I posted on the Great Litany last year and wondered whether there was anything interesting and new to say about it. Whether it’s new or interesting, I don’t know, but I have been reflecting throughout the day on my experience of it. Part of it is doing liturgy in a new and very different context. Madison’s Capitol Square is a radically different place than Piney Mountain Road in Greenville, SC. I was very conscious as we were chanting it today how a newcomer or visitor might have reacted. It’s not user-friendly, it’s very much niche marketing (I suppose there are those to whom the traditional language, piety, and chanting might appeal, but that can’t be a large demographic).
In the nearly 20 years I’ve been attending Episcopal churches, I can’t recall a single one where the first Sunday of Lent didn’t include the Great Litany and I was preparing for the service today, I didn’t give its inclusion in both services a second thought. Still, I wonder about its utility and meaning in the twenty-first century.
At the same time, I’m quite aware that our worship is counter-cultural on almost every level and in a way it is appealing for that very reason. We don’t construct our worship to get an audience; we worship the way we do because it is a bond with Christians throughout history. The sursum corda, “Lift up your hearts,” goes back to the very earliest extant Christian worship. In the same way, the Great Litany is part of the unique Anglican tradition of liturgy, with its origins in Thomas Cranmer’s work in the 1540s. For that reason alone, it may be worth dusting off every year.
Moreover, it may be that the catalogue of petitions is appropriate from time to time. We seem to pray for everything and everyone, and that in itself is a reminder of our place in God’s universe, and our dependence on God. The repetition of the petitions and the congregation’s response, “Good Lord, deliver us” and “We beseech thee to hear us Oh, Lord” help us to understand our relationship to God more profoundly than many other liturgical actions.