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Responsive Readings, Litanies, and Such

Jeremy at work got me thinking about litanies and responsive readings and why I generally love the former and despise the latter—especially when moderate Baptists insist on calling them the former! Here is a post from last summer, which was the last time I got steamed about the whole thing.

Responsive Readings

A responsive reading is a reading that is responsive. I suppose most Protestant hymnals or service books have a section of responsive readings at the back. They are usually Scripture passages. Often they are catenas or “chains” of verses from various portions of the Bible. Sometimes they are Bible paraphrases or expressions of biblical truth in new language. Here and here are some fairly standard examples of responsive reading based on biblical texts. Notice that the worship leader’s words are usually printed in plain type while the congregational response is printed in boldface or italics.

The use of responsive readings presupposes the invention of the printing press. First, churches that use them rarely use the same one more than once or twice a year. If they use home-grown readings, they may be meant for only a single use. They are preeminently disposable. This means, second, that nobody in the congregation is going to bother to learn them by heart. They will have to read them from the printed page—which immediately excludes young children, the blind, and those who can’t read the language in which worship is conducted sufficiently to follow along. Since the congregation will be reading, don’t expect anybody to actually look up from the page during this part of the service.

By their nature, responsive readings are didactic: they convey teaching, doctrine, or information. Maybe that is why this Unitarian Universalist doesn’t like them! It is certainly why I believe they have no place at the beginning of a worship service. The teaching portion of the service (“The Service of the Word” in traditional language) comes later, and responsive readings can be used then to good effect. For example, you can read a psalm or other Scripture text responsively to establish the theme of the service.


As the congregation gathers, however, the tone should not be that it is a teaching event but that worshipers are called to turn their hearts and minds to God. If you want to do that through some kind of congregational response, I would suggest something much less wordy and much more to the point. For example, worship in the Anglican tradition often begins with the following call to worship:

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and forever.

It’s short, it gets your attention, and—best of all—it passes the “nose in the book” test. Regular attenders will be able to learn this by heart very quickly and actually look at the worship leader while being called to worship. Here is another example with a long monastic pedigree:

Be pleased, O God, to deliver us.
O Lord, make haste to help us

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit
As it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be forever. Amen.

If you want to impress your friends, you can tell them that the leader’s part in these dialogues is sometimes called the versicle (the “little verse”) and the response is called, well, the response. That’s why they’re sometimes marked “V” and “R” in service books. These kinds of liturgical dialogues form a kind of “glue” that holds a liturgical service together. There are a couple of them that ought to be in every Christian’s repertoire. The first is a simple response after the reading of Scripture:

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

The second, with the imposing title Sursum corda (“Lift up your hearts”), is an ancient call to prayer, based on an even earlier Jewish liturgical dialogue said before the table grace, that has been used at the Lord’s Supper since at least the third century. There are a few variations you are likely to hear, but this form will get you through in most of the Protestant churches that use this dialogue:

The Lord be with you.
And also with you (or: And with your spirit.)

Lift up your hearts!
We lift them up to the Lord!

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

The first versicle and response sometimes stands alone and is referred to as the Dominus vobiscum, which is what the worship leader would say if he or she were conducting the service in Latin. All of these dialogues can be easily mastered by regular church attenders, but I would still encourage churches to print them in full if they print a weekly worship bulletin so newcomers can join in if they choose. It should be noted, however, that (unlike the modern responsive reading) liturgical dialogues like this do not presuppose the invention of the printing press. They are the same every week, which allows people to learn them by heart and deliver them at the appropriate times in the service. Even young children can participate without having to read a word.


Finally, there are litanies. A litany is a kind of prayer in responsive form. The worship leader prays a brief petition (or bids the congregation to pray), after which the congregation says or sings a response. This response is the same after each petition (although occasionally there is a series of responses, each repeated several times, or a single variation at the end). A biblical example of this pattern can be found in Psalm 136, with the repeated refrain “for his steadfast love endures forever.”

Properly so called, litanies developed in Syria around the fourth century, and the response was originally always “Lord, have mercy.” this response is found at various points in Eastern Orthodox liturgies such as the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. After the call to worship by the priest, the service begins with this litany led by the deacon, with a prayer by the priest (marked here in italics) at the end:

In peace let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For the peace of God and the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For peace of the whole world, for the stability of the holy churches of God, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For this holy house and for those who enter it with faith, reverence, and the fear of God, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For our Archbishop (Name), our Bishop (Name), the honorable presbyters, the deacons in the service of Christ, and all the clergy and laity, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy..

For our country, the president, and all those in public service, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For this parish and city, for every city and country, and for the faithful who live in them, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For favorable weather, an abundance of the fruits of the earth, and temperate seasons, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For travelers by land, sea, and air, for the sick, the suffering, the captives, and for their salvation, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For our deliverance from all affliction, wrath, danger, and distress, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

Help us, save us, have mercy upon us, and protect us, O God, by Your grace.
Lord, have mercy.

Remembering our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us commit ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God.
To You, O Lord.

(in a low voice) Lord, our God, whose power is beyond compare, and glory is beyond understanding; whose mercy is boundless, and love for us is ineffable; look upon us and upon this holy house in Your compassion. Grant to us and to those who pray with us Your abundant mercy.

For to You belong all glory, honor, and worship to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages.

Other traditional litanies use the response, “Hear our prayer” (common in Roman Catholic worship) or even (in the Litany of the Saints) “Pray for us.”

From the point of view of the worshiper in the pew, nothing could be easier. There is nothing to read at all once you understand what your response is supposed to be. I once had the privilege of preaching at an interdenominational Palm Sunday service held in the local Catholic church. The service itself was a stripped-down Catholic-style prayer service (no Eucharist, of course) and I consulted with the priest about what shape the prayers of the faithful (following the sermon) should take. I was going to preach about Jesus cleansing the temple and how we needed Christ’s cleansing in preparation for Easter. We decided a penitential litany would work well. Anyway, my sermon was called “Getting Rid of the Garbage in the Church” and I leaned heavily on Shel Silverstein’s children’s poem “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out.” After the sermon, Fr. Tom made an on-the-spot decision to replace the response printed in the bulletin with, “Jesus, Take the Garbage Out!” It worked marvelously, and didn’t confuse anybody because as soon as they knew what the response was going to be, they could do it! That is the genius of a litany.

A litany is a very specific thing. While it is responsive and while it may indeed be read from a service book, it is not the same thing as a “responsive reading.” The two terms are not interchangeable.

technorati tags: litany, liturgy, responsive reading


1 Comment

  1. Terri says:

    I read the whole thing, I promise I did … but I can’t stop laughing over the Universalists “responsive reading” that was just a hoot.


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