Processions, litanies, entrances, and their music

Processions ancient and medieval

Ancient accounts of the Church are awash with descriptions of processions through the streets of great urban centers and into the countryside. Some of these processions were agonistic or triumphal, proclaiming the power of the Church in the face of either heterodox groups or pagan peoples: processions against the Arians, for example, or those made by Roman Christians in England or Greeks in Slavic lands. Some were penitential or supplicatory, made in times of emergent need such as war, disease, famine, or other natural disaster, or more regularly at planting or harvest-time: thus the Litania maior (Major Rogation) of 25 April and Litaniae minores (Rogation Days) before Ascension Day. Some were matters of pilgrimage, moving from one place of prayer to another: the reënactment of the Via Dolorosa at Jerusalem, for example, or the ‘stational Masses’ celebrated at particular shrine churches or oratories in and around Rome.

The sacramental rites themselves were often full of movement as well: in the Mass, the Entrance, Gospel, Offertory, and Communion involved processions; Baptism, Marriage, and Burial also had processional or stational features, with different actions taking place at the home, the lych-gate, the church porch or door, the baptistery, the body of the church, quire, or altar, the graveside.

Over time, the processions of the Mass shrank, as what had developed as pontifical liturgies in large urban churches were adapted to humbler circumstances and as the faithful were excluded from the actions of offering and receiving. Similarly, some of the processions that were originally held out of doors and which went from one place to another were curtailed. The Candlemas Procession, for example, lost its Litany and was confined to the church. What had been a procession to the church before the Mass on stational occasions became a procession inside or around the church, but this took on a life of its own, and in the influential and well-documented Sarum Use, such processions – beginning and ending in the quire and making a circuit of the church, inside or out depending upon the occasion – were held before every Sunday and festal High Mass.

Processions, litanies, and other processional music

A procession can rarely be called such without including singing of some sort. But what is traditionally, and appropriately, sung at processions? To answer this we must first consider the confusion of terms surrounding them, to wit, the mixing of the word ‘procession’ with the terms ‘litany’ (Greek litaneía) and ‘rogation’ (Latin rogatio), both meaning ‘solemn entreaty’. Thus we find in the high Middle Ages

1 ‘processions’ that are, or use, ‘litanies’ (responsorial prayer);

2 ‘processions’ that use other, also usually flexible and usually responsorial,
forms of chant: psalms with refrains, hymns with refrains, and responsories, all of which might be expanded or contracted, via variable numbers of verses not necessarily dependent upon a logical development of ideas, according to the duration of the action (freestanding antiphons and rhythmi, prosae, or sequences also form part of this repertory, some flexibility provided by using or leaving various items); and

3 ‘litanies’ that are not used in procession at all: at ordinations, for example, or
simply as solemn acts of intercession or penitence, e.g. in Lent, when in the Sarum Use a litany was said prostrate, without note, after Terce (thus we read of ‘a procession upon their knees’, which does not refer to an act like the Good Friday ‘creeping to the Cross’, but rather a stationary kneeling litany).*

Processions and litanies in the reformed Church of England

All of this informed the development of the English-language Litany and the Anglican use and understanding of processions.

The English Reformers seem at first to have imagined simply a remodeling of the litanic and processional repertory of the Church. After the lackluster performance of the faithful in a 1543 round of ‘general rogations and processions to be made’ by royal injunction, in 1544 the ‘Letanie with suffrages to be said or songe in the tyme of the said processyons’ was issued in English for the better understanding and participation of the people. A letter from Cranmer to Henry later that year (the one often cited as setting forth a paradigm for reformed, vernacular chant) referred to the Archbishop’s continuing effort to translate ‘certain processions to be used upon festival days’. In August 1545 the English Litany was appointed to be used in procession on Wednesdays and Fridays, replacing the Latin Litany of the Sarum Use (Wednesday and Friday being the old station-days of fasting and Mass before daily Mass became common). Two years later, Edward’s Injunctions prescribed the Litany to be sung, kneeling in the midst of the quire, before High Mass, and for the time being, no other processions or litanies to be used in the church or churchyard.

