Updated: Jul 31
For most of the Sundays of Lent we recite the Great Litany in the place of an opening hymn and the Prayers of the People. This makes it appropriate to consider the Litany’s major emphases. I believe that, along with more general petitions, the Great Litany has three principal priorities: Christian orthodoxy, morality, and practice; and that these are particularly worthy of our thoughtful attention. We do not want to give credence to the claim of some that we Anglicans simply recite our liturgy without thinking about or meaning what we pray.
First, Christian orthodoxy. The Great Litany touches upon all the central themes of the Christian Faith: the doctrines of Creation, the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the gift of the Holy Spirit, salvation by the sacrifice of Christ, the Second Coming, and the Day of Judgment. By so doing, the Litany asserts the Church’s conviction in the authority of Holy Scripture, the source of all these essential doctrines. Those who harbor “contempt of your Word and commandments,” which are not in keeping with the “all religions teach the same things” popular nonsense, have no friend in the Great Litany whose petitions are based on the firm conviction that the Bible contains the Word of God.
At the same time, it makes no mention of a number of beliefs based on obscure or debatable passages of Scripture that have been the grounds for fruitless wrangling among Christians at best and “false doctrine, heresy, and schism” at worst. The Great Litany concentrates on doctrines that really matter and prays that God will “bring into the way of truth all who have erred and are deceived.” The Litany makes it clear that the fundamental doctrines of Christianity are “the way of truth” and cannot be compromised. Many of us were attracted to and belong to the ACNA and Christ Church precisely because of their commitment to the orthodox Christian Faith that the Great Litany expresses.
Second, Christian morality. The Great Litany is not shy about reminding us that we are sinners. It specifically mentions a number of specific sins. “From all blindness of heart; from pride, vanity, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice; and from all lack of charity, Good Lord deliver us.” It goes on to ask for deliverance “From all disordered and sinful affections; and from all deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil.”
We are all aware that traditional Christian morality has come under attack in recent times as outmoded, even within the wider Christian community. That is completely mistaken. The Church came into being at a time when Christian morality was in stark contrast to the mores of the larger society, as it increasingly is now. Ancient Greco-Roman culture celebrated violence and cruelty in the arena, permitted unwanted girl babies to be left exposed on hillsides, condoned fornication and adultery by men, practiced ritual prostitution of both sexes in pagan temples, accepted the abuse of slaves and women, and regarded homosexual liaisons as equal (and in some quarters even superior) to marital relations between husband and wife.
One of the reasons that the Early Church grew as rapidly as it did was because its morality was in stark contrast to that of the prevailing culture. St. Paul, the great evangelist of the Primitive Church, was well aware of this and his letters frequently reflect his concern that Christians do not give in to “the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil.” Consequently, in the Great Litany we ask God “to endue us with the grace of the Holy Spirit to amend our lives according to your Word,” so that with hearts that “love and fear God” we may “diligently keep your commandments” and not go along with the “New Morality” that looks very like the “Old Morality” of the Roman Empire in New Testament times that sought to justify the persecution of the Church. Just as Christians were called to a higher standard in Paul’s day, we still are today.
Third, Christian practice. How are we to deal with lapses in Christian orthodoxy and Christian morality? We are to be on guard against the things that lead us away from them, “the blindness of heart; … pride, vanity, and hypocrisy … envy, hatred and malice; and … lack of charity” the Great Litany beseeches God to deliver us from. In it we ask the Lord to “give all your people increase of grace to hear your Word with humility, to receive it with pure affection, and to bring forth the fruit of the Spirit.”
