Thursday, July 30, 2009

Things You Shouldn't Do In Church

From Giuseppe Baldeschi, Ceremonial of the Roman Rite (1895):

The clergy should comport themselves in choir with silence, modesty, and recollection; abstaining from everything that would indicate frivolity or irreverence, such as reading letters, talking, giving snuff to each other, gazing about, sitting cross-legged, lolling in their seats and other acts of this nature.

Heavens!  How are we to sit through Mass without our snuff?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

We Win! ACNA Loses, Episcopalians Still In-Between.

But we win.  That's the important part.

A California judge has ruled that the Episcopal diocese of San Joaquin, and its bishop Jerry Lamb, are the legal owners of the property now held by schismatic bishop John-David Schofield and the 40 parishes that have taken his side and left the [DFMS of the] PECUSA.

We are experts in neither canon nor canon nor civil law, but this accords with our limited understanding of the case.  (It is apparently parallel to the provisions governing those Lutheran congregations that were formerly part of the LCA, although the church constitutions are surely quite different.)  

Needless to say, this judgment does not end the standoff, even in San Joaquin.  The case at hand was only the first, albeit the weightiest, of five brought by the Episcopal diocese against Schofield and his adherents.  So there are more cases to judge, and -- as the Modesto Bee gently puts it, Lamb acknowledged that he doesn't expect Schofield or priests in those 40 parishes to give up their properties soon.  

No, we expect not.  Possession is nine points, and all that..

So even though Schofield lost in court, it is hard to say that Lamb actually won.  It's more accurate to say that he and his team have taken the first hill in what will likely be a long and bloody battle.  Fratricide usually is.

But we won, and here's why:

Father Anonymous is a frequent reader of, a website devoted to press coverage of religious affairs -- with a heavy focus on Christianity.  It is run by a team of professional journalists who are transparent about their own religious commitments, and interested in the way their colleagues often seem to report the wrong story when religion is concerned.  The site is excellent, although the correspondents do occasionally seem to read through a doctrinally conservative lens.  And the comments, as opposed to the actual stories, not infrequently devolve into arguments about doctrine, rather than sticking to media criticism.  But these are minor complaints, at best.

Anyway.  Months and months ago, somebody on GR argued that the press was ignorantly taking sides every time it referred to the group of former Episcopalians who would later become ACNA as "breakaway" parishes, priests or dioceses.  After all, argued whoever it was, it is the claim of these fine people that they have not left their church, but that it has left them; and further, that they remain part of the global Anglican family.  So how can anyone say they have broken away?

Father A. pointed out, delicately, that they were breaking away, as a legal and institutional matter, from the church body of which they had long been constituent parts, by which their priests were ordained, and which in many cases had provided the money and personnel with which their parishes had been founded.   Their position in the Anglican Communion was unclear (and is much less so now, by the way).  No; they had left their old church to form a new one.  Just ask the IRS, which surely required them to apply for a new recognition of their tax-exempt status.  Or the Church Pension Fund.

Needless to say, this argument was not received with much enthusiasm at GR.  An initial condescending "explanation" of the doctrinal argument, followed by a polite silence.  We were mildly annoyed.

No more, however.  Thanks to Fresno County Superior Court Judge Adolfo Corona, our cause has been vindicated.  The law agrees with us -- they have broken away from the institution of which they had formerly been part, and, as a matter of law, lost claim to their title.  We're right, the GR commenters were wrong.  So there! 

Monday, July 27, 2009

Romania: Like Italy, But Cheaper

"How can you not give up some Milan action for Transylvania?"  So asks, celebrating the Romanian budget carrier WizzAir.  

We agree completely, and so we make this special offer for Egg readers  Those of you who take advantage of cheap airfares (and support the flagging Romanian economy) will win our super-duper prize:  a guided tour of downtown Cluj.  In English!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Still in Chicago ...

... and limited internet access.  Not  to mention time!  This ecumenical orientation for foreign missionaries would be a pretty exhausting thing even if Baby Anonymous weren't along for the ride.  Which he is. 

So pity poor Father A., who is temporarily unable to offer his tart commentary on all the subjects that interest him (including, nota bene, the apparently imminent rebirth of Captain America.  That was fast -- it took something like fifty years to bring back Bucky).