Even in the first Book of Common Prayer (1549), though the Litany was still appointed to be said or sung Wednesdays and Fridays (and Sundays? according to the foregoing Injunction to which the rubric referred) before Mass,† it seems the completion of the reform of the Processional was still contemplated: witness the ‘certayne note’ regarding the replacement of the Litany on five principal feasts:

Also upon Christmas day, Ester day, the Ascension daye, whit-Soonday, and the feaste of the Trinitie, may bee used anye parte of holye scripture hereafter to be certaynly limited and appoynted, in the stede of the Letany.

But this never seems to have materialized. In Prayer Books from 1552 until the Interregnum the Litany was appointed to be used before the Communion on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (it also always formed part of the Ordinal), and the only procession used was the Rogation procession, which continued (or was reinstated) in Elizabethan times.

In bcp1662 the rubric concerning the use of the Litany was changed so that it was to follow Morning Prayer rather than precede the Eucharist (a rubric carried over into American Prayer Books, and effectually, whether intentionally or not, a return to the association of the Litany with Terce) – which made no difference until the later nineteenth century when Morning Prayer came not infrequently to be sung after Mass and further legislation in the Church of England allowed the Litany’s use in the afternoon or evening (this too was followed in the American bcp1928, which allowed the Litany after Morning or Evening Prayer, or before the Holy Communion).

Meanwhile, the nineteenth-century catholic revival in the Anglican Churches saw the reintroduction of the para-liturgical Procession before Mass: the English Hymnal, for example, contained a separate section of processional hymns both ancient and modern, some of which hewed to the refrain-and-verses form traditional for this genre, and which were also provided with traditional versicles and station collects for use in such a procession.‡

Litanies in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer

And so we come to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. This book contains a number of litany forms for use on a variety of occasions. The (Great) Litany may be used ‘kneeling, standing, or in procession’ before the Eucharist, after Morning or Evening Prayer, or separately, ‘especially in Lent and on Rogation Days’. When used before the Eucharist its Kyries are dovetailed with those of the Mass, so that the Supplication of the Litany is not said, nor the Introit, Acclamation, or Gloria of the Mass; the Prayers of the People of the Mass may also be omitted.

As mentioned earlier, the Litany has historically been used at ordinations, a use which continued in the Prayer Book tradition. bcp1928 provided a different, shorter Litany for Ordinations, and bcp1979 similarly has a Litany for Ordinations separate from the Great Litany, in this case similar to Form V of the Prayers of the People at the Eucharist; this or another approved litany is also used at the Celebration of a New Ministry and its episcopal equivalents, and it may also be used as the Prayers of the People at Ember Day Masses and Offices, and on other occasions.

The Litany was also historically used at the Dedication of a Church. While a litany is not part of the rite for the dedication of a new place of worship in bcp1979, that book provides a short Litany of Thanksgiving for a Church to be used at the consecration of a church long in use, and on the feast of the Anniversary of the Dedication. The bos provides a more substantial Litany for the Church – closer in style and content to the Great Litany – for use at the Founding of a Church.

A number of other litany forms – Evening Suffrages B; Forms I and IV of the Prayers of the People; the Baptismal prayers; and Litanies of Penitence (Ash Wednesday), of Thanksgiving (Thanksgiving Day), at the Time of Death (also useable at Burial Rite II), at Burial (Rite II), and for Sound Government – are also found in the Prayer Book, and the Book of Occasional Services adds still more: a litany for Catechumens and a Litany of Healing.

