Reported to the Homiletic Police…

A couple of days ago I received an email from someone. It was a web-based email, and if it follows the common pattern, comes from someone born in 1979, so barely into his twenties. It said:

Dear Fr Rundell

I have been listening to one of your sermons posted on your parish website under the tag ‘Sermon: Fr Simon Rundell on Inclusivity for Ordinary 26, Year B’ and at this link:http://www.saintthomaselson.org.uk/164/.

I am most concerned that almost the entire content of this sermon is lifted from http://www.episcopalchurch.org/sermons_that_work_114563_ENG_HTM.htm, and you have not made reference to this fact, suggesting on your website that you are the author. Whilst sermons from this source can be used, it is academic practice to acknowledge the source before and immediately after using the material, and this is made very clear on the source website. On this occasion you have committed an act of plagiarism, which as I am sure you know is theft and can carry criminal implications as well as great embarrassment to the alleged plagiarist.

I would like to give you the opportunity to comment on the above before I consider making this matter known to the source owner and other web users.

My reply:

I do not ever claim ‘authorship’ of anything preached at STE, because it is in the Lord’s Service, and for the furtherance of the Gospel.

Here in the UK, Churches do not pay huge salaries, nor use their preaching to garner donations or any other kind of preference. We are simply a small parish church, quietly doing our bit in this small part of Gosport, serving this community and doing the Lord’s work. This is not a bastion of academia, a place for peer-reviewed practice. but a real-life parish far removed from ivory towers where such matters are truely important.

The audio on the website is simply a record of what is preached at STE. Notice that there is no copyright asserted anywhere, and no claim to authorship made anywhere on these pages. That is your assumption. It is extremely likely that the sermon you were listening to was indeed drawn from the source material you cite. Well done. Top marks. I am impressed with your diligence.

However, I would dispute your use of the term ‘plagarism’ as this implies the abuse of source materials for academic or financial gain, where as I see the act as one of borrowing, adapting, and taking further the key points of one excellent sermon. In a busy parish ministry this is often the best we can hope for. After all, don’t we all take the best stories and texts from the Master himself…

This is quite a different case to, for example, publishing it in a book for money. I just try and make Christ known in this place. The former is plagarism, the latter is a matter for late on a Saturday night when I have spent all day at someone’s bedside. Maybe you can spot the difference.

Whether you choose to report me to the homiletic police is a matter for yourself. You accuse me of an academic abuse which simply does not apply to the mission of the Church. If you want to ‘make the matter known to other web users’ then do so, but preaching words borrowed from someone else is a qualitatively different thing. I have nothing to hide. I admire you for challenging me, but I am too busy trying to hold this parish together to be bothered by that or vague threats of legal action: it’s the Gospel and that’s simply far too important to be bothered with this.

If it really upsets the original author, then maybe they will let me know, and I will tell them of how they helped me out. They are probably a snowed-under priest like myself and I bet they’ll understand. It’s all actually about the Gospel.

Thank you for assuring me that someone actually listens to my homily beyond the housebound in Elson.

May the peace of the Christ Child be with you this season

I posted this correspondence on my Facebook page as seen above, not least because I was a little flabbergasted by the tone of it, and also a little mystified why this individual should be so affronted by the idea that Clergy often borrow material from others. I wonder if he has never heard of the excellent Textweek or Sermon Central or the aptly named Desperate Preacher’s website. Given what I assume to be the author’s age, I am making an assumption that he is not in Holy Orders and has never stared at a blank piece of paper late on a Saturday night; and as I said, I have other things which take up more of my time in the proclamation of the Gospel here in Elson.

I am not embarrassed to use other people’s great ideas, and I don’t think that it is possible to say in a spoken homily “This sermon was taken from Fr X…” – these standards of academia simply don’t apply in a normal parish pulpit. So: unrepentant. Is it a bad thing to preach someone else’s good ideas? Especially when published on a website of “Sermons that work”.

