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Living and Loving the Litany - BCP 1662 (Part One)

Living and Loving the Litany - BCP 1662 (Part One)

By Roger Salter
February 22, 2016


The oldest portion of the Cranmerian liturgy is now probably the least used by lovers of the Book of Common Prayer, especially in congregational terms. However the Litany is a choice component of our great Reformer's liturgical legacy. It deserves restoration to its former prominence in the lives of Anglican believers and eager introduction to those beyond our Communion. Its construction and content ought to commend it to all Christians, for its collection of succinct petitions are largely addressed to the Lord Jesus himself in a manner that is direct, reverent, and confident. The Litany salutes his supremacy, acknowledges his authority, and appeals to his effective action over the broad span of all human experience and need. It is a comprehensive calling upon the sovereignty and saviourhood of the glorious Son of God. It sufficiently summarizes both the beauty and battle of the life of faith in all its aspects, submitting each one to the all-controlling care of God.

Leaning into the Litany with one's full weight, linking one's self to its aliveness, affords the supplicant a continuous lesson in the nature of prayer, - its derivation from a right understanding of God whose description and credentials are thoroughly Scriptural, - an accurate reading of one's self as a dependant and sinner before God, - an awareness of the range of matters that are subject to the divine scrutiny, - and our cognizance of the constant necessity of divine support and help in our fragile and unpredictable existence. The Litany is virtually exhaustive in the scope of its supplication.

The language of the Litany is arresting - pungent, vivid, vigorous, forceful, candid. The Litany is an encounter with realism at every level of human concern (sacred and secular if such a distinction is necessary for the believer). The Litany embraces every element of life involving self and society. It is a bracing encounter with the vital issues of time and eternity, life and death. It addresses internal conditions and external circumstances, spotlighting all the sources of genuine human happiness and the potential hazards we may have to face at any time. The Litany exhorts a posture of preparedness under the continually operative providence of God that might send us profit or pain, heaven's smiles or heaven's trials. The Litany is an extensive aide-memoire as to all the facets of prayer that we cannot possibly retain in our minds each time we engage in our habitual approaches to God. It disciplines and organizes our thoughts before God reminding us of the intercessor's responsibilities to pay heed to the vast needs far beyond the small circle of our interests and connections. We cry out to God in the keen awareness of human vulnerability and mortality that takes its terrible toll in this gravely disordered world. The Litany is the brief of the spiritual soldier, his campaign compendium (prayer warrior has become a cliche). Between the set petitions of the Litany we are able to insert our own spontaneous requests and responses in line with the themes suggested. The Litany effectively prompts and evokes the sighs and summoning's of the heart - all the subjects we would lay before God.

Someone has said that "our Litany is based on the Roman model with Protestant modifications". The origin of litany-like forms of Christian prayer has been traced to Antioch in mid-4th century Syria. The Latin Church adopted the method, composers of liturgy adapted it throughout the centuries, and Martin Luther crafted a Litany (1529) for the German Reformation. Luther's influence upon Archbishop Cranmer assisted in producing the first English Litany in 1544. Its benefits within the life of the church are obvious but the power of the Litany came to prominence in the early stages of the 18th century Welsh Awakening under the ministry of the man known as "the Welsh Whitefield" - Daniel Rowland. Edward Morgan recounts an extraordinary incident: While he was engaged one Sunday morning in reading the church service, his mind was more than usually occupied with the prayers. An overwhelming force came upon his soul as he was praying in those most melting and evangelical words, - "By thine agony and bloody sweat, by thy cross and passion, by thy precious death and burial, by thy glorious resurrection and ascension, and by the coming of the Holy Ghost." This passage is more emphatic in the Welsh language, by reason of an adjective going before the word "agony", signifying "extreme". The words, if translated would run thus, - "by thy extreme agony". As he uttered these words, a sudden amazing power seized his whole frame; and no sooner did it seize on him, than it ran instantly, like an electrifying shock, through all the people in the church, so that many of them fell down on the ground they had been standing on in a large mass together, there being no pews in the church (Daniel Rowland and the Great Evangelical Awakening in Wales, Eifion Evans, Banner of Truth, 1985).

The Litany is a divinely wielded vehicle for the revivifying of the people of God in various ways - a providentially provided means of grace.

