On 27th May 1544 the first service in the English language to be officially authorized in England was published. This was a service of intercessions to be used in procession, at a time when there was a threatening international situation. A few weeks later the litany was set to music, a simple plainsong, by Thomas Bethelet.
The service became known simply as The Litany, and with only minor alterations it has survived in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England.
The Litany was the work of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. As he did in many of his works, with great ingenuity, Cranmer constructed a splendid ‘scissors and past job.’ He used texts from a wide variety of sources for the Litany. The Prayer of St John Chrysostom makes its first appearance there, Cranmer drawing from a Greek source for that. Much of the litany drew from older English rites and the opening prayers drew on the ancient Sarum (Salisbury) usage.
These opening prayers (illustrated here) are in fact prayers to the saints. Cranmer pruned down the large list from the Sarum rite and leaves us with only a few, and in fact Mary is the only saint mentioned by name.
Interestingly Cranmer refers to Mary as Mother of God, Our Saviour Jesus Christ. This direct naming and invoking Jesus Christ as God though very common in Orthodox Christianity is less common in Western Christianity.
In the First Book of Common Prayer (1549) the biddings at the beginning of the Litany were removed. However the Intercession in the Mass in the 1549 book includes praise for Mary ‘And here we do give unto thee high praise and hearty thanks for the wonderful grace and virtue declared in all they saints from the beginning of the world: And chiefly in the glorious and most blessed Virgin Mary, mother of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord and God…
These were stormy days of reformation, as steps were tentatively being made to produce a liturgy for the people in their own language the prayers of Mary were sought, in a way which was not to be followed for many centuries. The direct calling on the prayers of Mary, or proclaiming publicly her honour in the official liturgy, soon fell out of use in Anglican churches. Nevertheless their presence in the origins of Anglican worship was to be an encouragement in later generations.
During May, on our church blog, we are posting a variety of blog posts about Mary in the Anglican tradition. We will look at different interpretations of Mary in word and image, as found in the Anglican church. Appropriately we begin with The Litany. A print version of these and other articles is being prepared and will be for sale at our special evening ‘Mary in the Anglican Tradition’ on Sunday June 16th at 5pm at St Chrysostom’s.