But here are some of the things that have caught our attention this week:
  • Item:  Henry Louis Gates arrested for entering his own home.  
  • Item:  The McCormick Seminary admin building, which we mentioned a while back, is very attractive.  Some architect earned his money.  Too bad they spent a more on it than they are likely to sell it for.
  • Item:  Here's where we went to church last Sunday.  Not (by a long shot) the prettiest building we have ever seen, nor the best liturgy, nor the warmest crowd.  But all of the above were done well enough, and one thing was done marvelously:  child-friendlinesss.  This did not mean condescension -- no "children's church" or smarmy Sunday School presentations.  Just a lot of kids, doing the things kids do, and nobody letting it bother them.  (And a small note mention in the bulletin of a staffed nursery, which nobody felt the need to use).
  • Item:  These people offer security consulting for churches sending out foreign missionaries.  Good to know they exist, innit?
  • Item:  Swine flu will kill us all.  After it makes us change our communion practices.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

That Toddlin' Town

In Chicago, and -- to our delight -- deeply impressed by the ELCA's mission staff. Seriously. We'll blog more when time permits.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Forgot One, Lisa

In tomorrow's Times Magazine, Lisa Belkin has an interesting thought piece on the phenomenon of the wronged political wife, and its perception by married women everywhere. Here's the money quote:

Because while the cameras are always focused on the errant husband, we are transfixed by the wife. From Clinton to Craig to Spitzer to Edwards to Ensign we wonder: Why does she take this? Why do we take this? So when Jenny Sanford broke the mold and dispatched her husband to face the cameras alone, we cheered. Maybe this time she’d leave him. Maybe there was hope for us.

Well, yes. But she left out an important recent example: Dina Matos McGreevy.

When the erstwhile Garden State governor outed himself as a "gay American" -- the phrase still grates, five years later -- she stood beside him on the podium. She was expressionless, except for a small wince when he acknowledged "the pain I have caused ... my wife." He called her "extraordinary," even as he alluded to the "likely impact" of his sexuality upon his family.

But since then, they have had an especially nasty public divorce and custody battle. Books have been written, Oprah's couch has been bounced upon. For a while there, Dina was on the warpath, Kramer-vs-Kramer style. Nobody could blame her; the eventually-to-be-Rev. Mr. McGreevy is a sleazy guy, and she has every reason to make herself and her children visibly, patently, distinct from him. And that required some baring of the teeth.

And we at the Egg do admire the patrician reserve of Jenny Sanford, who seems like a hell of a woman. But we also admire Dina Matos, in the ring, fighting for her dignity.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Why, oh why, do people do these things?

On 28 June, Austrian bishop Ludwig Schwarz celebrated Mass at the church of St. Peter in Linz. the service was well-attended. Local politicians were there. You know who else was there? Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger.

Mayr-Lumetzberger is a native of Linz, and routinely worships at St. Peter's, so we suppose her presence at this festival service wasn't altogether shocking. But it was probably unwelcome. You see, she is a former Benedictine nun who has since (a) left her order; (b) been married; (c) been ordained priest by an Independent Catholic bishop and (d) been ordained bishop, or so she says, by some unnamed bishop, of some Catholic persuasion or other. Needless to say, the Roman Catholic Church does not recognize any of her supposed ordinations, and has excommunicated her.

So, also needless to say, when she presented herself to Bishop Schwarz, with outstretched palms, he refused to communicate her. He didn't really have much choice -- that's what "excommunicated" means.

Awkward moment, yes? But not half so awkward as the next, when Mayr-Lumetzberger reached out and seized a wafer from the ciborium. And yes, she was vested at the time -- alb and stole, with a pectoral cross.

Now, don't get us wrong here. We at the Egg support the ordination of women. (You do see that big picture of Mary Magdalene on the masthead, right? First person to preach a Resurrection sermon. Causa est, so far as we're concerned.) But we look for a little bit of common sense, in all the faithful -- even those with a righteous bone to pick.

She claims that, even though she never presents herself to the parish priest for communion, she expected to receive on this occasion. This strikes us as a fib. We daresay she must have known that the bishop was duty-bound to refuse her -- and that had he allowed himself any conscientious wiggle-room, by saying "I didn't recognize her," the pectoral cross was a kind of giveaway. She clearly went expecting to be refused; whether she went preparing to make a scene we cannot say. But she did make a scene.