The responses of the kind people of Facebook have been supportive, encouraging and quite amusing:

  • What a silly arse (him not you!). Happy Christmas. Xxx 26 December at 22:21
  • I love your reply…Well Done. I support u on this one. 26 December at 22:30
  • Excellent reply!!! 26 December at 22:48
  • Good reply…stinky situation. Hope it hasn’t bothered you unduly.26 December at 23:25
  • Well done, great response 🙂 26 December at 23:35
  • Oh no! I was going to use a bit of Theresa of Liseaux this morning………anyone got her number and I’ll give her a call and ask permision. Sun at 06:54
  • How bizarre. I thought the whole point of online sermons was to help clergy out from time to time. I have never preached one verbatim, but certainly raid Textweek every week. If I quote a book obviously I reference, but insting URL’s to preaching tools into every delivery would not help the congo in the slightest.  The Sermons that Work website does say:

Welcome to Sermons That Work. The sermons in this series are in the public domain – they are not copyrighted – and all are invited to use them or draw from them as a resource. We do ask, however, that attribution please be given to the authors when their sermons are used.”

So I guess one should begin a sermon with ‘In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and inspired by Fr.x’s Sermon on the same texts …’  Sun at 09:52

  • <I said>I don’t think any of us preach a sermon verbatum, but always make it of our own. In this case, it provided me with a framework upon which to add my own perspectives on Inclusivity. It was a good framework, so I kept it. I often quote poems, books, theological works, the Saints and the Church Fathers, and sometimes the reference is explicit and sometimes it needs to be vague “A wise man once said…” just for the flow of the narrative. I am not embarrassed to use a sermon found through the excellent TextWeek (www.textweek.com) and Fr E is right – you simply can’t reference it in the spoken homily…. I am reassured by the responses of my friends and colleagues and I thank you all: the Gospel is indeed bigger than all this. Sun at 09:59
  • I never just read out someone else’s sermon, but Text week is great for illustrations, anecdotes, etc. Well done on your reply – Sun at 11:36
  • Your reply is incredibly dignified, it’s such a shame that people are so ready to put profit before people! Sun at 16:43
  • The real ‘value-added’ is the way you tell it, O Valiant One! Don’t let the pygmies gring you down!! Mon at 00:46

I am sure those who sent these replies will not object to their reproduction anonymously on this page.  Similarly, a selection of reponses from Twitter:

@frsimon That sounds intriguing. Is it still the Gospel in Gosport; Evangelium in Elson? Happy NY. (about 6 hours ago from TweetDeck in reply to frsimon)

@frsimon OFFS Seriously??? (about 6 hours ago from web in reply to frsimon)

@frsimon intriguing, tell us more! (about 6 hours ago from TweetDeck in reply to frsimon)

@frsimon If the idea’s from God, copy it and put it in your sermon. if its not from God, it should not be in anyone’s sermon. (12/28/2009 7:15:47 PM from TwitterRide)

@frsimon “There’s no copyright on the Holy Spirit” (John Bell) (12/28/2009 7:12:57 PM from TwitterRide)

Having sent my reply to the gentleman, he replied:

Thank you for your reply, which is as I would have expected.

I have forwarded the email to the copyright owner of the sermon in question and to the Portsmouth Diocesan Office for the attention of Archdeacon.

But the issue is this: the Sermons that Work website exists to provide material for clergy who need inspiration, and they aren’t copyrighted. I wonder what the underlying problem with this person is, especially as I never claim authorship or copyright on any material because everything I do is in the service of the Gospel, it is all as far as I am concerned a theological off-shoot of the Creative Commons license: it is all about the preaching of the good news, for which there is no copyright (and my thanks to Fr Mund for the John Bell quote on that).

I have never tried to ‘pass off’ the work of others as my own, and my parish know and understand this, as can be seen from their comments to my Facebook posting (those that weren’t clergy comments, were the comments of parishioners). Do they care? They just want to hear good teaching, and whether they are mine or someone else’s does not concern them unduely. The audio of the website says “Sermons preached at STE” not “written and copyrighted by Fr. Simon”, the blog never claims copyright. Quite a lot of fuss created about, frankly, nothing.

I look forward to hearing from the author of the original sermon, a Rev. Ken Kesselus because it will give me the opportunity to thank him by email directly. I feel sure that he won’t be bothered. I am sure that the Archdeacon has better things to do as well, but if if the homily police come after me for this one, let it be a warning to every other priest out there – you’ll be next on their list!