Inner Life

Praying the 1662 Litany a fitting response to COVID-19 crisis

COVID-19 has "shattered the illusion that we live in a world free of plagues" and placed us in a time of isolation and economic uncertainty, writes Melbourne curate the Revd Patrick Senn. He argues that for all Anglicans, a good response to the present crisis is to pray the 1662 Litany.

By Patrick Senn

April 7 2020COVID-19 has closed our churches, isolated us at home, and left the future of so many jobs uncertain. What should we do? How should Anglicans respond? Besides staying at home as much as possible and maintaining contact with others (especially the vulnerable) in the community, what can we do? Pick up your 1662 Book of Common Prayer and pray the Litany. After all, this is how Christians have responded to crisis for a very long time. 

By the end of the fourth century, it was customary for Christians, both in the Eastern and Western parts of the Roman Empire, to march in processions and pray a series of petitions to God – a litany. Litanies were developed specifically for times of tribulation; earthquakes, wars, plagues, heresy, and schism. This is why they are penitential in character.

In 1544, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer drew from the Litany of Gregory the Great as well as rites from Salisbury and York and translated into English the first of what we know today as “The Great Litany”. The Litany was the first step towards the Book of Common Prayer, and it was the first prayer in English to be used publicly. As such, the Litany ought to be familiar with Anglicans and regularly prayed.

However, from my anecdotal experience it no longer enjoys a privileged position in the life and practice of our Church. I can count on one hand the number of times I have prayed the Litany in a congregation in our diocese. It certainly is not prayed on “Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays” as the rubric in the 1662 BCP prescribes. It is an optional extra, rather than part of our staple diet in prayer and worship. In An Australian Prayer Book (1978), the Litany appears in the table of contents. However, in A Prayer Book for Australia (1995) it is omitted from the table of contents and it is left to the worshipper to find it on page 188 under “Prayers for Various Occasions”. This editorial decision communicates (whether intentional or not) that the Litany is unimportant, there for those who deliberately look for it but not commended for all Anglicans.

I suspect that this is because in the decades of liturgical renewal and Australian prayer book revision, the world of Cranmer and the 1662 Litany has been deemed irrelevant and outdated. The assumptions behind much of the late 20th century – and thus behind much liturgical renewal – presumed a stable liberal order with universal peace, a globalised world with no enemies or pandemics. This is evident in many parts of our recent prayer books, such as in the collects for Sunday but especially in the many changes to the Litany in both An Australian Prayer Book as well as A Prayer Book for Australia. I will mention three specific changes to the Litany, that reflect the assumptions of the late 20th century, that warrants us to return to the 1662. 

First, both in AAPB and APBA the opening suffrages of the Litany no longer recognises us as “miserable sinners”. Strong words, but “miserable” just means in need of mercy. During times of crisis and tribulation, what is more certain than that we are sinners in need of mercy? In many ways, the last few weeks have made this abundantly clear. We have seen people get into brawls over toilet paper and panic buy and hoard valuable resources. Fake news and scams have increased and made the situation much worse. What are we other than sinners in need of mercy?

Second, the APBA removes the first petition of the 1662; “Remember not Lord out offences, nor the offences of our forefathers; neither take thou vengeance of our sins…”. The environmental and ecological threats to us, so very tangible in the recent bushfires, are very much part of the sins of our forebears. The continued disadvantage and harm First Nations people suffer are the effects of our own church’s legacy in this land.[1] In many more ways, we are suffering from the sins of our ancestors. As the spread of corona virus across the globe shows, we are never sole individuals. Our actions affect others across borders, between cultures, from the past to the present and into the future. In times of crisis, we need prayers that emphasise our corporate responsibility, that “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom 3:10), so that we may corporately repent and make amendment.

Third, the fifth petition of the 1662 Litany requests for deliverance from such things as lightning and tempest, plague, pestilence, famine, battle, murder, and sudden death. But the APBA has polished this up merely to include famine, disaster, violence, murder “and dying unprepared”. COVID-19 has shattered the illusion that we live in a world free of plagues. While Australia so often has been isolated from the ills that has befallen other countries, this time we are not exempt. No longer are plagues a distant historical curiosity of Medieval Europe, nor a sad but far removed reality for poor communities in the Majority World. No, plagues and pestilence are a threat that have brought global cities to a halt. “Good Lord, deliver us.”

We should pray the Litany, and especially the 1662, because it is no stranger to the times we currently are enduring. As one Anglican cleric put it: A serious time requires a serious.[2] We have become so accustomed to a permanent liberal order, that free movement, a stable economy, a globalist world, overseas travel, and most of all, the football will always be there. The Litany teaches us that the things we take for granted are not in fact permanent. Instead, it declares that there are only two permanents of life: That we are sinners in need of mercy, and that the God the Father is approachable through his Son by the Spirit. It shapes and forms us with a posture toward the world that does not presume an unshakeable liberal order, but that it is our Maker who gives and preserves “to our use the kindly fruits of the earth, so that in due time we may enjoy them”. Many have said we are in unprecedented times. But the Litany assures us that our standing before God is still as it always has been; we are sinners, God is merciful, we approach him by grace.

In a recent Ad Clerum, our Archbishop Philip wrote “This is a time when we can ponder deeply the Lord’s mercy and providence”. I commend to all Anglicans that regularly praying the 1662 Litany is a most profitable way of doing so.


[1] The APBA does include a new petition for ‘the ancient peoples of this land’, and this is a welcome development.

[2] ‘A Serious Liturgy for a Serious Time’, Laudable Practice, 9 March 2020

The Revd Patrick Senn is a curate at the Anglican Parish of Banyule (Heidelberg, Rosanna, Watsonia).