We ourselves occasionally show up in a Papist house of worship. When we are there in our official capacity -- whether vested, in clericals, or otherwise -- we take for granted that we will not communicate. If a well-intentioned person tries to steer us toward an outstretched host (or, on one memorable occasion, a concelebration chasuble) we politely demur. Not because we agree with the doctrine of the place, but because there are rules -- and even if they are only human rules, it would be boorish of us to flout them.

Now, if Frau -- err, Bischopfin -- Mayr-Lumetzberger really wants to receive Holy Communion, we encourage her to visit us. Our church's communion policy -- that the invitation to the table comes from Christ in baptism -- is a matter of public record. And although we are currently pretty far from Austria, in just a few months, we will be a quick plane-ride away.

Please Let it Be Forgot. Please.

Beating a dead horse? Sure. But we just can't help ourselves.

A friend who should probably remain anonymous recently emailed to us a precis of the recent Seminex reunion. (Seminex, for those who have had better things to bone up on over the years, was the seminary of the AELC). A lot of it was the usual reunion song-and-dance, in this case larded with some unfortunate comparisons of Seminex to Bonhoffer's underground seminary at Finkenwald. (Do you really think -- no matter who you are -- that the comparison will make you look good?)

But it was at the closing worship that things got out of hand. (It has been our experience that closing worship services are often where the crazy auntie gets out of the attic, and compares the Trinity to spumoni, or bursts into tears, or sings a bad song off-key. Or outs herself, for no apparent reason. Perhaps the wizened gnomes who plan such events don't want us to enjoy them so much that distract us from our parishes, and therefore arrange it so that, even after three entirely pleasant days, we will nonetheless drive home scowling and muttering imprecations. But we digress.)

The two preachers -- rarely a good thing, this business of two preachers -- decided to structure their homily around an extended analogy of Seminex to Camelot.

Really? You really want to got there? Camelot?

Okay, okay. We know it's a cliche at this point. Anybody who wants to look back fondly on anything, at least anybody of a certain age, starts murmuring Camelot. The fault belongs largely to Jackie Kennedy, who -- just a week after her husband was assassinated -- requested an interview with semi-official hagiographer Theodore H. White, and talked about her husband's administration, summoning up the now-desperately-tired lyric, "Don't let it be forgot," et cetera. (Of course, we could also blame the other T.H. White for The Sword in the Stone, or Chretien de Troyes for apparently coining the name of the place. But mostly we blame the canny Mrs. K.)

So it's a cliche. So what? Why does it bug us to see it applied to Seminex? Glad you asked.

First, because it is such a vivid example of Boomer self-regard. To compare anything to the legendary court of King Arthur is silly on its face; to compare everything to it -- as they very nearly do -- is annoying to the rest of us, who don't think quite so highly of Boomerdom's various bragging points. (Students for a Non-Violent Society? Actually kind of violent at the end. Microsoft? Actually a near-monopoly peddling inadequate products. Even the Kennedy Administration itself, and its enduring PR machine, spent decades lying about the Cuban Missile Crisis -- embarrassed to admit that its hero actually [gasp!] negotiated a settlement.)

And second, because -- and we're being delicate here -- Seminex was no Camelot. For the students and professors, it must have seemed that way. It was the great, big, righteous battle of their lives, which largely formed them into the pastors they have become -- all of which helps explain why they so love to talk about it in mythic terms. (In the beginning, they called themselves "Elim," an acronym for Evangelical Lutherans in Mission, but also one of Israel's stops in its desert journey.)

But for the rest of us, there was nothing romantic, and little heroic, about the story. It is a sordid tale, about people wounded by their church but who nonetheless continue to carry forward the worst of its legacy. The Missouri takeover was a nasty business, but it does not necessarily follow that the resistance to it was pure and good. Specifically, as Egg readers are by now desperately tired of hearing, we believe that these wounded souls brought into the ELCA their own tortured psychodrama, including a combination of Missouri's invincible self-righteousness and their own hard-learned experience in the arts of seizing ecclesiastical power.

