Several years ago I wrote an article about the Great Litany, but I didn’t mention the Supplication that concludes the Litany when it does not precede the celebration of the Eucharist, and which can also be said ‘at the end of Morning or Evening Prayer; or as a separate devotion; especially in times of war, or of national anxiety, or of disaster.’ I did mention the Supplication in an article on a particular use of the Great Litany – for Rogation Days – and the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, coming at a time of ongoing and heightened tensions between, and even within, at least certain parts of (Middle) East and West – to say nothing of unfolding ecological collapse – has put me in mind of it again.
The Litany as a whole has part of its origins in times of anxiety, though the form also came to be used on great pontifical occasions such as dedications of churches and consecrations of bishops.* The special set of Suffrages in the present form of Supplication were to be added to the end of the Litany in time of war in the Sarum Processional (though they can be traced to a Litany for the Dedication of a Church in the eighth-
The concluding Collect was adapted from the last Collect appointed at the end of the last of the Rogation Processions (i.e., on Ascension Eve); bcp1979 has removed the Versicle and Response that preceded it, as well as the Prayer of St Chrysostom, which is used at the end of the opening litany of the eponymous Byzantine liturgy, and whose original Anglican home was here at the end of the Great Litany, where, when preceding the Eucharist, it would have had something of an analogous function.
In that earlier article on the Litany I wrote that the chant for the Great Litany in the Hymnal is almost exactly that published in 1544 (which is true) and that it is taken ‘almost directly from the Sarum chant’ (which is less exactly true). The Litany petitions are close, the litany reponses not so close, to the Sarum tones. And neither Hymnal setting of the Supplication – one to the Roman Simple Versicle Tone, and one with the antiphon set to a Mode IV melody with the Suffrages set to the Roman Solemn Versicle Tone – is like that in the Sarum Processional. A setting of the bcp1979 Litany to the Sarum tones can be found on the Resources page of this site.
In a season of vitriolic rhetoric concerning national and religious identities, it perhaps bears pointing out that the ‘we’ of the Supplication must not be understood to mean only ‘Christians’, still less only ‘Americans’: rather, as is clear in the concluding Collect, it comprehends all those of good will who clearly see both their suffering and perpetration of evil and their need for reconciliation both divine and human. Let us pray – and the Litany and Supplications are good forms in which to do so – that this ‘we’ may quickly grow to comprise the whole human family, united in charity, peace, and concord.
* bcp1979 and bos provide specialized litanies for these and related occasions such as the Founding of a Church, the Anniversary of the Dedication of a Church, the Celebration of a New Ministry, and the Ember Days.
† This antiphon is also sung before the Candlemas Procession in the Roman Use; it is found thus in the Ordines in the ninth-
century MS of St Amand, where that Procession includes the Litany, the whole affair connected to a solemn reception of the bishop.