Copyright on Liturgy

Ruth Ellis Messenger says in a study of hymnology in the Sarum Use (which I happen to be reading for my St Albans Psalter research):

The problem of chronology in the study of Latin hymns is necessarily puzzling. If only the names of the authors had been more generally preserved, dating would be a simpler matter. But the introduction of a hymn into the liturgy meant the loss of its identity as the work of a particular writer.

Contrast this with the constant need in contemporary hymnody to identify authors and tag CCLI numbers: perhaps we are far fallen from older sets of expectations. It’s strange to most of us, I’m guessing, that a hymn incorporated into the liturgy of the Church, even if only for a certain geographic region, should become the property of the Church and be detached from the particular writer who wrote it. We think at least that credit is due.

The vaulted ceiling of Salisbury Cathedral.

Then again, this cathedral has no copyright notice on it. Go ahead, sue someone for breach of intellectual property rights. Shouldn’t it rather be an honour for my work to enter the liturgy and, having become an expression of the Church’s voice, cease to be identified primarily with me? Even if attribution goes to Josquin des Prez or J. S. Bach, it’s fitting that the music written be seen as property of the Church and that glory go to God alone.

Soli Deo Gloria, as Bach wrote.

Of course, don’t muzzle the ox (I Tm 5.18). What differs between our time and ye olden dayes is that Bach et al. got paid by the Church – not by, uh, customers – so that they could do the work they did; some writers, such as Isaac Watts, were already ordained clergy supported by church funds. Financial support does matter quite a lot, if only to keep church music from being a commodity. Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.

Money isn’t the man point, though. At issue is the concept of property: it’s one thing that Bach gets paid, another thing if people are conscious during Mass that it’s ‘his music’ or if there’s any demand for J. S. Bach concerts. Doesn’t it really matter more that something’s become part of God’s liturgy? or do we suspect that our hymns aren’t fit to be considered the Church’s property? I for one believe the way we treat hymns shows a skewed view of what’s proper to us as individuals. Can we imagine how to change things?


One response to “Copyright on Liturgy

  1. Pingback: Not for Liturgy, though Edifying | Cogito, Credo, Petam

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