The LCMS has been, from its origins, an organization devoted to justifying its own existence by self-mythologizing, claiming to be the city on a hill, shining the light of pure doctrine upon the benighted world, the righteous remnant of pure Lutheranism in a world of decadent liberal Protestantism. The AELC was more of the same, a lot more liberal and a hair less Protestant -- but just as prone to self-righteous prattle. And apparently it still is.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

More Signs of the End Times

Mainline decline? Or something worse?

Back in 1975, McCormick, a seminary of the Presbyterian Church USA, shacked up with the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. McCormick moved its campus to be next to LSTC, and they began to share facilities, while keeping an independent administration.

Now, there's nothing really remarkable about this arrangement. Seminaries are not large institutions, and various cooperative relationships are commonplace. These range from fairly distant (opening a few classrooms so that an out-of-town school can offer extension classes) to the nearly symbiotic (San Francisco's GTU, or McCormick).

Sharing facilities is an especially reasonable strategy, because of the peculiar nature of many seminaries. They require exactly the same resources, including the same specialized libraries (and chapels). But, because of their denominational connections and theological perspectives, they can't just merge. (Although mergers within a denomination are not unusual, even those can be problematic; just ask Hartwick.) And of course, they are generally small -- and shrinking. So they share.

Anyway, after 35 years of so, McCormick is "disengaging" from its relationship with the Lutherans. Why, you ask? Hint: Not because it has finally saved up enough money to strike out on its own.

In 2003 McCormick constructed its own administration building on the campus, but now that building will be put up for sale.

A report in Crain's Chicago Real Estate Daily said McCormick's capital program, which included construction of its administration building, left the seminary $30 million in debt with annual bond payments of $1 million.

"We are simply spending a disproportionate and, unfortunately, growing share of our resources on occupancy-related costs," said the Rev. Cynthia M. Campbell, McCormick president, on the seminary's Web site. In addition, McCormick funds 70 percent of its budget from the school's endowment, which recently lost about 30 percent of its value, she said.

We aren't sure yet what's actually going to happen to McCormick. We expect they aren't either. But it probably doesn't involve going forward as a property-owning, degree-granting institution. Which makes us wonder whether there is room for another Auburn Seminary in the world, much less in the PCUSA.

So. Is this just more of the same, as the so-called mainline churches shrivel up and die? Is it further fallout from the financial mess? Or is it the result of the wishful thinking that too often governs church affairs -- did it really make sense to fund 70 percent of your budget from an endowment? (For comparison, the average for endowed institutions is 20%, but much higher among seminaries -- Harvard and Yale run 35-45%; and Princeton a whopping 76%).

Or is there a fourth possibility: that the PCUSA, with about 3 million members, doesn't need ten denominational seminaries and two "seminaries affiliated by covenant." The ELCA, with almost 2 million more members (at least until the schism next year), probably doesn't need its eight seminaries and two extension centers. And that's not about decline; that's about efficiencies of scale, resulting from the mergers which created the current church bodies, but didn't address the surplus sems of the predecessor bodies. In which case, the end of McCormick (like the end of Wartburg, Trinity, or either of the Pennsylvania schools) is really just a case of Darwinian economics doing what bureaucrats didn't.

Dept. of No Surprise: Angry Bulls Trample Drunken Pedestrians

Courtesy of Ernest Hemingway, the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona long since ceased to be a curious local custom. It is, and has been for decades, an embarrassing cliche -- affluent foreigners crowd the town and try to pretend that they too have are nursing an unspeakable pain, which they mask behind the veneer of world-weary sophistication and feats of reckless athleticism. Except that they're really a podiatrist from Norway and a data-systems analyst from Dallas, or whatever.

Basically, its a branch of Euro-Disney. With bulls.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Shed No Tears

Robert Macnamara is dead.

They say you shouldn't speak ill of the dead, but in this case we'll make an exception. Macnamara, for the very youngest of our readers, was Secretary of Defense under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He was, very largely, the man responsible for America's prosecution of a war in Viet Nam -- a war which cost 58,000 American lives, not to mention millions of Vietnamese. Yes -- millions. And a war which Macnamara himself concluded, eventually, could not be won and should not have been fought.