The Content of the Litany

The opening invocation of the Litany has the salutary merit of accurately identifying the One on whom we call - the Triune God. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not simply the fundamental statement concerning the nature and life of the Godhead it is the wellspring of the believer's confidence, comfort, and devotion. This "three way" insight into the eternal reality of the divine Being opens up for us a rich companionship and fascination with God in a glorious plurality of relationships. What infinite joy there is in knowing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in their unity of essence and purpose and their diversity of roles in regard to creation and redemption. The Lord's majesty and methodology in his operations are multiple. Each glorious Person displays the perfection of the Deity and the infinite splendors that could only be displayed by the celestial Team we salute with the acknowledgement, "Holy, Holy, Holy!" Hail Father Almighty! Hail to the adorable Son! Hail to our ever-present Pentecostal Power, Companion, and Enabler (Augustine could not think of a single-word definition of the Holy Spirit other than "Gift". He is the personification of the infinite range of divine generosity from life itself to Love unlimited).

God in three Persons is our all-sufficient Savior and the One who hears the three most important words we shall ever utter, Lord, have mercy:
O God the Father of heaven: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.
O God the Son, Redeemer of the world: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.
O God the Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father and the Son, have mercy upon us
miserable sinners.
O, holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, three Persons and one God: have mercy upon us
miserable sinners.

We approach God as he is and not as we imagine him (idolatry). We also approach God as we are and not as we fancy ourselves through conceit and self-deceit (we are to be humble penitents).

We are sinners - wretched, condemned and helpless. Miserable in our nature and enduring many miseries in our dire and doomed existence. As our Article (IX) tells us, "We are very far gone from original righteousness" and for the sake of our eternal welfare it is imperative that we become reattached to our Maker and Judge. But the inclination and strength are not in us even to the slightest degree. Article X conveys the truth of our condition: "The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith and calling upon God".

Morally we are encaged within the irresistible, all- surrounding, force of evil; in bondage to our sinful proclivities, and rendering unvarying service to Satan (slaves, John 8:34). Toward God we are rebels, toward holiness hostile, toward returning to him and desirous of retrieval we are adamantly averse. Our offenses and offensiveness have to be removed. Human attractiveness and our attraction to God have to be restored. The possibility of remedying the situation lies wholly outside and beyond ourselves and there is absolutely no hope barring an undeserved intervention of God himself.

Man himself could not wish for rescue action from the Lord, although he craves deliverance from the just consequences of his wrongdoings and the amelioration of his afflictions, but without obligation God wills to undertake and perform such an assignment. The overtures of the gospel first enunciated in Eden, the site of our tragic revolt, encourage the plea, "Spare us, good Lord".

At this point the Litany angles our prayers toward the Lord Jesus Christ who in agreement with the Father assents to visit our earth and redeem our race. Made anxious by the awakening and illuminating influences of the Holy Spirit the alarmed sinner calls upon God:

Remember not, Lord, our offences, nor the offences of our forefathers; neither take thou vengeance of our sins: spare us, good Lord, spare thy people, whom thou hast redeemed with thy most precious blood, and be not angry with us forever.

Congregational response: Spare us, good Lord.

Made eager by the merciful disposition of the Lord the people of God then summon the
goodness of God to save them from their fallen plight, protect them from its evils and temptations, and guard them from lapses into disobedience and danger:

From all evil and mischief; from sin, from the crafts and assaults of the devil; from thy wrath, and from everlasting damnation,
Response: Good Lord, deliver us. (repeated after each petition).

From all blindness of heart; from pride, vain-glory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness, R
From fornication, and all other deadly sin; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil, R
From lightning and tempest; from plague, pestilence, and famine; from battle and murder, and from sudden death, R
From all sedition, privy conspiracy, and rebellion; from false doctrine, heresy, and schism; from hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word and Commandment, R

Extremely poignant petitions now follow. From his advent to his ascension the Wisdom of old (Proverbs 8) who became the most precise and perfect carpenter ever on earth, designed and crafted our perfect salvation to furnish us with eternal life. His knowledge and obedience as the suffering Servant achieved our happy deliverance. "By his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities"(Isaiah 53:11b).

By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity and Circumcision; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation, R
By thine Agony and bloody Sweat; by thy Cross and Passion, by thy precious Death and Burial; by thy glorious Resurrection and Ascension; and by the coming of the Holy Spirit, R
In all time of our tribulation; in all time of our wealth; in the hour of death, and in the day of judgement,

Good Lord, deliver us.

Christ's work of salvation is not confined singly to the sufferings of Calvary but wrought comprehensively from his birth at Bethlehem to his enthronement in heaven, and it continues in his High Priestly capacity as our Intercessor and Advocate. He never tires to tend to us. The key points in his ministry are marked by capital letters so that we might be persuaded to ponder each facet of his representation of us and substitutionary role on our behalf, active and passive in all that he did and endured.

Living the Litany only heightens our affection and gratitude for the Savior. It is an enthralling exercise.

To be continued...

The Rev. Roger Salter is an ordained Church of England minister where he had parishes in the dioceses of Bristol and Portsmouth before coming to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as Rector of St. Matthew's Anglican Church.

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