Is communion intellectual property?

I learned a hard lesson today. Some of you saw my post where I had developed a contemporary version of our United Methodist communion liturgy Word and Table and recorded it on my iPhone. A friend informed me that there was a copyright issue with doing that, so I wrote the United Methodist Publishing House and was promptly ordered to take down the video and the blog post. I’m not meaning to be snarky, but wow, communion liturgy is intellectual property?

The issue is that we live in an age when publishing houses are under an intense amount of pressure. Creative work has been severely devalued in the information age. I actually just ordered a book about this that I’ll be blogging through which says that the reason the middle class is getting crunched is because there’s such intensive pressure for all of our creative work to be available free of charge, whether it’s cellphone apps or journalism. The Internet makes creativity free, which would work if we lived in an economy of grace instead of capitalism. But we live in capitalism so everyone in the creative world is in the red and only getting worse. Maybe when we reach the breaking point, we’ll find something better than this endless race to the bottom of our current iteration of capitalism.

If I had tried to publish a book or recorded a CD with words from somebody else as part of its content, it would have been obvious that I would have needed to get permission and pay a royalty or whatever. Because it was the Internet, I assumed everything on the Internet is free; I’m not trying to make any money; what’s the problem? I’d heard of all the hoops that people are supposed to jump through, but I suck at jumping through hoops so I usually don’t pay attention to them until I smash into one. Smash!!!

So I’m really really trying hard to offer a charitable understanding of the vantage point of the United Methodist Publishing House. I’m not trying to turn this into a soapbox, but is this not an illustration of the utter incompatibility of Christianity and capitalism? I’m not talking about what our denominational publishing house has to do to survive, but the circumstances that create the crunch that they’re in. I suspect that capitalism will only continue to get more and more impossible as people refuse to subscribe to news sites or buy CD’s or mp3’s, so that all creative content becomes more and more of a black market of bloggers and facebook musicians like me.

Having said all this, most of the words that the United Methodist Publishing House “owns” are the best possible synthesis of ancient Christian liturgy and United Methodist theology that the best Methodist scholars could come up with. Many of the language is word for word identical with scripture, so God would have every right to sic His attorney on the UMPH with a cease and desist letter if that’s what He wanted to do. Of course, God’s the exact opposite of that. The only condition that He puts on everything He gives us is that it must be freely received as a gift; the only way not to receive what God offers is to try to pay Him for it or make it our private property.

For the past several years, I have not used a formal liturgy with the communion I celebrate every week at our contemporary service. Because of this, I had tried to record my worship video for ordination at one of our Sunday morning services on communion Sunday a few weeks ago, since I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to preach on a communion Sunday in the fall. But I learned that the Board of Ordained Ministry requires me to preach from the lectionary in September, October, or November. After kicking rocks for a few days, God started to give me a tune for making an upbeat song out of that really long thing we usually read from the hymnal as quickly as possible without compromising some modicum of sacredness each first Sunday of the month.

What I composed last night is not my own. God gave it to me. I realize it’s impossible to say that without it sounding like a divine imprimatur validation stamp, which is not what I mean at all. It’s just that I could not have come up with it on my own. It was pure gift, almost effortless. No more effort than that of a dancer whose partner is taking the lead. I heard in my head the music and the words that were needed. It came together in a way that few songs have for me in the past (I’ve written about 20-30 songs in my life).

Nothing creative is ever derived in us. Inspiration literally means that the Spirit has breathed into us. True inspiration always comes from God. The problem is that we distort the Spirit’s breath through our flesh so that what comes out of genuine wonder and hunger for God turns into a trite song about girl’s booties or drugs or some other tacky alternative to real beauty. There have been few times in my life when I was sufficiently submitted and emptied to experience the Spirit like I did last night. It was truly wonderful.

Because of the profound encounter I had with the Spirit last night, I cannot help but interpret this as some kind of spiritual warfare. I’m not sure whether I mean that in the charismatic sense of the word or the worldly power sense of the word. Or maybe God is just refining me and making sure that my head doesn’t swell up. I’ve gained some peace about it, but it kind of wrecked my morning.

In any case, the providential thing that came out of all this is I got to talking to Taylor Burton-Edwards at the General Board of Discipleship. They have some open-source communion liturgies available online. I will take one of those as a starting point and play with it, and post what I come up with.

UPDATE: The UMPH copyright person has agreed to look at a revision of my liturgy to screen it against the hymnal version and see if it’s sufficiently different for me to call it my own work (err, I mean God’s freely given gift).

3 thoughts on “Is communion intellectual property?

  1. You know, one of my issues (and I own it as mine – I’m not trying to siphon it off onto anyone else …) is that all printed communion liturgies leave me feeling the way I do when someone has to tell me to stand and clap my hands. If the music doesn’t get me off my feet, someone telling me to stand up does absolutely nothing to increase my level of joy. I’ve been at concerts that were so moving that the shout “Bravo!” could not be contained. I couldn’t have kept silent or seated if I had wanted to. I’ve also experienced worship moments in church that do that for me. Printed, pre-packaged communion liturgies have never inspired me.

    Having said that, I share your frustration with the idea that a communion liturgy would be proprietary.

    • I share your feelings about that. I will share my new communion liturgy with you when it gets cleared by the UM publishing people.

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