It's not that he was a bloodthirsty monster. He wasn't. He was an economist and an auto executive -- a technocrat or, to put it plainly, a bean counter. At least that's the usual spin. But there was more to the war, and to Macnamara's work to make it happen and keep it going, than mere numbers -- if only because the numbers were so terrible. A man truly driven by cost-benefits analysis would have pulled out by 1965.

We suspect that Macnamara was driven by two demonic forces. First, there was his own pride; the man had been a colonel during WWII, a Harvard professor, and a stunningly successful president of Ford -- all by his early 40s. We have to assume that he was one of those irritating overachievers who simply can't live with failure, meaning that they can't recognize the limitations imposed by their own humanity. That's called hubris, and people who paid attention in their Word Civ were supposed to know about it. (So much for Cal Berkeley, by the way).

Second, there was the lunacy of modern Manichaeism -- by which we mean, specifically, the postwar division of the world into East and West, Communist and Anti-communist, Red and Red, White, and Blue. Not that Stalin was a good guy, or that the worst errors of Roosevelt, Churchill or (even) Truman made them in any way his moral equivalents. Communism was wretched, and deserved worse than it got. But the sleep of reason -- by which we mean reactive anticommunism -- bred its own monsters: think of McCarthy and the blacklists, or the (seemingly endless) Cuban embargo. Of these, the war in Viet Nam was infinitely the most monstrous.

There is another effect of the Viet Nam conflict which needs to be mentioned as well. Even though American politics have long been bipartisan, and often fiercely so, and even though the anticommunist right was already pretty fierce, the war was still a colossal wedge, splitting American society. It drove the Left from protest marches to domestic terrorism, and forced the Right into a permanent defensive crouch. It created some caricatures and reinforced others, providing a treasury of public postures and rhetorical tropes that are recycled to this day.

In a sense, Viet Nam created everything that came later: not just the self-doubting "malaise" of the 1970s or the self-righteous preening of all the Boomers who pretend they were at Woodstock, but also Watergate (among the conspirators' crimes, remember, was breaking into the files of Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the DoD's secret history of the war). Reagan exploited the growing national division skillfully; Clinton -- despite his centrism -- was nearly undone by it; Bush Jr., with vastly less skill than Reagan or Clinton, attempted to exploit the same cultural and political divide, and in the course of his bumbling gave us Nam II.

So if Viet Nam created modern America, and Macnamara created Viet Nam -- well, we know who to blame. Not to mention that his damn company made lousy cars.

Brush Up Your Greek

The newest information technology has just met some of the oldest. Per the AP:

The surviving pages of the world's oldest Christian Bible have been reunited — digitally. The early work known as the Codex Sinaiticus has been housed in four separate locations across the world for more than 150 years. But starting Monday, it became available for perusal on the Web at so scholars and other readers can get a closer look at what the British Library calls a "unique treasure." ....

As it survives today, Codex Sinaiticus comprises just over 400 large leaves of prepared animal skin, each of which measures 15 inches by 13.5 inches (380 millimeters by 345 millimeters). It is the oldest book that contains a complete New Testament and is only missing parts of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha.

This is truly remarkable, at least for scholars. And even for the rest of us, it is cool.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Dept. of No Surprise: Sarah Palin Makes No Sense

We didn't see the press conference in which the Alaska governor resigned. Apparently, not many people did; it was announced hastily, and coverage was thin.

Speculation as to her motive is rampant. Does this resignation signal a retreat from public life, or a plan to focus on building support in the Lower 48 for her 2012 run? Is she trying nobly to protect her family from the David Lettermans of the world, or more basely to protect herself from further ethics investigations?

Honestly, we have no idea. Nor have we much idea as to whether she seemed more cogent in person than she does in the radio and press clips that we have come across thus far. But in those clips, it must be said, she seems to make no sense at all: she rambles from one disjointed phrase to another, uses an awkward sports metaphor, seems to equate quitting with a year and half left on her term with deciding not to seek re-election, and gives Gen. Macarthur credit for something somebody else said.

Her main point, so far as we can tell, was this:

... I thought about how much fun other governors have as lame ducks. They maybe travel around their state, travel to other states, maybe take their overseas international trade missions.

