Sample simony

There’s a really annoying historian on the occasional archaeology TV series Digging for Britain, who, whenever there’s an item on an ecclesiastical site, manages to interview some librarian to show cynically how it was nothing but a cash-cow for money-grabbing churchmen. It happens every time he appears, it seems.

So presenter Alice Roberts might be visiting a dig at the obscure grave of a Saxon hermit, and after the interesting archaeological stuff on site we cut to the historian interviewing an archivist looking at the ancient records of the large abbey that grew up after his death. She starts by saying the saint was a nobleman who renounced his wealth to become a poor hermit (“Yes, it’s only the rich who think poverty is a virtue,” interjects the historian).

From past experience, it’s only a matter of time before, in reply to an account of the many pilgrims who come to venerate his relics, our host leaps in to say that building a shrine at the grave of a successful hermit was a clever way of making Loadsa Money.

He seems to show no awareness whatsoever of the genuine and universal respect in which the godly hermit was held in mediaeval society, even by the privileged and wealthy, as one can read for example in Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur. The idea that churchmen of the time were merely capitalists who saw the pilgrim simply as another gullible source of revenue is, I am quite certain, anachronistic, and seems to show that this particular historian is far too conditioned by fashionable neo-socialism to understand the past on its own terms.

We must, and should, grant that the wealth of the mediaeval church was attended by genuine religious zeal on all sides, including by those who managed it, just as the Game of Thrones version of mediaeval power politics misses the nuance that ambition was always highly coloured by royalty’s sense of being accountable to God for their nation, their succession, and all the other things that led to strife and bloodshed. That is clear from any reading of ancient English literature and correspondence.

Yet it is also true that power corrupts – or rather, as someone astutely put it recently, power attracts the corrupt. There is no doubt that the possibility of large incomes from church appointments brought out the worst in many prelates. And the mediaeval pilgrim routes brought in the most wealth of all, until the financial corruption – old term simony – became so widespread that it prompted Martin Luther’s first awareness of the need for a complete reformation.

It is a commonplace of mediaeval history that the purchase of fake relics, the manufacturing of fake miracles, and the sale of tacky souvenirs to punters hoping for spiritual blessing at the shrines is one of the great blots on the history of Christianity. Martin Luther was certainly not the first to notice it. I’m sure that many poor priests, serving simple people in deprived parishes, were quite aware of which shrines were run by money-grabbing charlatans, and sadly saw their own church neglected as happy pilgrims returned with their St Thomas statuettes and pilgrims’ badges, confident that their unsatisfied healing would come at the next holy reliquary they visited.

We all learned about this in school, and Christians are glad that those days are over, if you don’t count the prosperity Televangelists in the USA.

But they’re not over, because fleecing the worshippers for money is alive and well in what has become the Contemporary Christian Music Industry, which may account for anything up to 10% of the Western secular music business, and involves many of the same players and exactly the same commercial model.

Back in my youth, the early British worship leaders like Graham Kendrick kept body and soul together by being employed by churches, doing the odd Spring Harvest, and making records for low-circulation labels founded for love of the Lord and the music. Kendrick, for example, had been on the Musical Gospel Outreach circuit for several years before he moved into worship music, and was well aware, I guess, that the church’s ability to support full-time musicians was far smaller even than the secular folk club scene, which had enough turnover for only a score or so of full-time artists.

Over the years, and particularly in the last decade or so, that has changed utterly. I have a number of problems with the whole concept of “celebrity worship leaders,” believing it leads to an entirely upside down concept of gathered worship, but if we grant its existence, then a labourer is worthy of his hire. And so it was reasonable to introduce the CCLI licence to make sure that when we sing songs in church, those who create it get some royalties.

What is not immediately obvious to worshippers is how potentially lucrative this is for the most popular songs. Christian music gets the same money for record sales, downloads or streaming as does secular music, and in the US in particular, since churchgoers like to listen to Christian songs in their cars or in the bath, those sales are a significant percentage of the whole recorded music business. Worship music suits itself particularly to the modern trend of downloading single tracks, these being what one first hears in church services.

But whilst secular songs may get occasional airplay on radio, or in venues like shopping malls, successful worship songs are performed every week in thousands of churches across the world, each performance triggering a writing and publishing royalty payment. Many churches also stream recorded versions, requiring a more expensive CCLI licence to pay the recording company and whoever owns the actual recorded performance as well. And I’m also told (by a worship leader friend) that local worship bands often download multitrack recordings of their favourites so they can sound like the records, but using their own singers, or guitarists, or whatever they have. This too pays a royalty fee.

Now all this sounds fine, if it means that every songwiter gets a slice of the pie, and the churches get a huge range of hymns and spiritual songs. But in fact, the industry militates against that. As in the secular business, only a few lucky artists “break through” (I’m talking commercially, rather than spiritually) with a popular song, and those artists get snapped up by the big record labels (the biggest being the CCM branch of Capitol, who have also like Sony gradually bought up the smaller Christian labels), and by the big publishers. The latter are largely linked to Megachurch organisations, often of doubtful theological pedigree, such as Bethel, Elevation Music, Hillsong and Vineyard.