Here Christian orthodoxy and Christian morality intersect. Salvation for Anglican Christians is not simply a momentary experience, it is also a way of life. As the Letter to Titus states: …the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world, awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds. (Titus 1:11-14)
Who is to set the example for us? Of course, the supreme example for Christians is Jesus Christ. He is The Way, the Truth, and the Life. (John 14:6) However, the Church has long recognized that his example must not stand alone. Thus, the Great Litany asks God “To illumine all Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, with true knowledge and understanding of your Word; and that, both by their preaching and living, they may show it accordingly.” There can be little doubt that all those who would be leaders and teachers in the Church, clergy and laity alike, are to serve as examples. Christianity has ever accepted that they have a special duty to uphold Christian standards so that new or potential members will have positive role models to emulate. Every Christian leader is obligated to strive to be able to say with St. Paul, Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (I Corinthians 11:1; cf. 4:16; Phil 3:17; I Thes 1:6; Heb 6:12, 13:7)
Finally, how must we deal with ourselves and others whose behavior falls short of these high standards? For ourselves, the answer is simple – we repent, we confess, we resolve to lead “the new life” the Exhortation to Confession in the Book of Common Prayer refers to, and then give it our best effort and pray for God’s help in the endeavor. In the Great Litany we ask the Lord “to give us true repentance; to forgive us all our sin, negligence, and ignorance; and to endue us with the grace of your Holy Spirit to amend our lives according to your holy Word.”
Depending on the need, we may find the General Confession in the liturgy adequate to the purpose or we may find we need something more direct to get us back on the path, and seek out a priest for Auricular Confession and the assurance of God’s forgiveness. Both methods are meant to bring us to the point where we are honest to both God and ourselves, express genuine sorrow for our failings, and then have faith to trust in God’s love for us, and the promises of his mercy toward repentant sinners in the Scriptures.
The matter is not as simple when it comes to others. What should we do about those who have wronged us personally? The response the Great Litany gives is based on Jesus’ own admonition: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; ... (Matthew 5:44-45a) In the Litany we pray that God will “forgive our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers, and turn their hearts.”
How are we to react toward those whose sins “have found them out”? – to the unfaithful spouse, the unwed mother, the convicted thief, the employee caught embezzling, etc.? The Great Litany is not subtle. Over and over again, it emphasizes mercy. In it, we not only ask that the Lord Jesus “Remember not … our offenses, nor the offenses of our forebears; neither reward us according to ours” but “Spare us, good Lord.”
Likewise, we ask God “To have mercy upon all people,” not simply ourselves. It would be the height of hypocrisy for us to repeatedly beseech God to “Have mercy upon us,” if we are merciless to his other children. We have only to reflect on the message in Jesus’ parable of the Unforgiving Servant. The point is made plain when the unforgiving servant’s lord admonishes him: You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you? (Matthew 18:32-33) No wonder we pray in the Great Litany to be delivered “from hardness of heart,” “from all lack of charity,” and from hypocrisy. In this regard we do well to keep in mind St. Augustine of Hippo’s adage “Hate the sin and love the sinner.” That approach, the way of traditional Christian morality, is apparent in the ACNA Catechism, various statements by the Diocese of Ft. Worth, and it reflects my own personal convictions and the standard I believe we are all called to uphold.
Of course, in being merciful, as in all things, we are called to be “wise as serpents,” as well as “innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) The virtue of mercy is not meant to blind us to reality. We have the obligation to look out for one another and that ought to make us vigilant. We must not be irresponsible and put temptation in the way of the repentant sinner any more than the unrepentant. We do not leave our daughter alone with a former seducer, our safe open before a former thief, our ears open to the heretic or the despot, etc. unless there are good grounds for believing that they have eschewed their previous behavior. We cannot know with certainty how God has acted in another’s life and what that individual’s inmost response has been. Consequently, trust is earned by behavior, in some cases over a period of years.
God our Creator has given us the gift of reason that we may use it in discerning the balance between justice and mercy, trust and caution, genuine repentance and sham contrition. In exercising our Christian calling responsibly, let us all seek and pray for what the Bible calls “the wisdom from above,” for the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity. (James 3:14-17)
May the Lord bless each of you with a holy Lent and prepare you for a glorious Easter, Fr. Young