I’m not going to put Alaskans through that. I promised efficiencies and effectiveness. That’s not how I’m wired. I’m not wired to operate under the same old politics as usual.

Um, Governor? One great way to spare your constituents the cost of unnecessary travel is to stay home and do your job. (Which, arguably, may often include travel around your state, but we suppose that's a matter of opinion.) You remember, the job they elected you to do?

It is one thing for an elected official to resign because they have betrayed the public trust -- like Nixon (certainly), Spitzer (lamentably), and Sanford (probably). Is is another to resign because they don't want to go on trade missions.

Dick Cheney Works With Iranian Regime

Pet today's Times, top leaders of the Iranian reformist movement have offered confessions -- they conspired to topple the government, and they were trained to do so by foreign governments. And both Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad are great men and servants of the people. Allahu akbar.

These confessions, we are advised, probably resulted from "pressure tactics like sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and torture."

We fully expect that the reformists will be "expunged from the political process." Our only question is what the regime will do with them. They could be killed, of course -- but the eyes of the world are open just now. They can't very well be exiled, because seven out of ten (or maybe two out of ten, the numbers are murky) would just return to the fight. And these men are committed to the overthrow of the government -- they have said so themselves.

The only answer is to lock them up in some extrajudicial prison camp, administered by the government forces and beyond the purview of the courts or even the Red Cross. But where can the Iranians find such a wonderland? Well, we understand there are some empty beds at Guantanamo Bay.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Gladwell on Anderson on Copyrights

Compared to Beresford (below), Chris Anderson seems younger and less crotchety. But he is no less skeptical about intellectual property rights.

At least as described by Malcolm Gladwell, in a New Yorker review linked above, Anderson believes that in the coming era "products made of ideas" -- books, music, news articles, and much, much more -- will be capital-F free. This is because digital reproduction and transmission are themselves nearly free, and so exert a constant downward pressure on prices, more or less requiring vendors to use content as the bait to attract clicks, which are then (in the appalling new term of art) "monetized," or given financial value, by some alternative means. Which is codeword for "advertising, like on Google."

Gladwell demolishes this case with a few easy strokes. He points to YouTube, Google's hugely successful subsisdiary -- if success is measured by number of users. If success is measured by actually making money, then YouTube is a flop: "Credit Suisse estimates that YouTube will lose close to half a billion dollars this year. If it were a bank, it would be eligible for TARP funds."

But Gladwell's main point is that even if digital reproduction and distribution seem to be so inexpensive that they are free, the truth is that they depend upon an enormous and costly infrastructure. He likens it to the production and distribution of electrical power. Apparently, digging up coal to burn only amounts to 20% of your bill; the rest is (or was in the 1960s; perhaps this has changed) the cost of building and maintaining the plants, powerlines, and so forth. Just replace that with server farms and wireless networks -- not to mention the telephone and electrical lines still needed to make the Net go.

All of this touches, at least a bit, on the question we raised yesterday, regarding copyrighted liturgical material. Honestly, the publication of hymns and so forth works a lot more neatly with Anderson's model than, say, newspapers or pharmaceuticals. The truth is that when the Times and the WaPo die, there will be markedly less and markedly worse news coverage of world events; BBC and NPR will be all we have left. If Big Pharma lost all patent protection on its formulae, you can bet that there would never be any new drugs for less-widespread diseases, ever again. But if GIA and Augsburg-Fortress (and all their competitors) were to go 20 years without publishing a single new hymn, it is doubtful that anybody would notice or care. In other words, their intellectual property already has a strikingly low value.

What about their infrastructure? Historically, it was books -- the editing, manufacture and distribution of same. It probably still is; but how much longer will that be a viable business? Secular book publishing is a wounded animal. Books intended for worship are a specialty item, and might well be affected by different market forces. Augsburg's new ELW is said to have sold very well, because, after all, church pews look naked without those neat rows of hymnals in their slots on the back. On the other hand, our own congregation didn't buy them, and doesn't plan to -- not because of any particular feelings about ELW, material from which we use often, but rather because we just don't use our hymnals anymore.

(Aside: Anybody want to buy 200 or so LBWs? Or Supplement 1992? Or several dozen copies of TLH, including the Braille edition and Large-Print Missal? Just asking.)