One historic use of the Litany has not been restored in bcp1979: at the Blessing of the Font / Easter Vigil. Anciently, the litany surrounding the Blessing of the baptismal water (and the Baptism itself) probably had not only an intercessory but a practical purpose: to pray for the candidates, but also to cover the preparations, procession to and from the font, and, in case of a baptistery apart from the church, perhaps the baptism itself. In the bcp1979 Vigil, by contrast, nothing at all intervenes between the reception of the neophytes (or, if the baptism be administered during the Mass, between the last Lesson Collect or Homily of the Vigil) and the Opening Acclamation of the Mass: a transition today often made all the more abrupt by the sudden and glaring illumination by artificial light of a thitherto candlelit church. It is to be hoped that a future Prayer Book revision will address this oversight; a litany and/or processional sprinkling of the people would be most appropriate at this moment.

Processions in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer

The old stational or progressive characters of the baptismal and marriage services have been eroded over time in the Prayer Book tradition: the portion of the marriage service said at the church door in the middle ages was moved into the ‘body of the church’ in 1549, and the movement into the quire or to the altar with processional psalmody (and the prayers following), which still remains in bcp1662, was lost, at least officially, in the American Prayer Book tradition (I suspect in part because colonial Anglo-American churches did not usually have quires – though today in more traditionally built churches the movement often happens, without the psalmody). Similarly, the vestiges of the ‘making of a catechumen’ which still occurred at the church door in bcp1549 were folded into the baptismal service at the font in 1552, and in bcp1979 the baptismal service, like Marriage and Burial, has been conformed to the Mass – though a procession to and from the font, with suggested psalmody, is still contemplated when necessary. The various services of the bos Catechumenate are not physically staged to match the catechumens’ progress through the rites, most of which simply take place ‘at the front of the church’.

The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage does, however, particularly mention the entrance and exit of the wedding party (not of the ministers). The Burial of the Dead, the Veneration of the Cross (Good Friday), the Founding of a Church, the Dedication and Consecration of a Church, the Restoring of Things Profaned, and to some extent the Investiture of a Diocesan and Seating of a Bishop also call for a particular sort of entrance or movement (and some of them a particular form of exit), though some of these forms are somewhat less specific or are optional. In a few of these cases particular texts – the Burial Anthems, the Good Friday Anthems, particular Psalms (with Antiphons) – are specified to be sung.

The Mass retains or has restored its usual processions, whether in rubric or in practice: the Gospel is often processed into the midst of the nave (a questionable, if symbolic, practice, suggested by rubric); offerings and oblations are often processed to the altar (again, implied though not required by the rubric); the people more or less obviously move to the altar or to stations to receive the Sacrament. In each of these cases ‘a hymn, psalm, or anthem may be sung’.

The entrance (and exit) of the ministers at Mass, however, is not at all specified. The later medieval distinction between the ‘procession’ before Mass and the ‘entrance of the ministers’ (during which the Introit was sung) has been blurred in recent years, when it has become customary in very many places to begin every major celebration of the Eucharist with a processional entrance of the ministers of the altar and the choir, with a processional cross, not in a circuitous route beginning from the chancel, but in a linear fashion from the main entrance to the space. This is perhaps something of a return to more ancient custom, and a not unwelcome one, but it has not generally been accompanied by a shift in musical genre: thus the hymn allowed in bcp1928 before (and after) any service has now in effect become the music for a procession, often outlasting the action of the entrance by a good bit and musically overshadowing (or at least competing with) the sometimes perfunctory Gloria in excelsis that often follows almost immediately. (When the entrance is accomplished in this way, it is almost universally mirrored by a similar exit, though never preceded by either the dismissal ‘let us go forth in peace...’ that traditionally begins a procession nor even by the dismissal of the Mass itself, and always accompanied by another hymn that has no rubrical support.)

A few Holy Day Masses, however – the Easter Vigil, Palm Sunday, and Candlemas – begin with particular forms of procession properly so called, which begin outside the chancel, or even apart from the church. (Significantly, each of these is, or was, accompanied by a solemn anaphoral blessing – of the Paschal Candle, the palms, and the candles – though the latter, still found in the Sarum Missal, was lost from Roman use and does not appear in bos.) The procession at the Vigil is the simplest, consisting simply of three pauses (with kneeling in the Roman rite) for the singing of the simple acclamation ‘Lumen Christi’, a mirror of the threefold ‘Ecce lignum crucis’ at the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday.