This rather closed system actually limits the kind of songs that come into churches, both in terms of musical style and lyrical content. There are distinct fashions in subject matter, largely driven by trying to achieve a market share, in the same way that once Coldplay or U2 achieve success, everything you hear sounds like Coldplay or U2 (including worship songs, in fact!). Contrast that with the old days of hymnbooks, when compilers sought to cover every Christian experience, festival and ministry, not to mention the cream of several centuries’ work. And the hymnals drew from the work of scattered Christians writing about what was on their hearts. But the average life of a modern worship song is just four years, barely time for your congregation to learn it – disposable songs for a disposable age.

So any recorded music played in church will be sending profits direct to the secular music industry and their secular investors. And however songs are presented, royalties go to the writer(s) and the publisher(s) in equal measure. For a popular song (few and far between) that can be a tidy sum. To give some indication, a worship “star” will not infrequently sell the rights of a successful song to a publisher or other business in order to pay off a mortgage or educate the children. Your CCLI licence is some unbelieving speculator’s pay cheque.

Now, this has a particular bearing on the vexed question of singing songs written or published by church organisations with questionable theology. My friends will tell me that if a particular song is “sound,” then the fact that its origin is Bethel Redding or Elevation Music is of no importance.

This relaxed attitude neglects two things: the first is that it is a policy aim of these outfits to spread their heterodox theology by selling their music. This is not only by putting the teaching subtly into the songs, but by attracting people who hear it in churches to watch the many videos on YouTube of services where the real thing happens. They relay the teaching, including even better stage-managed miracles than the guys at mediaeval Glastonbury Abbey were able to pull off, being better funded by song revenue.

The second thing is that 50% of the royalties you pay through your CCLI licence will go into the coffers of Bethel (or whoever is the publisher) to further its mission. What would your pastor say if the mission secretary wanted to send a donation to such a Megachurch? In fact if, as is common, writing credits are shared with the Megachurch’s own worship-leaders, then a proportion of the composition royalties will benefit the church as well.

That subject of collaboration is interesting, because it raises questions in my mind about its real purpose, as a songwriter myself (including of unpublished worship songs). I’ve always seen writing as a pretty individual activity, but then I’ve tended to compose words and music as a single integrated process. There are certainly many instances of long-term collaboration between lyric-writers and composers: think Rogers and Hammerstein, Elton John and Bernie Taupin, and in the worship field Stuart Townend (mostly music) and Keith Getty (mainly lyrics). Likewise, working as a musical unit may be benefited by looser collaborations, from Lennon and McCartney to studio compositions by bands like Yes.

But writing by committee, as seems so often the case now in worship music, seems to me largely unnecessary and awkward. For someone from California to meet up with someone from Kansas to co-write one song seems not only a difficult way to build a useful partnership, but an unnecessary one if the idea for the song was strong enough to begin with, rather than simply being demanded by a recording contract with a deadline, or a publishing contract. I can’t help wondering if such contracts have a lot to do with it – a relatively unknown writer gets the kudos of a Hillsong credit to sell the song, and the senior partner’s team gets its cut of the profits.

If that sounds cynical, in the context of music for glorifying the crucified, risen and glorified Son of God, then I learned the idea from an ex-worship leader of Bethel, who said that worship music is a business, and people are in business to make money. He sounded almost as cynical as the Digging for Britain historian, but he was actually situating that commercial interest among genuinely believing musicians.

Nevertheless, even though out of the game himself, he was clearly conflicted, especially when it came to collaborations with organisations that are unequivocally heterodox. The video I watched explained how such “unsuitable” collaborations might arise from purely fortuitous joint bookings, or as a requirement of a contract. But he then inserted a later edit, saying that on second thoughts, it would be really impactful if even one of the orthodox worship leaders stated that, in good conscience, they could not collaborate or share a stage with churches teaching false doctrine. But nobody has yet had the courage to do so, and it would shake a lucrative industry (known to most churchgoers as a “ministry of the Holy Spirit”) if they did. A bit like Luther posting his theses on the door at Wittenberg.

It could be that in my scepticism I’m simply out of touch with the realities of the times. I came of musical age at a time when independent record labels allowed unknown artists licence to create what they believed in, even in the secular field. Quirky Fairport Convention were managed by quirky Joe Boyd and recorded gloriously original music on quirky pink Island Records. Even more quirky gospel acts recorded on Key Records out of New Malden. Now it’s universally recognised that the secular music business is moribund, basically because it put profits above the artistic quality of the music. Secular music is formulaic, melodically and harmonically dull, flashy, and somewhat degenerate, and many young people seek out old Beatles records for respite.

Now tell me why modern worship music is better.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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