication! We need it.
O Lord, arise and help us; And deliver us for your Name’s sake.