AnglicanPrayer

Tradition is the Answer to Questions We’ve Forgotten We Have

If you are a publicly confessing Christian for long enough you will likely encounter an interesting event: at some point a secular friend will ask for your prayers. It is often the same one who gets annoyed when you can’t make brunch on Sunday morning, or who was obviously uncomfortable at your church wedding. Generally the request for prayer follows a moment of immediate need: a scary medical diagnosis, or a layoff with impending financial strain, or a child who is having particular difficulty in school or with friends. There are no atheists in a foxhole, and the human experience is one of finding yourself in and out of various foxholes. 

For some people the request for prayer may be another way of saying “I am scared about this and I don’t want to be alone.” For others it might be “I don’t know what to do, but need to do something.” Whatever subconscious need it is expressing, everyone, even the most secular people, like to know that their religious friends are there. They like to know there are people who can hear these requests without rolling our eyes, people who will respond in good faith.

The same thing happens in communities and across cultures. The Western world spends very little time thinking about prayer. Politicians might mention it when they are in front of a constituency for whom prayer matters, but it isn’t part of the regular warp and weft of our collective life. This may be because, as a whole, we are so safe and comfortable. We have our individual traumas, but we are safest and healthiest culture that has ever existed. We worry about rising food prices, but few Americans or other Westerners are really at risk of starving this year, the way people in developing countries are. We worry about rising crime, but we don’t live with the daily violence and danger that our neighbors in Ukraine, Yemen, and Nigeria face every day. We do not feel we need to pray. The problems we have have other answers: legislation, education, organization.  

Until, that is, something truly terrible happens to shake us our of our stupor. In those moments, prayer increases in popularity again. In the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I saw “Pray for Ukraine” signs pop up in yards of affluent neighborhoods. After the horrific murders in Buffalo and Uvalde, the predicted “Thoughts and prayers for the victims and their families” and more specific “Pray that Congress will pass gun-control legislation” “Pray for better mental health care” and “Lord have mercy on our broken society” prayers splashed across social media. When we feel helpless, when we know we need to do something but are powerless to know what it should be, our society turns again to prayer.  

But even for those of use who are regular pray-ers, this creates a challenge: how do we speak to something that is unspeakable? What words are there to say that express the rage and grief of parents whose children were murdered, while the people paid to protect them stood aside? What words provide comfort to the women raped in Ukraine as an act of war? Have we, who have forgotten what real terror, danger, and impunity look like, also forgotten how to pray? 

Maybe we have; but our tradition has not. One of the reasons I love being Anglican is that the memory of the Prayerbook extends further back than the last presidential election. Part of the wonder of worshiping with a liturgy that is more than 500 years old is that it holds the memories, anxieties, fear, and doubts of people who lived in times that were much more dangerous, divided, and hostile than ours. And so, when something unspeakable happens, our tradition still has something to say about it. 

In the hours after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when it seemed like world war and possibly nuclear war were imminent, I several members of my parish asked me if we could have a prayer service. They were full of grief and sorrow for the people of Ukraine, but they were also scared about what would happen next. It had been many years since anyone in my congregation had seen footage of tanks rolling into towns that looked just as developed and normal as the town we live in. There were no prayers I could write that would be as poignant or potent as the prayers of our forefathers. And so, on a Saturday morning, we gathered in our chapel. I asked them to open their prayerbooks, and we prayed The Great Litany together: 

O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth,
Have mercy upon us.

O God the Son, Redeemer of the world,
Have mercy upon us.

O God the Holy Spirit, Sanctifier of the faithful,
Have mercy upon us.

O holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, one God,
Have mercy upon us.

Remember not, Lord Christ, our offenses, nor the offenses of our forefathers; neither reward us according to our sins. Spare us, good Lord, spare thy people, whom thou hast redeemed with thy most precious blood, and by thy mercy preserve us, for ever.
Spare us, good Lord.

From all evil and wickedness; from sin; from the crafts and assaults of the devil; and from everlasting damnation,
Good Lord, deliver us.

Students of Anglican liturgy, many of whom are drawn to this study in the first place because they love our Eucharistic Prayers, are surprised to learn that the Great Litany–which is used so rarely in churches these days– it is the very first piece of liturgy written in English. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer translated/wrote/edited it in 1544, when Masses across England were still said in Latin. It was first used in public worship during the reign of Henry VIII, just before the king’s armies set sail to wage war with France. This means that for the majority of Christians in England, the first words of the liturgy that they ever heard in a language they could understand were these. As they came to church to pray for their sons and fathers preparing to fight King Henry’s latest war, they would have heard and prayed: 1 

From lightning and tempest; from earthquake, fire, and flood; from plague, pestilence, and famine,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From all oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared,
Good Lord, deliver us.

By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity and submission to the Law; by thy Baptism, Fasting, andTemptation,
Good Lord, deliver us.

By thine Agony and Bloody Sweat; by thy Cross and Passion; by thy precious Death and Burial; by thy glorious Resurrection and Ascension; and by the Coming of the Holy Ghost,
Good Lord, deliver us.

In all time of our tribulation; in all time of our prosperity; in the hour of death, and in the day of judgment,
Good Lord, deliver us.

And this is the prayer that, time and again, the Church of England and her offspring have turned to this prayer in times of war, famine, political unrest, and violence 2. In the brutality of the American Civil War, churches in the north and South prayed it. As World War I raged, ultimately claiming the lives of more than 8 million Englishmen, they prayed it. During the Blitz, they prayed “Good Lord, deliver us.” I strongly suspect, though I cannot verify, that African Anglicans prayed this prayed this prayer during periods of political violence, and during the Ebola and AIDS epidemics. 

Moments of crisis call us to remember the finitude and contingency of the human condition, even for those of us who have the privilege of relative safety and comfort. They call us to suffer and mourn with those who share that condition. And they call us to remember that we are not the first ones to live through such a time as this. Tradition alone cannot end violence, hunger, and fear—only the Resurrection can do that. But it can give us a guide along the way. It gives us the voices of those who have gone before, and it gives us a way to join our voices with those who cry out to God for deliverance.

That it may please thee to have mercy upon all mankind,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please thee to give us true repentance; to forgive us all our sins, negligences, and ignorances; and to endue us with the grace of thy Holy Spirit to amend our lives according to thy holy Word,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please thee to forgive our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers, and to turn their hearts,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please thee to strengthen such as do stand; to comfort and help the weak-hearted; to raise up those who fall; and finally to beat down Satan under our feet,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord. 


  1. I confess that I did not check the text of the current Great Litany (1979 Book of Common Prayer) against the text of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, so I can’t promise that this is exactly the same prayer that those English Christians prayed all those years ago. I am confident that they are similar enough in content and emphasis for my point to stand. 
  2. Prior to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the Great Litany was said with much more frequency, at Morning and Evening Prayer and prior to Holy Communion, meaning that people were even more likely to have this beautiful text memorized and at their lips in times of distress. 
Barbara White

Barbara White

Barbara is an Episcopal priest serving as Associate Rector for Worship and Formation at St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Prior to entering ministry, Barbara worked in public policy and corporate communications. Her interests include Christian metaphysics, the King James Bible, eschatology, and third-wave coffee. Barbara and her husband Joshua live in Louisville with two impious felines.

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