The Palm Sunday and Candlemas Processions give us a better idea of the medieval pre-Mass procession, with
· the deacon’s traditional dismissal ‘Let us go forth in peace’
· hymns, psalms, and anthems en route
· a station with Collect
and in the case of Candlemas
· the Introit of the Mass for use as the ministers approach the altar

bcp1979 and bos do not seem to imagine a procession that begins as well as ends in the chancel, with the possible exception of a procession for the Midnight Mass of Christmas that is immediately preceded by a Vigil (if indeed the ministers of the Mass have been present in the quire for the vigil).

What is happening in a procession?

Some liturgists would have it that processions are purely practical, or that the only processions worth making are practical ones, i.e. to get to a particular place that is functionally suited for a particular action. Though in religious ceremonial it is usually best not to lose entirely an understanding of the practical underpinnings of a particular act, nevertheless the practical is likely to be symbolic: in the case of processions, for example, one goes to a particular place to peform an act because that place has some significance for the act. This is most obviously true when going some distance to a shrine or station church or other site of pilgrimage, but traditionally the location and architectural surroundings, shape and decoration, of furnishings and parts of churches also carry important symbolism: the font at the entrance to a church, the altar in the east under a canopy, and so forth. Indeed, a procession that is, or is considered to be, purely practical probably ought not to be dignified by the term ‘procession’.

If we cannot distinguish absolutely between practical and symbolic intent in processions, we can usefully distinguish to some degree between the shapes or routes that processions take. The linear procession – one going from point A to point B – can be both practical and symbolic: it can accomplish the more or less necessary task of moving from one place to another, while symbolizing or representing some greater journey, or one far removed in time and place, or even a figurative journey from one state to another. The circuitous procession – beginning from and returning to point A – has a different function, however, one which too may on some occasions be practical but is more often symbolic, or even sacramental: marking out and setting aside a sacred precinct and, by extension or in addition, a sacred people (the linear and circuitous may be combined; the pre-Mass procession round the church ends with a linear movement to the altar, while an essentially linear entrance, or a linear pilgrimage such as the Way of the Cross, may for mostly practical purposes be wrapped round a church).

The procession at the Founding of a Church (not the procession to the site at the beginning of the rite, but the circumambulation as the third cord is wrapped round the stakes at the four corners) is perhaps the most obvious example of this setting-apart to be found in the current rites of the Episcopal Church. But the later medieval procession before High Mass and the rite and ceremony of sprinkling the people (Asperges) are further, repeatable, examples of the same thing: reminders and renewals, though not repetitions, of the founding or dedication of the space and the baptisms of the people. The Rogation Procession with beating of the bounds works along the same principle – but extends the sacred precinct to the entirety of the parish, and, by extension or analogy, to the whole world.


As we have seen, processions and litanies have several different (partially overlapping) functions: solemn intercession, pilgrimage, marking and claiming of sacred space, celebration. All of these are sorely needed in today’s Church and today’s world: thus renewed attention to processions – including the provision of space for them in churches, such as wide passages between banks of seating (if seating there must be), or even better, arcades or colonnades (inside, outside, or both) – is warranted.

If it might be too much of a stretch of the bcp1979 rubrics of the Mass to make a station with Collect during the entrance procession, nevertheless a circuitous route, combined with sprinkling, would join the functions and symbolism of entrance / pilgrimage / going up to the altar, and marking and purification of sacred space and people, and would presumably fall within the rubrics. Appropriate responsorial chant, and a willingness to adapt the length of the chant to the duration of the procession, would set an appropriate tone and further congregational participation, getting heads out of hymnals and into the action. And the much greater use of the Litany – whether in such processions, or as a kneeling intercession at the end of the Office – would be welcome in these troubled times.