The Great Litany 

Episcopalians love processions. The priests, deacons, acolytes and choir members don robes and march up the aisle at the beginning of a service while the congregation sings a processional hymn. Then at the end, the same crew marches back down the aisle while the congregation sings a recessional hymn. On special occasions, notably when bishops are present, the participants don finery that would do credit to a Mummers parade.

On the first Sunday in Lent, robed participants in the Episcopal church I attend will chant an extended litany while marching in procession around the church. The Great Litany, as it is called, is the oldest English-language prayer in the Church of England, the mother church of Episcopalians in the U.S. Its author was Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 16th century, who based it on a Latin-rite litany and other sources. Cranmer later wrote the Book of Common Prayer, versions of which are still in use today throughout the worldwide Anglican communion. The Great Litany was Cranmer’s response to Henry VIII’s complaint that people weren’t participating in the Latin version because they didn’t understand the words.

The Great Litany is a penitential rite, which explains why it is most often brought out during Lent, a liturgical season of repentance, charity and self denial just before Easter. This dirge-like chant consists of a series of petitions delivered by a worship leader and punctuated by fixed responses from the congregation. Many of the responses are repeated numerous times, producing an almost hypnotic effect:

Have mercy upon us
Spare us, good Lord
Good Lord, deliver us
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

The Litany begins with a series of salutations and responses addressed to each of the three persons of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), as well as to the mystery of the Trinity itself, one God in three. There follows a series of petitions for which deliverance is sought: from all evil and wickedness; from all assaults of the devil and eternal damnation; from all manner of sin; from false doctrine, heresy and schism; from natural disasters, pestilence and famine. And so on — and on and on. To be fair, there are hopeful affirmations as well, although the tone is mournful throughout. One might well imagine participants wearing sackcloth rather than ecclesiastical robes.

I am struck by what the responses from the congregation reveal about their understanding of the God to whom the petitions are addressed. “Have mercy,” “spare us,” “deliver us,” “we beseech thee to hear us” — these are expressions of abject servility. As the 19th-century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach pointed out, we tend to project human attributes onto the cosmos and call it God. Not surprisingly, the ancient Hebrews conceived of God as a blood-thirsty tyrant of a type that was all too familiar among Near Eastern potentates at that time. Monarchs in Tudor England would not have been all that different when Cranmer crafted the Great Litany. As Archbishop of Canterbury, he would have witnessed Henry VIII’s ruthless exercise of power, including the beheading of two wives who failed to produce a male heir.

Cranmer’s magnum opus, the Book of Common Prayer, unquestionably remains a work of the highest literary value. Yet it is shot through with the same sort of groveling sensibility as in the Great Litany. This, for example, from the General Confession, with is said just before Holy Communion: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.” And this from the Prayer of Humble Access, which is recited at the breaking of the bread during Communion: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.”

Modern versions of the Book of Common Prayer have toned down these passages, and it’s not hard to see why. They are prime examples of so-called “worm” theology, which emphasizes the holiness of his Divine Majesty (God) and the lowliness of those loathsome creatures who are made in his image. “Worm,” as theological term, is derived from a line in a hymn by the 18th-century Congregational minster Isaac Watts that goes like this:

Alas! and did my Saviour bleed,
And did my Sovereign die?
Would he devote that sacred Head
For such a worm as I?

This view of God and of humankind is suspect on two counts: first, in picturing God as something akin to the Great and Terrible Oz telling Dorthy and her friends that he has every intention of granting their requests; and second, in portraying human beings as wholly unworthy of God’s consideration. If we come into his presence each week bewailing our manifold sins and wickedness, and then return a day or a week later with more sins and wickedness to bewail, what does that say about the one in whose image we are made? At the very least, you’ve got to wonder why he even bothers.


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