Permission to Pray

When I first started editing the Psalter Hymnal in the early 1980s, the story then making the rounds was that permission for including the song “How Great Thou Art” in the 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship was finally granted with a handshake at a cost that would remain secret.

A Helpful Approach to Song Permissions

That story pointed out the need to work toward a more even-handed and just system whereby all songs would be treated equitably. In 1984 the first copyright licensing agency—CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc.; www.ccli.com)—began to help publishers as well as congregations that were moving beyond their pew hymnals for worship songs. Some publishers and song writers still work independently, but most have joined agencies such as CCLI, LicenSing (www.LogosProductions.com; click on “Church Music”), or the newest, OneLicense.net, by GIA.

CRC Publications, the publisher of RW as well as the Psalter Hymnal (1987), Songs for LiFE (a children’s hymnal, 1994), and Sing! A New Creation (2001) belongs to all three agencies and receives annual royalties. Here’s how it works: when churches request permission to use one of “our” songs, a portion of their annual license fee goes to CRC Publications, which we then split with the author or composer.

Over the years, it has been interesting to learn what songs have been most requested from our hymnals. The 2003 report (from licensing agencies, publishers, and individual congregations) includes more than a hundred songs, most only a few times. These were requested most often:

“Baptized in Water” (harm. by Dale Grotenhuis)
“Blessed Assurance” (st. 2 by Marie Post)
“God, the Father of Your People” (st. 1 by Alfred Mulder)
“He Is Lord” (harm. by Dale Grotenhuis)
“I Will Sing of the Mercies” (st. 2 by Marie Post)
“Oh, How Good Is Christ the Lord” (harm. by Dale Grotenhuis)
“Praise and Thanksgiving” (st. 2-3 by Marie Post)
“Take My Life, That It May Be” (tune by Timothy Hoekman)

Of these, “I Will Sing of the Mercies of the Lord” earned by far more than all the other songs combined.

Permissions for Spoken Prayers and Responses

Unfortunately there is no similar system in place for obtaining permission to use written prayers and other spoken elements under copyright, such as those chosen for inclusion in the recently released The Worship Sourcebook (TWS).

For example, if someone chooses to use a prayer under copyright, should the person who chooses that prayer for her own congregation be limited to reading only the exact words of the original? Certainly credit is due if the prayer is printed in the bulletin, but who really “owns” a prayer offered verbally in worship? In requesting permission to use prayers in TWS, some publishers wanted individual congregations to once more request permission, even to ensure that not a word would be changed in their services. But we resisted on two grounds.

First, it would be unrealistic to expect congregations to go through the same permissions process that we had to in publishing these prayers, especially since there is no mechanism like a copyright agency that could handle permissions. We wanted churches to be able to use the contents without further permission, based on our having received permission to publish the prayers in the book, provided they indicated that the prayer was taken from TWS.

But second, and more important, the words of spoken prayers are in a different category than those of poetry and music. We found the approach in the Book of Common Prayer very helpful; that entire collection is not even placed under copyright. The preface, with language dating all the way back to 1789, speaks of different “forms and usages” that may “be altered, abridged, enlarged, amended, or otherwise disposed of, as may seem most convenient for the edification of the people.” Taking a similar approach, we did not place under copyright any of the many new prayers written for TWS. We acknowledge as well, that in using our collection for various reasons, prayer leaders may indeed alter or adapt what they use. We are not troubled by this; in fact, we expect it. There is, after all, a long tradition of basing prayers on Scripture! And since most of these resources will be offered verbally in worship, not printed, oversight is hardly possible.

We hope that this approach to permissions may stimulate thinking among those who publish collections of prayers. Certainly those who craft prayers, like those who craft sermons, can be recognized and even paid for their efforts when their work is published. That is not the point here. The point is that when worship leaders use a prayer from a collection, they should not have to once more seek permission and be bound to the exact form of the prayer. Prayer leaders, relying on the Holy Spirit, should be free to respond to the particular needs of their community in their own time and place.

Emily R. Brink (embrink@calvin.edu) is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.