We have already said that we pay, quite happily, for the Sundays and Seasons online service, which provides us a license for most Augsburg liturgical materials, in a convenient electronic form. But can we be honest? We wouldn't pay much for the license. We pay for the convenience -- which is worth a great deal. But we would happily pay, say, half as much for the same sort of access to material that was not copyright-protected.

So one business decision that the publishers may need to make, not far down the line, is whether to continue creating new liturgical content, especially at the rate they have done so these past few decades. Unlike an old newspaper, public-domain liturgical materials have a great deal of value -- at least as much as the new stuff, and that is a charitable assessment.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

"I Will No Longer Sing Hymns ..."

... that are under copyright.

This is the bold and seemingly silly declaration of one David Beresford, writing in Gilbert, the magazine of the American Chesterton Society. (A scan is linked above, courtesy of Musica Sacra).

Beresford seems to be staking out the crotchetiest of crotchety-old-man territory here. His article is a familiar laundry list of everything wrong with music in Roman Catholic parishes over the last, oh, forty-seven years or so:

First came the tambourine, wielded by earnest young ladies who were trying to get everyone to sing "Cum-Bye-Yaw." Then ... our parish advanced to folk-masses complete with lead and bass guitars, electric piano, and drums in front of the altar. ...

The following songs were sung during Mass on a regular basis: "One Tin Soldier," "Share the Land," "Imagine" -- yes, by John Lennon -- "The Rose," "You Light Up My Life," "Let it Be," and "Blowin' in the Wind." I do not know why these were chosen out of all that was available on the radio at that time. I can see no reason why we did not sing "Convoy," or better yet, "A Boy Named Sue." In fact, a good argument can be made for singing "A Boy Named Sue" {which] has all the elements that the modern innovators like: a non-traditional family, ambivalence about gender, and the implicit message that girls (and by extension, men with girl's names) are subject to societal oppression.

This is droll, but it is also tired material. We've all read Why Catholics Can't Sing, or at least the testy comments on the Usus Antiquior blogs. And as he admits, the worst excesses have long since passed; "instead of Beatles songs at Mass, [we are now] given insipid, gender-neutral translations of the psalms set to sacchartine melodies."

Beresford goes on, however, to make a more interesting, and contemporary, point, not about secular songs but about most recent sacred music: that "these hymns are now private property, and I cannot escape the suspicion that the Mass is not meant to be carved up by copyrights into private enclosures in which we are only allowed to sing or pray 'with permission of the publishers.' "

In other words, information wants to be free. Paging Larry Lessig! Or, prophetically, "Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me." Yes, GIA turns out to be Pharaoh -- and here we thought it was Rupert Murdoch.

Joking aside, here is a theological point worth considering: that copyright laws, and the associated fees, are a form of captivity for congregations. This isn't so much about the modest payments that we are asked to make for licensing -- they will break the bank of only the smallest parish. It is, seriously, the principle of the thing. Christian worship -- and the grace of God which is conveyed in that worship -- is free by its nature. Ought it be something for which we depend upon human permissions?

Beresford answers with a firm "No," and announces his determination that, "while at Mass, I will no longer sing hymns with copyrights attached to them." And when he comes a cross an old hymn which has been altered (and the modern alterations of which are therefore copyrighted), he will "sing the old words out loud (very loud) complete with thees, thous and thys."

But hold on a second. The question of copyrighted hymns leads naturally to the question of copyrighted Bible translations, which these includes nearly all of them except the KJV, Geneva and Douay. Not to mention the more delicate question of paying guest preachers (presumably, one pays one's own pastor not for Sunday morning but for the work he or she does during the rest of the week, with the understanding that it all culminates -- and begins anew -- on Sunday).

And even if we put those concerns in abeyance, Beresford's solution is certainly boorish. One really shouldn't disrupt worship, and one really should sing along to the best of one's ability. (There are some comments at NLM which put this matter more sternly).

But still, his article strikes a not with us -- an old and uncopyrighted note. Many of the hymns written since the 1930s -- meaning those under copyright -- are either musically weak or theologically thin, or both. And yet these -- the worst of the tradition -- are the ones we pay for. Surely the time has come for a parish hymnal consisting entirely of public-domain material.